There comes a point in the life of every apartment when you have clear-cut choices – renovate your kitchen or bathrooms, or leave them exactly as they are in the vain hope that someday they will be treasured as prime examples of early 21st Century architecture and design.
In our 20-year-old block, we have been slow to face the renovation challenge. Some units are being made over for the second time.
But as we bite the bathroom reno bullet, there are challenges that are common to everyone, although with different states and strata by-laws to contend with, they may manifest in a variety of ways.
The biggest technical and regulatory challenge you are likely to face will be in your bathroom and, because of that dangerous combination of water and electricity, that usually requires a special resolution by-law.
Why? Because most strata schemes will insist that you take responsibility for the changes you make to common property, now and into the future. If they don’t, they certainly should.
In a bathroom, common property almost always involves the floor and, specifically, the membrane that sits between the tiles and the concrete slab. The same applies to walls between your flat and next door or common property.
Leaking membranes are still among the most common defects in new buildings so you can understand why owners corporations (bodies corporate) want some guarantees that the buck stops with you when the flat downstairs acquires an unwanted water feature in its ceiling.
And this is where we hit a major distinction between well-run and badly run blocks. The former will set up a one-size-fits-all by-law to which owners must sign up before they start work.
This is paid for by the owners corp, which may be slightly unfair on owners who have no immediate wish to renovate, but they will, sooner or later. And if they don’t, the people who buy their flat in the future almost certainly will.
What happens is that you agree to the terms of the by-law subject to approval at the next AGM, and the owners corp agree that if you do everything you said you would – no more, no less – you should get retrospective approval.
If that seems like a bit of a gamble, I know of many cases where that has worked perfectly well – all it takes is for both parties to stick to the terms of the agreement.
I also know of at least one recent example where the renovating owners took liberties with common property and were ordered by their committee to reinstate and repair it or face the prospect of not getting restrospective approval for the work.
That would mean, hypothetically, having to reinstate all the work on common property or, more likely, weeks and months of legal arguments at NCAT before they were (probably) ordered to reinstate the common property excesses anyway – and pay a stack of legal bills too.
In a poorly run building, or at least one where forward thinking is not the strata committee’s strong point, every individual renovator needs a separate by-law written by their lawyer, then checked by the strata scheme’s lawyer, all of which is good news for lawyers but a ridiculous amount of unnecessary accumulated expense for owners.
They then have to pay for an Extraordinary General Meeting to be organised or wait until the next AGM rolls around before they can start work.
Actually, in a really badly run building no one will care what you are doing – but that applies to all your neighbours too when they decide to play fast and loose with common property (and common sense) .
A tip: if you think you might want to renovate sometime in the near future, start agitating now to get a universal, covering by-law for your strata scheme in time for your next AGM.
Now, questions of tiles and fittings are entirely personal, but prepare yourself for endless hours trawling the bathroom sections of furniture stores, and the glazed aisles of tile shops, before you reach the inevitable conclusion that you need an interior designer’s advice.
As for who does the work, most well-run schemes will insist that you use an fully licensed and insured builder. But who?
We took quotes from a large commercial company that’s done tens of thousands of bathroom renos, and from a small independent builder recommended by friends.
The big company rep seemed to be nudging us towards a standard fit-out, the independent builder listened to what we wanted and made suggestions about how that could be achieved.
The big company’s quote was 50 per cent higher and lurking in the back of our minds was a nightmare kitchen reno we’d suffered under a big-name company in a previous flat, so we chose the little guy.
Soon, we will be living in a world of dust and noise, when we’ll discover whether or not that was a good choice. But first, there is the world of measuring tapes, tiles, sinks, WCs and taps.
If we survive, I’ll keep you posted.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.