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How Flat Chat grew from a bitter defects battle

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Believe it or not, the 200th edition of Flat Chat to appear in the Australian Financial Review was published at the weekend. But that’s not half of it – not even close.

Looking though my archives I have discovered 620 previous columns that appeared when Flat Chat was in the Sydney Morning Herald – and those are just the numbered ones. There were a few more before that which I didn’t count because I never imagined it would last anything like this long.

Flat Chat started after my partner Sue Williams and I bought an apartment off the plan. The developers were shockers – they’d bought the half-finished project from another company and, it would turn out later, immediately gouged several million dollars out of the coffers. They then proceeded finish the block as cheaply as they could.

There were serious defects, of course, and the inevitable battle was prolonged and ugly with our incompetent “experts” and frankly useless lawyers up against the developers’ “win at all costs” attack dog legal team who used every trick in their grubby book to avoid making good on all their shortcomings.

But, as the old saying goes, if life serves you lemons, make lemonade. As experienced journalists, Sue and I thought we could alert other first-time apartment owners to potential pitfalls so we wrote a book called “Apartment Living” which was published by the ABC.

The (then) property editor at the SMH offered us a weekly column and Flat Chat was born. Then, a little later, this website made its first lo-tech appearance, followed by frequent spots on radio and, occasionally, TV. About three years ago, the Flat Chat Wrap podcast found its first, faltering voice.

Fresh start

The Herald stuck with us for about 12 years until someone at the SMH thought it was strange that a section that was supposed to encourage people to buy property had a weekly warning about everything that could go wrong.

Fortunately, the Australian Financial Review did want a column that offered advice on the potential pitfalls of apartment living – as well as the positives, it must be said. Appropriately, the very first column for the AFR’s Smart Investor section was about how to avoid buying a “lemon” when you invested in a brand new or pre-loved unit.

What was the advice? Do your checks forensically, whether it’s a new build or an old block, said the piece that, amazingly, still lives on the internet. The advice from four years ago still applies.

So what has changed in the past four years since the AFR became our home. Most notably, NSW now has a Building Commissioner charged with curbing the most egregious excesses of cowboy developers.

The appointment was made, and radical powers to halt work or sales of sub-standard buildings were created, in the hope of injecting some confidence back into the apartment market following the panicked evacuation of two major apartment blocks and a string of stories highlighting corruption and incompetence throughout the industry.

Thanks to 10-year building warranties, Victoria seems to have largely sidestepped the issue of dodgy developers erecting defective blocks then “phoenixing” into new entities when the problems start to appear.

Short-term letting

One issue that Victoria does face is the hollowing out of its city centre as short-term letting was let loose, with zero restrictions, on its flashy new blocks around Docklands and the Southbank.

With tourists, students and overseas business visitors locked out of Fortress Australia due to the pandemic, empty apartments sit in bleak testimony to how short-term thinking can lead to long-term heartache when financial and social winds suddenly change direction.

In NSW, with (lockdowns permitting) country and coastal “staycations” on the rise, the much vaunted and long overdue register of short-term lets seems as remote as the prospects of cruise ships docking any time soon.

It’s not all bad news. Slowly but surely, protections for apartment owners and residents have improved over the past 200 weeks. 

Strata laws have been rewritten in West Australia and refreshed in Victoria although  the “legalised corruption” of presale of management rights continues unabated in Queensland.

We have our own moral battles to fight in the southern states, with embedded networks coming under increasing scrutiny. That’s when a supplier of an essential component in a new building tells the developer they can have it for free provided they can persuade the often naïve and trusting apartment purchaser to sign up for punitively expensive long-term “maintenance” contracts.

Pets and cladding

In the past four years, highly publicised Tribunal and court battles in NSW saw the Court of Appeal determine that blanket bans on pets in apartment blocks were illegal. 

Lost in the subsequent rush to introduce companion animals to flats was the point that by-laws restricting pets could still be established, provided they weren’t harsh or discriminatory.

Still on pets, tenants in NSW now want the same right to challenge default “no pets” leases that renters in Victoria currently enjoy.

Four years ago, the second Flat Chat column in the AFR covered the creation of a task force to identify blocks in NSW that had flammable cladding on them, of the kind the caused the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London.

Just last week, the NSW government announced the appointment of a contractor to oversee the remediation of the 241 “at risk” blocks in the state. 

With only six weeks to go for registration for the 10-year interest-free loans, fewer than 40 per cent of the blocks have signed up and none have been fixed.

So things do change in Strataland, sometimes slowly and almost secretly, occasionally suddenly and spectacularly.  But there’s always plenty to write home about.

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