Weak mortar, faulty drainage, unfinished fittings … for many buyers of newly built properties in Britain, their dream home quickly turns into a nightmare.
Last week, it emerged that residents had to move out of a recently completed Manchester apartment block, Islington Wharf Mews, because it breaks fire safety rules.
But their tale of woe is far from unusual. More than half of buyers of new-build homes in England have had major problems with construction, unfinished fittings and faults with utilities, according to housing charity Shelter. The government branded the housing market “broken” in its housing white paper last month.
Bovis Homes, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, recently had to set aside £7m to repair poorly built new homes sold to customers, and its interim boss publicly apologised to customers.
The Home Builders Federation, an industry body, and the National House Building Council (NHBC), the main warranty provider for new homes, carry out an annual customer satisfaction survey in which most companies score four or five stars. However, Bovis has slipped to three stars from a top rating five years ago, while Persimmon, which owns the upmarket Charles Church brand, has also seen its rating dip to three stars. The latest scores will be published by early April.
The Shelter research suggests otherwise; and some homeowners have told their unpleasant experiences to the Guardian. One buyer, who is in a long-running dispute with one of the big housebuilders over structural issues at his house, says: “A lot of these houses are going to fall apart 30 years down the line. They are not built to last.
Mark Farmer, a former partner at international consultancy EC Harris, who now runs his own construction consultancy, says: “In Germany, if there are evidenced problems with build quality the regulatory authorities can rescind the licence. This is a ‘barrier to entry’ related to craft skills and basic competence levels that we just do not have in the UK.”
Experts say the rush to build homes amid Britain’s chronic housing shortage, and the dominance of a few big building firms that use a multitude of subcontractors, are also to blame for poor building standards.
Paula Higgins, who runs the campaign group HomeOwners Alliance, says: “The quality of new-build homes is becoming more and more of an issue and we are hearing from more and more distressed buyers every week.” She suggested safeguarding homeowners’ rights as they do in the Netherlands or France (see below).
So how does the construction process in the UK compare with other countries? We found that in Germany and the Netherlands regulations and standards are much stiffer – but in New Zealand, cases of poor quality building appear to be as common as in Britain.
It takes less than two years to train as a plasterer, bricklayer or other tradesperson in the UK and obtain NVQ qualifications, the industry standard in England and Wales. The average construction apprenticeship lasts 20 months. However, from September UK universities and colleges will offer degree-level apprenticeships in construction lasting three to four years.
Builders are under no legal obligation to obtain a licence to practise. They can voluntarily sign up to a body such as the NHBC or the Federation of Master Builders, but there is no single licensing body.
All homes need to be signed off by the local authority building control to ensure that each key stage meets building regulation standards. Organisations such as NHBC can provide approved inspectors to do these checks. NHBC says in about half of the homes where it provides warranty, building control is carried out by another body, usually the local authority.
Questions have been raised over NHBC’s independence after it emerged that the organisation pays millions of pounds to housebuilders every year. It says it only paid £4.5m last year, compared with £90m paid for homeowner claims. Similar to a no-claims discount, the premium refund scheme recognises builders with a long-term good claims history. It stresses: “NHBC is a private non-profit distributing company with no shareholders and we are independent of government and builders.”
Within the first two years of a home purchase the housebuilder is responsible for rectifying defects; thereafter a 10-year warranty issued by NHBC or another firm kicks in. “So if something major goes wrong after the build is complete, the warranty provider would have to pay for this to be rectified. So it is in their best interests to thoroughly inspect the stages of the work,” says Anna-Marie DeSouza of the National Custom & Self Build Association.
The German construction market is much more regulated than the UK, with strict government rules on construction and energy efficiency. There is currently a debate about whether to relax some of these rules to speed up construction of badly needed homes, says Michael Voigtländer, a professor at the Cologne Institute of Economic Research.
Germany does not have big national housebuilders like the UK, only local and regional developers. About 15%-20% of family homes are pre-manufactured in factories (like HUF houses), which means less chance of things going wrong on site.
Training of builders takes three years. Farmer says: “The ‘master craftsman’ status in Germany is a formal licence to trade, which is not the case here in the UK – it’s similar to being able to call yourself a chartered surveyor or chartered architect in the UK. Hence the proliferation in the UK of ‘builders’ who do not have formal qualifications.”
In 1975 surveys of new-build properties were introduced, which have improved quality, with the average number of defects dropping over the years. In 2003, Vereniging Eigen Huis, the equivalent of the UK’s HomeOwners Alliance, successfully lobbied the government for a law where the purchaser can withhold 5% of the price of a newly built house for six months to cover any snagging issues, and the final amount is determined through an independent inspection.
Where a defect arises, the homeowner is not obliged to prove the fault and the builder is presumed to be responsible. Homeowners can bring legal action against the developer for up to 30 years if the property does notmeet the specification in the sale contract. This compares with six years in England and Wales.
Self-regulation of builders and ineffective warranties have resulted in big problems with leaky homes. The government has set up a fund to help with the cost of repair. There is currently no insurance-backed warranty – this is provided through the trade association for builders.
‘No remedial work has yet taken place’
Katherine Harrison lives in an apartment block adjacent to the Islington Wharf Mews development in Manchester, where residents have been forced to move out. She says her block, built in 2008, suffers from internal temperatures of more than 40C in summer, and leaky windows, with some bedrooms having windows that don’t open.
The developer, Waterside Places, provided temporary air conditioning units two years ago, but Harrison says they were “bulky, inconvenient and barely effective against the extreme temperatures”.
Nigel Franklin, director of Waterside Places, apologised to residents and said the company was working with its contractor to rectify all the issues. “Identifying an effective solution for a building of this nature is a highly complex and lengthy process, so we can absolutely understand residents’ frustration.”
But to the dismay of residents, the firm, which is co-owned by the Canal & River Trust charity, is pushing on with phase three of the development, having received planning permission and a £10m loan from Manchester city council to build another block next door.
Harrison says: “Although the company is ostensibly attempting to resolve the problems at Islington Wharf, the residents have been treated heavy handedly. We continue to struggle to get any commitment to a lasting, mutually acceptable solution. No remedial work has yet taken place and residents are living with extreme temperatures and water leaks.”
‘I was stupid to buy another new-build’
Rob Godfrey says he and his partner bought a Bovis home more than three years ago “and had a lot of trouble, as many people do”. The couple sold it and a year later bought “the Oxford”, a four-bedroom house from Redrow, for £395,000 in Sittingbourne in Kent. He says he was reassured by the saleswoman that the company was a five-star builder (now four stars) and that three managers had to check and sign off before the property was handed over.
When Godfrey moved in the house had not been cleaned and the fuse box was left dangerously exposed, while the live earth wire was hanging down from the sink, he says. He has found more than 100 other “snags” and reckons he would have to take three weeks off to supervise the builder fixing them – on a nine-week-old home. “I was stupid to buy another new-build.”
Redrow admitted it “fell below our usual high standards in some areas” but said it had taken action to resolve the “small number of items”. It also said the overall customer satisfaction score for this development was 90%.
‘You have more protection buying a £20 kettle’
Building your own home, popular in other European countries such as Germany, is less common here because of the high cost of land and the complex process to get planning permission. Beyond that, serious problems can occur, as with other new-builds.
Catrina Heaton and her husband Fergus contracted Indigo Development Limited to build a house in Wimbledon, south-west London, in 2013. They say they now face a huge bill to rebuild it (similar to the original build cost) because, they claim, it is riddled with major faults.
An independent report by the Building Research Establishment found issues with the external walls, water egress into the house, absence of firestoppers and breaches of building regulations. It found “a clear demonstration of a lack of knowledge of many aspects of building construction” and “commonly a careless and slapdash attitude to workmanship”. An adjudicator ordered Indigo to pay nearly £356,000, which was a little more than 20% of the monies claimed by the couple. That sum has not been paid.
Heaton says: “Why is it that in this country, as a resident and homeowner, you have more protection buying a £20 kettle than putting your life savings into purchasing a brand new home or building a new dream home?”
She said builders should have to register as in other countries. “I was told many times this never happens in Germany because builders are registered. If they build an unsafe structurally unsound home, they lose their licence.”
The developer admitted there were defects, but argued the cost of fixing them was £150,000. Morrisons solicitors, acting on behalf of the former directors of Indigo, which has gone into liquidation, stated in a letter to the Heatons: “The property did not need to be rebuilt due to defects caused by Indigo Development. It is our client’s belief that the rebuild of your property is due to the fact that you do not like the design of the home you had built.”
The couple argue that the directors put a solvent company into liquidation to avoid being taken to court.