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‘Don’t buy a new apartment’ – why this was my advice during the Celtic Tiger

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Some apartment dwellers have had to put up with noise pollution as their flats were not properly built

Some apartment dwellers have had to put up with noise pollution as their flats were not properly built

Some apartment dwellers have had to put up with noise pollution as their flats were not properly built

‘Don’t buy a new apartment.”

That was my advice repeatedly to prospective home buyers who asked for it during the later Celtic Tiger years. Most ignored it and bought one anyway.

As a first step on the ladder they were cheaper than new houses. They accounted for a third of all the homes being built in the state. There were grant incentives and almost no stamp duty burden. They were considered cool and safer for women living alone. There was Section 23 for investors.

And buyers didn’t like the alternatives I had been proposing: run-down artisan cottages, old Corpo homes and two-up two-down Victorian and Edwardian terraces in fringe locations.

Fianna Fáil had been presiding over ‘self regulation’ for the construction sector and corners were being cut in all sorts of construction work.

As a journalist I had investigated shoddy building and tried to write about it. Construction industry insiders were not happy and would talk freely in private. But not on the record. It was more than their livelihoods were worth.

Local authorities, rich on the vast levies being collected from new-home schemes, were performing almost no inspections beyond the preliminary stages of construction. Government was using outsized revenues from construction to surf on a spend-driven platform of popularity. Neither were inspired to investigate wrongdoing in the sector. The corners being cut in the construction of new apartment blocks posed the biggest risk, to buyer safety.

It has to be said that big construction was largely insulated from media investigation through those years thanks to the victims (the buyers) who ultimately weren’t prepared to render their homes worthless through publicity.

Time and time again residents groups having trouble with shoddy construction contacted media to report: “We have something for you to write about/broadcast.” But they melted away once they realised the value impact on their homes. It was only when the walls were literally falling in (as with pyrite homes) that groups went public.

For example: at the time I assembled a team of surveyors and architects, willing to inspect recently finished homes for the purposes of a media investigation. I found six homeowners who had bought new properties and would allow these professionals to inspect them. Three were apartments.

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All six failed Irish construction regulation standards, then considerably more lax than they are today. The work was sloppy all round, but the biggest concern was in the realm of fire regulations for the new apartments. All three failed based on cursory tests (more invasive inspections would have involved digging holes in their floors and walls).

That investigative report was published, but the schemes couldn’t be named. Our lawyer argued at the time that the helpful owners who admitted us to their properties might not support us in court if a legal action followed by the developers involved, and maybe from other home owners in those schemes.

The potential for a damages payout in losing such a case, and devaluing (or rendering unsaleable) every home in six schemes, would have been beyond belief.

But the Grenfell Tower disaster in London since showed what can happen on the fire front with bad apartments.

There have been many fires at Irish apartment blocks over the intervening years which showed up failings. But because Irish blocks are relatively low-rise affairs in comparison, the emergency services were at least equipped to get people out. That’s why I’m against high-rise residential here. Should we trust developers and the authorities?

Another headache for new apartment buyers back then was that management companies were also usually run by the developers. Many became aware that despite paying thousands in fees each year, common areas were not being maintained, sinking funds designed for huge one-off expenses (like broken lifts), were running broke and developers who had held onto units to rent them for income, were not paying fees on them — with the full connivance of the management companies.

Apartments took longer to pull themselves out of negative equity in the years since. Many are not there yet.

In latter years inspections threw up serious fire regulations breaches running through entire blocks. In worst-case scenarios, the fire authorities actually evicted all owner-occupiers who, in turn, had to stump up to remediate their buildings. Mostly the developers got off scot-free.

One buyer who failed to take my advice back in the day ended up with an incorrectly fitted balcony and had to spend vast sums on noise insulation. A maintenance worker I am aware of discovered the same block has no concrete floors. If you lift the floor boards, you’re looking at the ceiling of the apartment below. If it’s true and it became known, everyone in that block would be evacuated and made homeless.

Since the Multi Unit Development Act (MUD) of 2011, things began to change with new management companies properly representing the residents. So when the horrific fire at Grenfell happened in 2017, these new companies at least had the willingness to go ahead and audit their blocks for fire risk.

Anecdotal evidence suggests most have quietly done so by now but that residents in many schemes have since paid out big money to make their buildings safer.

Building regulations themselves have changed with more onus today placed on those who build. Today we are told apartment blocks are too expensive to construct, other than for big-fund clients. Because building them properly is expensive.

Not all blocks built in those years are bad and most problems will have revealed themselves by now. So today if someone tells me they’re going to buy a Tiger-era apartment, I tell them to treat it just like a period house, which requires a decent level of structural investigation and homework before committal.

The first port of call is Google, under the ‘news’ search. This will throw up court cases, legal actions and such, if any, taken by residents. Search the developer to look for similar stories on breaches of standards on its behalf. Search in community chat platforms, such as boards.ie, where residents are not shy of complaining about issues in their schemes.

Veteran estate agent Brian Dempsey of DNG advises going even further. “Before you buy an apartment, request the minutes of the last management company AGM. Residents don’t turn up to these meetings to congratulate the company for its great work, so any issues with repairs, finances or problem neighbours will be highlighted there. A well-run management company is key for a successful and happy apartment scheme environment.”

View the apartment in the evening when neighbouring residents are home, so you can detect sound travel. Pay attention to the common areas because an apartment’s value is directly related to the condition of its communal environs.

Make dang sure there’s a sinking fund.

And most vitally of all, hire your own inspection professionals, taking the best rather than the cheapest.

Dempsey adds: “A good professional surveyor will find a problem with the scheme, if there’s anything to find. And then just go around there and ask people. They’ll tell you.”

Do it right and unlike too many hapless first-time apartment buyers of the Tiger era, you won’t be buying blind.


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