Friday, 20 April 2018

Building in NZ - Pre-Contract

This is my journey from purchasing a section to signing a building contract in NZ. I hope you'll find it useful.

It would have been better if I could have afforded an architect to build me what I want (a French-inspired home) but such costs were quite beyond me. They can be 15% of the total build. With an architect's plans you can shop around for the best price amongst builders. The best option for me was to find a quality builder with a good range of plans, one of which might suit.

It sounds simple but I can assure you that if you want other than a bog-standard box it is not. House and land packages/turnkey deals are the easiest but my chosen builder didn't have anything on offer so I chose my section and then chose my builder based on the fact they were the only ones with a plan that resembled something I might like.

Why I liked their plan:
There was natural light coming directly into the kitchen and I could stand at my sink and look out on my garden. These days the trend is to put the kitchen in the middle of the house with no natural light, only whatever light would come in from the dining or living areas. In short, you need to use electricity to light your kitchen any time you want to work in it, they are so dark. Not very sustainable in my opinion. I live in a duplex currently which is exactly like that. It's consequently dark and cold to live in.
I also liked the plan because it had elements of 'character' such as great indoor-outdoor flow to multiple patios and pergolas which climbers could climb, wind and ultimately drizzle down - think grapes, wisteria and roses. There was also a European-shaped external chimney much as you might find in an old cottage in France or England. I wanted street appeal and friends had suggested I use one of my bedrooms as an Airbnb to help meet my living costs. Tick!

After careful thought I felt the current plan used up too much of the section on driveway, robbing me of garden space. This single aspect meant we had to work out how to reorganise the garage, the entranceway and the bnb. Driveways are scarily expensive folks. Keep them minimal, especially if you want tinted exposed aggregate to look a bit classier and to eliminate the horrendous glare from raw, white concrete.

Danger: the minute your builder makes a drawing of your ideas they become your builders ideas and thus copyrighted. You can't take your own ideas to another builder and ask them to come up with something that meets your needs ie trot your plan around for pricing. Other builders get nervous about legal ramifications of 'shopping plans'. They all want to propose one of their standard plans which of course don't meet your needs. They then have to come up with something different that is not like the first builder's ideas so they can't be accused of plagiarism. For a 3-bedroom house it's hard to come up with something original. None of them wants to design something from scratch for you no matter what their marketing says. They feel safer using their own plans, most of which are boring to me. My builder is expensive but the barriers to going with someone else really dissuaded me from changing. i found seeing my ideas with the builder's logo irkesome. They've got you by the curlies. I checked with a building design copyright lawyer who said I'd better stick with my expensive builder to be safe.

Bear in mind your design must meet stringent developer covenants if they are in place. These are a list of materials you are 'allowed' to build with and what style. You must have street appeal. No heat pump condensers may be seen from the street. Take care with positioning of solar panels, raintanks etc. Nothing 'ugly' facing the street please. Covenants dictate your colours, pets, exact fence type, activities you can indulge in and size of home. I am forced to build a 200m2 home just for me. Ridiculous!

OK, you've got your layout pretty much sorted so your builder provides a rendering of what it might look like. Exciting! They should show you how the house is positioned on the site to profit from the sun. Do you want most spare land in front on the street or, like me you prefer your space to be private around the back? Your site layout should show any easments, boundaries. distance to road and neighbours, recession planes because your council will need to be happy with your choices. See, it's not just about you.

Next your builder will draft a sales proposal consisting of basic specifications for the house and a total cost. I wanted a fixed price. OK except that in reality it's not, really. So many things are NOT included such as driveways letterbox, fences. landscaping, sometimes spashbacks, logfire surrounds and hearths, curtains. Sometimes your builder will decide to change the specs because they can't build the house for your budget. This is disappointing and results in uncomfortable but necessary negotiations as you make trade-offs. I sacrificed the security system and doorbell so I could have 2.2m internal doors to match my 2.7m stud. That extra height makes  a big difference in the whole feel of my home.

Beware the PC sums. Your builder doesn't know your tastes so they decide on the specs for plumbing, electricals, flooring, tiling, heating and attach a guestimate for costs. Go around every supplier checking that the PC sums are realistic or you could get hit with thousands of dollars of additional costs.

You get the Sales Proposal and they should also send you a blank copy of the contract and the Residential Building Guide support documents. I had my lawyer check this even though it was a standard Masterbuild contract. Your builder MUST supply these documents in advance of you signing.

You will be sent an Authority to Proceed to concept plan drawings to sign and which you must pay for. They say the drawings are included in the cost if you decide to go ahead and build the house but how would you know? The cost of the house was the same before I signed and paid for the drawings as when I later signed the contract to go ahead and build. I queried it but - how can you know? For me the house price hadn't reduced $2400. Building is not a transparent process and these are not the working drawings.

Your builder should also apply for a Project Information Memorandum from the council to see what the state of the section is for building on. Geo reports are not enough, even if supplied free by your developer. Your section might need special testing even though the council knows the foundation category. In my case the equivalent of TC1.

Note: talk to others who have built. Listen to their horror stories and learn from them, pick yourself up off the floor and keep going.

Next post: signing the contract and what you need to do while you are waiting to start building.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Building in NZ - The section

To build or not to build. That's the question many of us ask ourselves when trying to get out of the rental noose around our necks.

With no job offers and no income coming in I was obliged to sell my aging house in Pakuranga, Auckland and look for somewhere more affordable. Flat land? Less than $200,000 for a decent section with services? Near all the usual metropolitan services for aging folks and those who still need a job? Those criteria narrow New Zealand down quite a bit.

Hello Rolleston; not too far from Christchurch but far enough away in case of more earthquakes. Too far from the sea to be threatened by tsunamis. Limited snow, can be a bit windy at times.

I spent a lot of time meeting real estate agents and viewing existing homes: modern and souless with apalling excuses for gardens. I might have chosen one before I went to France but I've come back different, or maybe I'm more ME. I don't fit emotionally into a 'normal, modern' kiwi house and I really need MY kind of intensive garden. The later is rare to find these days. All up, I was bored and despairing with what was on offer. To get anything like what I wanted I would have to build and still make a lot of compromises. I knew it was not going to be an easy option and it was going to be $100,000 more expensive than an existing bog-standard home. But it could be unique.

I found a section in December 2017 during a brief trip to Rolleston. I sat down with the real estate agent to see what was available. Most sections had gone in the subdivision I was looking for but I was assured a section down a right of way was as good as any other and that title for the first stage would be released the following month. My section should be available for building in April even though the official word was July. "July is too late." I said. "No problem", he said, the good weather had them well on track for me to get title in April.

Just before Christmas he put a LOT of pressure on me to sign the contract. I had already received a copy of the contract and sent that on to my expensive Auckland lawyer. She had concerns over the vagueness in many areas and the lack of transparency concerning ALL the partners selling off the subdivision. I had concerns about how much money I might be up for to pay for the right of way and vehicle crossing. The developer was also charging $400 to approve my building plan. And then there was the $2500 bond in case of damage. Costs after costs.

The estate agent started getting aggressive with me and accusing my lawyer of stalling and ripping me off financially just to drag out the process and cost me more money than necessary. "I've had enough of this," raged the agent. I told him to calm down, I was the client, the one with the money and my lawyer was doing her job protecting me; necessary since the developers' lawyer hadn't even seen a copy of the contract written up by the agent. Christmas came and went and I made preparations to move from Auckland to Rolleston; stressful after an international move only 6 weeks earlier.

Down in Rolleston I checked out the subdivision containing my section. It was a dust bowl, a physical mess and little progress had been made. There was NO WAY the estate agent had been honest about title. I hate dishonesty and agression so I pulled the plug on the deal. It had cost me $2400 because the contract had so many holes in it my lawyer had been obliged to put in extra effort.. An expensive mistake but perhaps it would have been worse if I had persisted.

I found a more professional developer in another subdivision who was releasing the last of its stages. Timing is tricky with subdivisions. They take a long time to develop, depend on suppliers and the weather and finance. Getting title means you have to pay the balance of the section cost so you can then build on it. Prior to that you pay a deposit to hold it, usually 10%. This developer was quite relaxed about giving my lawyer and me extra time to feel comfortable with my decision before paying the deposit. Hughes Development is completing their major subdivision at Faringdon, Rolleston. It's massive with 24 stages and hundreds of homes. My section is in stage 22 and I'm hoping for title any day, even though I'm not yet ready to build because I need specific documentation for developer approval before I even submit my plans to Selwyn District Council.

Faringdon is a nicely done subdivision with recreational areas and facilities and VERY strict covenants. If you are building take heed of the covenants. These are the restrictions the developer puts on your building design, exterior colour scheme, landscaping, fencing, indeed anything you want to do that can be seen from the street and what activities you can do on your section. It's a pain in the butt and slows the whole documentation process down.

Unfortunately for me I have an easment running across one side of my section. I am not allowed to build any structures on the easement so that is quite restrictive in positioning my house. Along one side of stage 22 is the new Faringdon underground sewer. Chances are there won't be any problems in my lifetime but if there were they have the right to come onto my property and dig up my garden, destroying plants and trees to get at the problem down below. My lawyer said easements are common and aren't worth worrying about as it's rare that it causes a problem. Still, it did give me pause for thought. There are so many issues when building from the minute the idea of building a French-inspired home pops into one's mind.

Right now the pegs are in, the grass has germinated, the road is finished and the street lights are up, the deposit is paid, I'm trying to get my 'ducks in a row' for developer approval asap.

Next post: what's involved in getting developer approval and what hoops do you go through getting to the stage of signing a building contract.

Section tips in a subdivision:
  1. Get a Land Information Memorandum from the council to see what condition the land is in, if there have been hazardous substances. The developer may provide one free on their website. Otherwise you'll pay at lease a couple of hundred dollars.
  2. Check the developer covenants. they are there to protect your investment but can be quite restrictive in an urban environment.
  3. Check out homes in the area and see if people look after their properties
  4. What is the path of the sun? Will your preferred plan sit correctly on the section?
  5. Is your section on the best side of the road for sun? Many have the sun heating the garage instead of the living areas. Take care with this one as the rest of the house will be cold.
  6. Is there a bus service and what future developments will arise nearby? Talk to the planning section of your council.
  7. How long do you expect to be in this house/area - this will determine what you need nearby.
  8. Have you got fast broadband installed in the subdivision?
  9. Climate? Wind? Possible natural disasters?

Saturday, 24 March 2018

To Market! To market!

I greatly enjoyed visiting local French markets when I lived in France but to my surprise New Zealand has made more of a move into this than it had 8 years ago and there are many farmers' markets scattered about as well as major 'city' ones. The advantage of being back in NZ is my new-found tendancy to strike up conversations with the merchants. Well, it's so much easier in English.

But back, for a moment, to the last market I went to in France and the first one I ever went to as a French resident; the one at Rambouillet. It's spread out along the main street on a Saturday and there's a smaller one outside the Mairie on Wednesday mornings.

My last Saturday in France was spent here, on my own, enjoying the smells and sights and sounds and saying goodbye to my favourite country: the man carving a huge block of chocolate into a sculpture; the couple who repair chair backs and seats, especially those in willow and rattan; the olives and cheap imported clothing. It's a somewhat dying skill repairing old seats though many's the home with such old chairs still in existence in some garage or attic, needing tender loving care in order to give another 50 years good service.
I moved on to one of the clothing merchants, rummaged a bit and then tried to point out to the guy minding it that his sweat tops were pretty useless as the message had a very silly spelling mistake in it. Can you spot it? I loved the markets in France because they were culturally interesting to me. There was always something new, something so very 'French'.

It can be interesting to attend NZ markets and sometimes you can find something worthwhile but the cultural aspects don't interest me at all. The merchants, on the other hand are worth stopping and speaking with and giving them some encouragement.

On Saturdays there is the Lyttelton farmers' market in the centre of this port town on the other side of the tunnel from Christchurch. The first thing I noticed was the bread. Artisan bread seems to be having a resurgence in NZ whereas it's a dying art in France. I can't comment on or compare the quality but certainly an effort is being made to provide something other than supermarket pap here. Specialist foods and condiments are sprouting up everywhere adding interest and a dash of sophistication to kiwi palates. The takeways were rather kiwi such as the deer meat and the bacon butties. Other products are innovations on European products such as the salts, olive oils (NZ produces good olive oil), goat cheeses and dried sausages. 
There are great choices in garlic, beer and even lavender. I was disappointed in the lavender seller's attitude. I went up to him and started chatting with the man on deck who wasn't all that affable. I explained I'd just come back from France. " Oh, France have you? France, I hate it". Have you been there?" I asked. "No"," he snapped. Taken-aback I asked why he hated France? " I hate the French. They're all the same, you can't trust them, dishonest pack," he said. " Well, I'm French and I'm not dishonest so maybe you should rethink your opinion," I said, moving sadly away. He was unapologetic. Canterbury seems to be increasing its Lavender production but I won't be keen to buy the brand he was badly representing.

There was a poet selling his handmade covered poems and a wine producer who, when I asked what made her wines special, said "Well we grow them and produce them all ourselves." When pressed for details she had no answer. Good grief! Why would I bother to spend money on her product? Clearly, she doesn't know or care.
 Other products I found interesting and of good quality were cereals, seasonings and goat cheese. "Ah, you'd know a thing or two about these cheeses," the producer said to me after learning I was back from  France. I tried a morsel. The initial taste was pleasing but rapidly disappeared on my palate. It lacked staying power. He welcomed my feedback and I moved on to the succulents seller, the boutique beers, the garlic specialist and a garden ornaments manufacturer. Creative, commerical. Hat's off to most of the marketers. I wish you a prosperous result for your efforts.

Friday, 23 February 2018

A taste of childhood

On a hot Canterbury NZ day, after a meeting with my future home builder I took a detour from my route home and drove down streets from my childhood. I expected change after so many decades, I expected changes after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Much of the suburb was unrecognisable visually, except for the street names which had an odd haunting quality to them. Haunting because they had been such a big part of my growing up as I biked down them when young, yet had been changed so much, There was a disconnection with everything that should have felt nostalgic. The disconnection was enormous. The suburb had radically changed in its street layout, the vegetation was very different, the houses seemed old and often ill-kempt.

Gone of course were the days when school children like me walked a very long circuitous route to get to school; past open ditches where each house had a wooden bridge to access their driveways. Entire blocks of poplars had disappeared.

I remembered watching the steam trains puffing smoke along the line of poplar trees while I stood on the dining room chairs to catch a view. I was probably 5 years old.

I remembered cycling to school on my bike, balancing my violin and trying to rub warm my fingers, chillblained and cracked by Christchurch frosts. Zephyr and Humber cars parked in the driveway.

My parents bought some land in what would become Casebrook but at that stage was still considered Northcote, Christchurch. They capitalised the family benefit and took advantage of 3% State Advance loans. The new subdivision had been a dairy farm and the land was very clayish. My parents got trailer loads of manure each year trying to improve the soil texture. I can remember a visit to the house under construction where I was afraid to walk on the floor beams in case I fell through between them. My mother cautioned me. She cautioned me about everything and the world seemed a dangerous place.

My bedroom was to the right of the angle at the front door between the two wings.

Back in the 50s, 60s and early 70s women often stayed home and amused themselves while the kids were at school. Kids got themselves there and back. They weren't ferried in cars.

After the subdivision was finished some merchants opened a little string of shops nearby, consisting of a grocery store (supermarkets didn't exist), a chemist and a fish and chippie shop. Chinese food and hamburgers had not yet reached New Zealand. I hated fish so sometimes I was allowed to order a meat pattie and chips.

 Every Friday night we ate a mince pie with tomato sauce while watching Clutch Cargo cartoons on TV. On Saturdays we ate fish and chips while watching Yoyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Bonanza or even Laramie, the Virginian, the High Chapperal. Westerns were big then and so was Doctor Who with those pesky, scary Darleks.

I was coming up to that little group of shops where a pie had been 50c and so was a big tablet of chocolate back then. Now there was a doctor's surgery where the dairy used to be, the dairy was in the middle and at the other end was a takeaway run by chinese folks. I parked and went in. On the board I found 'meat pattie' was an option so I ordered it. I popped next door and bought a bottle of BBQ sauce.

Two minutes later I was parked across the road from my childhood home, eating my pattie and chips from the paper, sauce splottered over the food. It was wonderful. The taste of the meat and onion and herbs was exactly as I'd experienced 55 years ago even though those cooking it were newish immigrants. How could that be? No matter. Those moments were sublime as I munched and regarded my old home. Rather changed it was. The garage Dad built had been altered, the front of the house had two new rooms added, the fireplace had gone, the garden was completely different and rather unkempt. The house needed some serious mainenance but I could see the driveway I used to weed, the path I used when I came home from school. The last time I was in that house was 1976, the day of my first wedding. I hadn't seen it since.

 Many of the lives that came and went there had extinguished. What had happened to John Smith, my first boyfriend? The two of us are photographed in front of the garage when we were both 15. I heard Graham Johns who lived down the road and attended Papanui High with me had made it big in music overseas, orchestras etc. I would have liked to catch up with him. Names are fading from my memory.

The Barnes lived across the road on the corner in the partly bricked house (see last photo). I didn't have much to do with them but my mother, who had plenty of time on her hands, used to fraternise.
I still have my old violin and inside the case is this address biroed in my hand, 12 Brockham St, Papanui. The suburb is now known as Casebrook.

This was just one little experience of 'coming back'. Many of the places I worked, had dates, lived ceased to exist after the earthquakes. It's very hard for me to drive around Christchurch and see so, so much loss of heritage, identity, facilities. There's resilience out there because there is no choice but I can see a lot of political incompetence and uncaring too.

It was just an hour, a drop in time but that taste of childhood gave me momentary grounding. I started the car and drove away from Christchurch. Perhaps there will be other personal revisitings.

Photos show: the house under construction in the mid 50s and what it was like in the 60s and 70s, and now; me staring at the Barnes' house on the corner of Cherry Place, my brother and I doing 'carpentry - the only time I was allowed to play with a hammer, just for the photo - because I was only a girl; dressed as Miss Muffit outside the front door 1959 (in those days fancy dress competitions were popular with competitive mothers); standing on the driveway in my Sunday best for church 1969, cooking sausages swimming in dripping, as we did in those days while wearing my obligatory 'pinnie'. Stick on decoration on walls was popular then too. It wasn't wallpaper and we used the same stuff to cover our school books. Here it was bright red lobsters. My mother had a thing about red and green and lilac.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Unsustainable 'sustainability' gives it a bad name

I feel quite passionately about sustainable living. When I worked as Public Affairs Advisor, Environment for Waitakere City Council I learned a lot about water management, waste management and green energy. It has stayed with me ever since and I intend to do more in my private life around those principles. These principles are not difficult to understand and in many sectors are now mainstream. On my way down the North Island I chose an Airbnb that marketed itself as a sustainable business, a farm. The accommodation was in a yurt (a glorified tent) but I felt a little adventure and new experiences would be interesting.

I arrived in Turangi to discover there was no one waiting to check me in. A call to the host had her explaining she had gone to Wellington and left her woofer in charge of the farm and guests. Rather a responsbility for a temporary woofer. I wasted a lot of time driving up and down tryng to find this person so I could unload my stuff. Things did not feel very organised so I got out of the car to find someone to explain to me where to go.
 I met some other guests in an outdoor communal kitchen. It was beyond rustic and cold. It was a jumble of stuff' and I couldn't tell what was clean and what was not. How could it be clean exposed to the open air and dust? I couldn't find a plug for the sink and the tap came off in my hand though the woofer, I was later told, had some plumbing credentials. Another guest , also a blogger, had wanted to boil some water but the dial for a gas element came off  and most of the other gas elements had no dials at all. When the woofer showed up he managed to get one element to work but it all looked rather dangerous. I felt irritated by the lack of amenities and discovered another guest my age was equally irritated and disappointed. We commiserated. Having succeeded in making a cup of tea and sharing our disappointments so far, I headed off to settle in and explore my environs. 

 What an eye-opener. The place looked like a dump. There was rusting equipment everywhere amongst weeds, Broken down stuff piled or spread everywhere. Nothing looked successful, efficient or sustainable. How can piles of metal and plastic tarpaulins lying in grass be sustainable? How can leaking taps and old baths full of stagnant rainwater harbouring mosquito larvae be an example of sustainablilty but I hadn't reckoned on the ablutions. 

In keeping with the'sustainability' idea the management had erected instructions on how to use the composting toilet. I have nothing against composting toilets but this one was too scarey to even lift the lid. The toilet roll was rolling in the dirt and the best equipment consisted of a trowel and spade so you could shovel dirt on your 'business'. As a woman I find it nigh on impossible to control how I pee and poo but the instructions dictated that we must NOT pee while pooing. Ladies, how are your perineum muscles? Sphincters in form?
So where does one do the peeing? On the ground elsewhere as indicated by the sign and damp spot. There I was at night in the dark with my torch trying to spread my knees, jeans around my ankles trying not to splash my legs and shoes in a shared area amongst some trees. Nice. I knew to bring  a torch but didn't know I needed plastic bags or gladwrap for my legs. The vanity was nailed to a tree. Bet the tree didn't find that sustainable either. Though each hut or tent has its own toilet there really isn't privacy as the whole place is pretty communal.

My bed was comfortable but there were four beds in the yurt and I didn't know if other guests would be arriving so I went to bed fully clothed. It rained extremely heavily so I had little sleep worrying about the rain possibly soaking through the canvas roof or flooding in the fields bogging down my car. I could charge my phone but there were no plugs for normal appliances such as laptops or shavers. There wasn't enough light to read by for my eyes It was all too hard. 

The shower was solar but the entry was full of old bikes. The door was makeshift and of limited size and inside? No shower today a couple of us decided. It was not a safe, tidy or clean environment for a female. I understand gardening, permaculture and recycling but all I was seeing was decay, junk, pollution and what seemed to be a misguided hippy idea of what sustainability is all about.  While recycling is good, using old tyres that leach into the gound is not ideal.

It's smoke-free and I'd agree with that but the attitude to smokers (and grammar) seemed a bit brutal.

A phone call to the host had me expressing my disappontment with the facilities but she explained that she'd had a bad season for woofers and couldn't get things done. Where does the farm income come from? A small shadehouse growing veges which the woofers eat and sell and the bnb accommodation. I pointed out that as a business model that is not sustainable and  she needs a better standard with more marketing. I admit, young people with limited experience of life and sustainabiity might think it was just a basic adventure roughing it but we two older ladies saw the glaring problems and darker side of so-called sustainabiliy. To be sustainable a business must be successful and it must demonstrate true sustainability principles. It should be accountable and it should be of a manageable size. This one is out of control. 

Air bnb accommodation is not regulated. You stay at your own risk so at 6.30 am the next day, after only 2 hours sleep with only a short string of fairy lights to illuminate my tent I decided to beat a retreat. I will not be back.