Unapproved building plans could block property sale

Building anything on your property without the necessary council approval, you will be faced with many obstacles when it is time to sell your property.

According to Lew Geffen, chairman of Lew Geffen Sotheby's International Realty, unauthorised structures can cause deal-breaking problems, and could even end up in lengthy legal action.

Geffen said agents were often approached to sell properties by owners who came unstuck when it was time to complete the legally binding property condition report that included a clause about whether there were approved building plans for all structures on the land.

'The biggest culprits are garages. Property owners often see them as just four simple walls and a roof and don't understand why they should go through the perplexing and potentially expensive bureaucratic process of submitting plans to the local council and waiting for what can be a substantial time - depending on backlogs - to get them passed.

'Comparatively few people would risk the cost of building a house without local authority approval, but many owners don't view outbuildings in the same light.'

Claude McKirby, Lew Geffen Sotheby's International Realty southern suburbs principal, said buyers were entitled to ask sellers for copies of building plans before the finalisation of any purchase to check them against the current condition of the property.

'If owners don't have plans, they should theoretically be able to get copies from the local council.'

McKirby said this can sometimes be a rude surprise to home owners, who may have lived in a house for years without realising that a previous owner made unauthorised changes they knew nothing about.

'We've also encountered problems on the flip side. In several instances, the building plans filed with the council have over the years and decades been misfiled or mislaid. In both instances, sellers have themselves a huge headache.'

Geffen said there were a few options open to sellers and buyers should any of the above occur.

'In the absence of plans, buyers could request a clause in the deed of sale that says if any unauthorised building is found to have taken place on the property, the seller is liable for the cost of making the structure compliant.

'Alternatively, the seller could employ an accredited draftsperson to accurately redraw plans of the current buildings on the property. These would then be submitted for approval to the council, which would have to inspect the property and measure all structures against current legislation governing building plans and land use, just as they would the plans for a new build.'

But Geffen warned this path could open another can of worms because building regulations had changed frequently over the years.

'This means a house that was built according to approved plans 30 years ago that is entirely structurally sound may not necessarily comply with current building legislation. And if the council is called in by the owner on the strength of approving newly drafted plans, it would be forced to issue non-compliance notices if there are problems.'

Geffen's advice to home owners who aren't in possession of approved building plans is to get copies from their local council.

'Plan B is to get hold of the person from whom you bought the house and ask if they have copies. If not, it's probably worthwhile getting a surveyor to look over all the buildings.

'That way, when you want to sell, you may not have a copy of the plans but you at least have a surveyor's report attesting to the structural soundness and general code compliance that will 99 percent of the time mean it was legally erected, especially in the case of mid to late-20th century houses.'

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

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