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Decade-Long Legal Battle Over Home Leaves Pensioner With Little Solace

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

This is a recreation of an article that originally appeared in The Age on October 20, 2019. The original document is below. Original article by Clay Lucas. Article recreation may be edited for spelling and clarity.

By: Clay Lucas

A 72-year-old pensioner who has fought Victoria's building authorities for a decade over their failure to police problems with her new home has been left with nothing to show for it.

Her case is an extreme example of how little consumer protection is ultimately afforded Victorians whose building projects go wrong, even if they prove their builder was at fault.

Pensioner Margaret Singleton at her Lakes Entrance home.

In 2009, Margaret Singleton and her husband had a home built in Lakes Entrance. It was designed specifically to accommodate her husband, who was left disabled after suffering a stroke.

But the project went so badly wrong that Ms. Singleton has spent the 10 years since construction began taking the builder and her building surveyor to a series of tribunals and courts.

"It is a permanently impaired house and I am left living with it in this state,” said Ms. Singleton. “I can't sell because there's no way I couldn't tell a buyer what was wrong."

Ms. Singleton said her house's problems include being built in the wrong spot on the block, sewerage that does not clear properly and that regularly wafts smells throughout the house, a slab poured incorrectly making all doors the wrong height, and extensive faulty brickwork.

Ms. Singleton's husband, who died in 2017, was never able to use part of the house because of problems with the build. “It was deemed too dangerous for him," she said.

After initially realizing there were problems with the house, she went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and reached a negotiated settlement with the builder.

In 2010, she also began a fight with the Victorian Building Authority (then called the Building Commission) that culminated this year in her single-handedly taking the authority to the Supreme Court and losing.

She won her case against her building surveyor at the Building Practitioners Board. But while the VCAT case and the board hearing resulted in her gaining acknowledgment of the errors made by both the builder and the surveyor, nothing was repaired at her home.

Her Supreme Court complaint, which saw her face off against a government solicitor and government-funded barrister, was dismissed by the court; Judge Greg Garde found Ms. Singleton had no basis in her claim that the VBA had the discretion to further pursue her case.

Costs were awarded against her, though the authority did not pursue them.

Pensioner Margaret Singleton points out

problems at her Lakes Entrance home.

A spokeswoman said while Ms. Singleton had her matters "heard by many courts and tribunals”, the authority understood she was disappointed in the outcome. “Ms. Singleton's experience reflects the need for change in the regulatory system,” the spokeswoman said.

Trivess Moore is a lecturer at RMIT's School of Property, Construction, and Project Management. He says people who hire builders, in the end, have very little real protection when things go wrong.

“You go and buy a car or a television and you have a fairly strong warranty and a requirement from the people who sell it to you that they will replace it [if faulty)," Dr. Moore said. “For housing, there's so little recourse."

He said this was especially so because, as in Ms. Singleton's case, it fell to homeowners to prove what the builder or surveyor had done wrong - not to show the final product did not work.

He compared this to a faulty television: “If you replace a television, it's not on you to prove what went wrong with it, just that it doesn't work.”

Dr. Moore also said the ability of construction companies to simply declare themselves insolvent made it especially difficult to pursue them.

“You see that with cladding - it's very hard for people to get properly compensated or get proper redress. And often there's no requirement to come back and make good what they have done."

Dr. Moore said that despite the vast amount of time and energy it took to force building authorities to make findings against builders or their consultants, "the outcomes rarely change things”.

Victorian upper house MP Clifford Hayes has been outspoken on planning and building issues since being elected last year. A former Bayside councilor, he regularly dealt with residents who had problems with their builders.

He said the obsession with cutting red tape" and removing local and state government oversight of building had left consumers without proper protection.

He wants to see legislation brought in that would restore a system that once existed in Victoria that would provide real protection for consumers. He said the government should establish a fund that builders and developers had to pay into, *with the powers to go after builders and also pay for repairs to homes that can be proven to be the fault of the builder”. This government fund would then pursue builders for the repair costs.

Ms. Singleton estimates she has spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on legal bills over the years, in the end for nothing. “I've been jumping up and down for a very long time," she said. “I am truly exhausted."

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