Thousands of Christchurch homeowners ‘in limbo’ over unknown quake damage

Character villas line most streets in Grey Lynn, Auckland, but time isn’t always on their side.

The owners of this century-old villa had loved it for years, but they knew it needed major work before they could move in with their young family.

Dougal and Faye Swift, with children Rocco, 2, and Adan, 1, now have a house that looks and feels like new, but it’s been a long, hard slog to get there.

“I lived in the house next door for 10 years, and for the last year or so the house was tenanted,” says Dougal Swift. “I often said, jokingly, to the owners, ‘when are you going to let me buy your house?’. And then one Christmas they sent me a text and said they wanted to sell. So we jumped at the chance.”

“The house needed an entire makeover – there were even a couple of holes in the floor.”

The first job, however, was to maximise the space beneath the house, to create room for a double garage and games room.

But before the builders could excavate, the entire house was rolled right back on the site. The earth was excavated and new foundations were laid, and the entire house was rolled back again. And then the roof came off, while a second storey was added.

“We took out 80 truckloads of earth from the front excavation, and another 40 when we semi-levelled the section at the rear,” says Swift.

The original house itself, underwent extensive renovations, designed by architect Tim Dorrington of Dorrington Atcheson Architects. “Pretty much everything was rebuilt,” says Swift. “Almost every weatherboard on the exterior needed to be replaced, and quite a lot of the framing. I searched for window replacements on TradeMe and had some great finds.”

The Earthquake Commission has admitted to 1 NEWS there could be thousands of homeowners in Christchurch whose homes have extensive quake damage, that they’re unaware of.

Mike Stewart and Julia McEntyre are one of a growing number of Christchurch families who’ve bought homes since the earthquake, with documentation from EQC stating the property had been fixed.

Julia says the couple had done their homework, and got a property inspection.

“The big thing for us, was it had the sign off certificate from EQC Fletchers, saying all the work was completed,” she said.

“We felt confident the work was done and it was worthwhile investing in this property.”

But after two years, when the couple came to sell it, a new assessment revealed much of the initial damage had barely been touched.

Mike Stewart told 1 news this has left them on the brink of financial collapse.

“We’re just in limbo. So our insurance has been declined. It’s classes as undisclosed damage, because we didn’t know about it. But we can’t cancel the insurance because that house has a huge mortgage over it,” he said.

The EQC admitted fault and agreed to pay the couple $85,000 for the repairs. The problem though, is that the repairs are more than $300,000.

The EQC’s CEO Sid Miller says its hands are tied due to their liability cap.

“We will do everything that we can to ensure people get their entitlement up to the EQC cap of $100,000. The problem is when is goes over cap they’re dealing with their own private insurer who may take a different view.”

However, most insurance companies claim it’s not their responsibility either.

Peter Woods, a partner at Christchurch law firm Anthony Harper has many clients who’re battling with insurance issues, and says the reasons are varied.

“The insurer may say, ‘because you’re a subsequent purchaser, we only have to pay indemnity value’,” Woods says.

“In other cases the insurer will say ‘we’re off the hook it’s EQC’s problem they messed up, they should fix it’.

“In other cases they’re saying ‘it doesn’t matter you’re too late the limitation period’s expired anyway’.”

Mr Woods said many people are being caught out, even those who’ve done their homework.

“We’ve seen a lot of cases where people who have got a pre-purchase inspection before they’ve bought. And they’ve still got problems.

“So if you’re looking at a house that has had an EQC fix, you need to really do careful checks on what was the damage and how it has been repaired.

“Otherwise there’s a whole section of the market that will suffer.”

The EQC’s head admitted it doesn’t know how widespread the issue is, with potentially hundreds or thousands of homes with damage unbeknown to its owner.

The government is working on getting declaratory judgments to clarify where liability sits in such cases.

For those affected, like Mike Stewart, he says he would never buy a house in Christchurch, as it’s just “too risky”.

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