Monthly Archives: April 2012

Of Rocks And Other Layered Formations

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In the strata world there is much to be confused about. The use of the term ‘strata’ itself is curious. Strata are the plural of stratum, the geological formation.

It also has distinct meanings in the ecological and sociological worlds. Broadly it connotes layers, portions or divisions hence its application in Australia to the subdivision of land, buildings and airspace to separately titled property and shared common property and facilities. We could have used the term ‘condominium’ or ‘homes’ as the Americans do to describe these spaces but instead, we chose a geological term. Now it will probably stick, as these linguistic accidents of history tend to do.

An arrangement for the strata title subdivision and its management is called a strata scheme. A scheme has been judicially defined, in the context of managed investments, as existing where there is a ‘coherent and defined purpose, in the form of a programme or plan of action, coupled with a series of steps or course of conduct to effectuate the purpose and purse the programme or plan ‘(ASIC v Takaran (2002) 20 ACLR 1732 at 1737 per Barrett J)’. To some who have attended a meeting of strata title owners, that a scheme, so defined exists, may be a matter of conjecture? Often there is nothing coherent or purposeful at all at strata meetings.

To others a strata scheme will imply a tax dodge – we have learned to be distrustful of schemes and schemers. Why would we want to belong to a scheme of any kind? No good comes of schemes. Nevertheless the term scheme is used to describe an arrangement of strata titled property in every Australian state and territory save for Victoria and the Northern Territory where the more accurate and less sinister property terms, ‘plan of subdivision’ / and ‘unit title’ are used.

Would You Like A Roof With That Ceiling

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The NSW Minister for Fair Trading Andrew Roberts has picked a fight with strata building defect lawyers.

We are apparently ambulance chasing – exploiting poor defenseless unit owners who have bought into buildings foolishly thinking they were going to get a roof with that ceiling they bought off the plan from the developer!

Ambulance chasing of course describes that practice of following an ambulance to the hospital after an accident and giving the victim a business card for a NO WIN / NO FEE compensation case. These lawyers take large contingency fees from the downtrodden that otherwise could not afford a lawyer. Stereotypically, they also wear ill-fitting suits and are alcoholics.

Without commenting on my sense of dress or drinking habits, the comments by Minister Roberts are odd. There is not the slightest evidence of this practice. There are no ads in the papers or on bus stops soliciting work, there are no firms offering ‘no win no fee’ services, there are no class actions being floated, there is no push by unit owner groups for protection and there is no litigation funding on offer leading to unjustified cases.

On the contrary, there are rules against contingency fees, limitations on spending on legal fees and the need for strata members’ approval for starting legal actions.

If anyone has ever thought getting a group of strata owners to agree to take legal action against a developer was easy pickin’s, then I have not met them in thirty years of being in this space.

The Minister should contemplate this; that a third of the NSW Supreme Court building and construction list is comprised of owners corporations seeking justice against their developers and builders might just have more to do with building practices and standards than lawyers.

Further, the Minister might wish to contemplate that 2/3rds of buildings built since 1997 report major defects (CityFutures, Managing Strata Repairs, July 2009). This may have something to do with private certifiers that have since that time been allowed to approve compliance with building standards despite the conflicts arising from being selected and paid by the developers they judge.

Unit owners do not need any more restrictions on their rights to get what they paid for. When we have so many big issues facing the strata sector at present, this attack is nothing short of bizarre.

Learning To Share In Strata Land

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Awkward, unattractive, irrational; we are growing up and that’s a time when we learn to share.

In 20 years almost half of Sydney’s population will live in apartments. In other Australian cities, the trend will be the same. This is the biggest change in housing form in our lifetime yet surprisingly little is understood about what is happening, and how we are dealing with the changes this housing revolution brings to our urban landscape and to community relations.

Awkward might describe the way we act when we move into an apartment block from the relative seclusion of our detached four bedroom home with the quintessential turn of the millennium renovation. What do you say when you meet a same floor dweller at the elevators for the first time? ‘Was my music too loud last night? Can you hear what we say and do? We don’t seem to hear you. Well not often anyway.’ As they ponder the very same question your mind turns to your new, close but not in a good way, neighbour. ‘I bet it was him that over filled the recycling bins last week? They should learn to use the right bins. I hope their visitors don’t park in my space?’

In suburbia, there are fewer rules. We do what we want, when we want, within reason. Our contact with our neighbour is pleasant because we don’t share a thing except a street name. I can use my BBQ when I like, I can swim when I like, I can swim naked if I want, I can smoke on my balcony if I want, I can smoke naked on my balcony, I can hang my washing out to dry on the balcony, I can have pot plants without saucers. Ah, the simple pleasures of my own domain. I can paint things and drive nails, hang curtains of whatever colour no matter how visible they might be to the outside world, change the floor surface without my neighbours consent and spend as little or as much as I like on repairs and maintenance. I can save for this if I like or I can spend my income howsoever I choose. I will worry about financing the new gutters another time. I own, therefore I can.

But I have left that all behind for the convenience of apartment living. No lawns. No gutters. Just a balcony and four walls: a door that I can close and leave my possessions unattended whilst I go about my day or travel abroad. Somebody else cleans the pool and worries about the chlorine levels. Somebody else tends the gardens and removes the grease spots from the car park. Somebody else worries about taking the garbage out on Sunday night. This is my new lifestyle and I like it. It is right for the times. It is right for my time. I will learn to deal with the awkwardness.

Learnings In Strata On Being Watched

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Number one son (18 years) has recently trialed new software for young drivers to track, measure and report driving practices to anyone who cares to log on. This includes parents who might withhold car registration and insurance money in return for the login details and password.

As incentive to turn on his cohort in this way, he has been promised a TV spot on the Today breakfast show which he believes will lead to shirtless walk-on roles in Home and Away. What more can a boy / man want?

Fame and good fortune apart, the trial period has been interesting for him and me. Luke is spending his gap year as a Manny (a male nanny). This requires him to drive his 7-year-old charge to and from school, violin tutoring, marshal arts etc. Luke has noticed two things since the slightly creepy tracking device has been installed in his teenage boom box on wheels with a motor.

The first is that said 7 year old shrieks with delight when the beeper goes off signaling bad driving behavior. Said 7 year old knows he needs tender to negotiate relief from eating broccoli in return for silence when asked about Luke’s driving by Mum.

The second thing Luke has noticed since being on the trial is that he is getting less beeps. This is something he is proud of and not just because the kid is running out of excuses not to eat his broccoli.

This is an application of the old but gold rule of business management – if you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it. There is also something in this story about transparency and being accountable. In strata we need more benchmarks against which to measure the performance of management.

The market would benefit form a service that rated different development offerings available at any given time. A benchmark for levies in different categories of buildings would allow committees and managers to strive for best practice in a specific and measureable way.

We need less beeps in strata.

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