Hard Case legal column is back!

Janice Hughes is a Director of Aspiring Law. If you have questions or feedback about this article, please contact Janice on 03 443 0900, or email janice@aspiringlaw.co.nz

It was 2004 – the year of Facebook’s birth – and I’d just arrived in the Upper Clutha, flying solo, to launch a new legal practice, and, as it happened, a newspaper column.

A ten-strong team, around 100,000 words and dozens of legal topics later, Hard Case went into hibernation. When, recently – two-or-so years down the track – the column was still coming up in conversation, I thought: Well ...

So, here we have it: Hard Case 2.0. For this comeback column, I can’t go past a subject in which I’ve been rather engrossed: building a house.

Over my 20-plus years specialising in property law, I’ve worked closely with literally hundreds upon hundreds of house-building clients, ensuring everything is contractually and legally sound. I had not, however, ever built my own home – and never planned to. Let’s rewind a tad.

My husband and I are hanging out one weekend. He casually mentions a bigger kitchen would be nice. No bombshell there – that’s what you get for marrying a professional chef. We really could do with a bigger backyard, too, he mused, scanning the townhouse-sized verdant strip and paved barbecue area out the back.

Well, now he mentioned it, my love of order and structure had been speaking more loudly of late, reminding me how wonderful one of those segmented, walk-in wardrobes would be. A place for everything, and everything in its place. And, there, between our respective kitchen, outdoor space and wardrobe fantasies, the die was cast. 

Mercifully, right about then, the dreamer departed and the level-headed lawyer kicked in. We needed to, first, look big picture: section and house size, location and, gulp, budget 
(did I mention the professional kitchen?)

First-time section buyers can make the mistake of thinking that, because there’s no house on the land, there’s no need for much by way of forethought or due diligence, that it’s all blank canvas, make-it-up-as-you-go-along freedom. Wrong. I’ve seen countless people left with their housebuilding dreams dashed before the foundation’s even been poured, because they haven’t done their homework or their numbers.

Regardless of your house-building objectives, taking advice ahead of time will provide you with a critical set of questions to ask, an invaluable, timely list of “dos” and “do nots”, as well as good food for thought around what pros and cons – including costs and restrictions – come with different section sizes, types and locations.

Do as I say, not as I do...

Take us, for example. Sensibly, we worked through, and agreed, what it was we were in the market for: a flat, bare, easy-to-build-on 700-ish square metre plot with a bit of a view.

Today, we are the proud owners of a 6500sqm (yes, around 10 times the size we intended), hillside (as in, seriously unflat), kanuka-clad (yep, about as far from “bare” as you can imagine) plot.

As we drifted – okay, deviated completely – from our original vision, our saving grace was that the insight I’ve gained through my profession meant I was able to quickly weigh up along the way what we were up against in terms of knock-on factors. 

Our incredible view is courtesy of the jagged elevation of our piece of paradise, but that comes at a price: architectural designs that called for specialist engineering input. 
Cha-ching!

Upsizing our section size from standard subdivision to small lifestyle block brought other considerations – was there a designated building platform?

In our case, no; on many larger blocks, however, the answer is not only yes, but, with that, comes other considerations. Potentially expensive ones. Is the section on town supply, or will you be looking at providing some, if not all, of your own services? Cha-cha-ching!

But wait, there’s more ...

Where do the services come into the section? Running power, telecommunications, gas and/or water a few metres to a dwelling – as would have been the case with our original, 700sqm-ish section scenario – is one thing.

When it comes to lifestyle blocks, though, you really do need to know exactly where the services come in in relation to your intended building platform. In the excitement of section-hunting, time and again I’ve seen the colour drain out of prospective buyers’ faces, as the reality sinks in as to what it actually costs to run services across any distance.

Often, we’re talking many thousands of unanticipated dollars. And, then there are sections like ours which are hooked up to the town supply, but, as part of the consent, must install a water tank for fire-fighting purposes. Cha-cha-cha-ching!

Where’s the boundary? Not sure? Boundaries are typically marked by wooden sticks, topped with paint, in each corner. Found them? Great – don’t move or remove them. You’ll need them. Can’t find them? Stop everything, and speak to the vendor, or their agent, and your legal adviser. It might be the land needs to be resurveyed to get those pegs back in the right place.

Remember, building over a boundary, or within the building setbacks – even by a matter of mere centimetres – can be disastrous and expensive to remedy. Easements, misplaced boundaries, covenants, special building conditions – the potential considerations and complications are myriad, and that’s why I always advise my clients to come in, or give me a quick bell, before they even so much as start inquiring about sections.

Thanks so much for joining me for the all-new Hard Case. Tune in next time, where we’ll look at what comes after the section: building, and the areas where people typically come to grief, and how to avoid that happening with your grand design. 

Please remember: the information in this column is designed as a general guide only and should not replace specific legal advice on a particular issue.
www.aspiringlaw.co.nz

Janice Hughes is a Director of Aspiring Law. If you have questions or feedback about this article, please contact Janice on 03 443 0900, or email janice@aspiringlaw.co.nz


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