A guide to house building in South Africa

A guide to house building in South Africa

Blog: Pitfalls and warning signs

I’ve recently had some correspondence from people experiencing major stress and anxiety with developers and their builds. This is what advice I can give you from lessons I’ve learnt the hard way.

  1. Before you buy any plots or a spec build, check the credentials of the developer. Have they been around for a while, completed projects, NHBRC registered (ask to see their certificate), known to legal fraternity? The internet helps with this, but otherwise check with transfer attorneys. The first property we purchased in Cape Town was from a developer (spec build, off plan). We were very naïve, and the developer did end up filing for bankruptcy. We, fortunately, did by then own the property, but it was not complete. As he was not around to finish it, the cost went to us.
  2. Don’t make any additional payments until the property is in your name. You can submit plans to council with proof of the transfer in process, but even that is a risk as you pay council submission fees, which, if all falls through, you’re unlikely to get back. If the building contractor requires a deposit to start a build, check him out thoroughly and sign contracts first. (Unfortunately this is not always worth much. We had a builder walk off site after four weeks. He realised the job was too far and complex for him. But he still decided to tell all the neighbours he’s leaving because we did not pay him (not true) and left with a collapsing excavation half done.
  3. Make sure services (water/sewerage and electrics) are in place before you buy plot. This process can take a long time, and the developer can argue it’s out of his hands if you cannot start building and are waiting for council to lay pipes. Once you own the land, you’ll have to apply to have these services connected and made ‘live’. In the Cape this process took a few days after paying, in Gauteng it took three months. I was left high and dry with an active building site and no water. Had to buy a water tank and pay my neighbour exorbitant rates to mix cement. We also lost a plot (thankfully), due to the owner not telling us that he was still waiting for services (although the subdivision had passed).
  4. Keep within your building lines. Architects, as a rule, feel nothing trying to push the boundaries of what is allowed on the site (title deeds and town planners/suburb guidelines will indicate). Although entirely possible, it requires consent from all the neighbouring properties by personal signature. It almost always causes much stress, fractured relationships and time delays. I’ve heard stories of endless, spiteful delays, or neighbours that live overseas for half the year and are unreachable. I know of someone that is struggling with this exact issues right now. His architect went over the allowed building envelope by a meter (without his knowledge) and he cannot get plans passed through council as the neighbours are pushing back. The build has been delayed indefinitely.
  5. After your plans are approved by council, register with the NHBRC. Many building contractors will tell you you don’t need to (especially if you’re building without a bond), but this is false. Note, it is in fact the building contractor that has to do the registration of the new build (although I’ve done the last two myself as they were not willing or able). The contractor has to complete an exam to be allowed to operate in SA, and should therefore know this process. I got burnt with my last build as both bank and contractor advised me that is was not necessary. They were both wrong and I had to personally submit a ‘late registration’ on the builder’s behalf, costing me an arm and a leg, much time and even more stress.
  6. Have a geotech report done on your property before you start building. Test samples are an extra cost, but this way you can avoid major structural problems in the future. Otherwise dig three pits in various places around the plot (+/- 3m deep) and ask your structural engineer to inspect. Especially essential if you’re building a basement/cellar or cutting into soil in any way. Better still, don’t build underground if you want to avoid hidden costs, stress and delays.

  7. Only pay contractors at predetermined stages. If you’ve paid more than what they’ve completed, there is nothing stopping them from walking off site. A contract helps, but many of these guys don’t care and can simply start up again under a new name somewhere else.
  8. Avoid flat roofs. I love them, architects love them, but know that they come with many issues. Concrete needs insulation, specialist waterproofing and yearly maintenance, expert screeding and experienced form work builders. My late father, a master builder, used to say about flat roofs, it’s not a matter of if, but when they leak. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just do it property and know of all the maintenance to come. Otherwise, like I did, create a parapet facade in the front and have low angle roof sheets hidden behind.

I have a feeling I’ll be adding to this list. Watch this space.

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