Homeowner claims statutory body failed to protect her

IRENE Engelbrecht’s house has a spectacular view across Plettenberg Bay. Unfortunately, it was built so badly that the local council has declared it unfit for habitation.

For the last three years the 55-year-old jeweller has watched lawyer’s letters pile up in her rented apartment while the house stands empty on a hillside above the seaside town.

But now Engelbrecht is taking legal action against the National Home Builders Registration Council in a ground-breaking case that will be heard in the Cape Town High Court. She claims the statutory body failed to protect her from a bogus builder.

“I wanted to build my dream home in Plett, and I got nothing. Everything is wrong,” an emotional Engelbrecht said this week.

Her nightmare began in July 2002 when, just after construction work started on her property, she noticed serious structural problems: the walls were not high enough, the floor was not even, the roof was not properly supported, the stairs were too narrow, the foundations were too narrow or non-existent, and there were large cracks in the cement-work.

To make matters worse the house appeared to have been built on top of a natural spring, resulting in powerful groundwater flows whenever it rained.

A report compiled in November 2003 by an independent architect recommended that the house be completely demolished.

But Engelbrecht’s efforts to seek redress have been equally disastrous. A civil lawsuit against her builder, Andre Gerber, was dropped when Gerber declared himself insolvent late last year, following which Engelbrecht turned to the NHBRC, a body set up to protect homeowners. But she was told she could only claim compensation if she was actually living in the house. The local Bitou council has refused to give her an occupation certificate because the structure is unfit for habitation.

Engelbrecht said she felt cheated, with no house and no compensation despite having paid:

• Over R300000 for building work completed to date;

• A further R9 000 building levy to the NHBRC, as required by law;

• Legal fees totaling more than R250000 in addition to renting another house in the town.

“The NHBRC is sitting on billions of rands but what are they doing with the money? They are supposed to protect you, but don’t really do anything,” she fumed.

Gerber declined to comment on the matter this week saying he was no longer a registered builder with the NHBRC. The NHBRC said in a statement that, “The contractual disputes should be settled and the home should be completed and fit for habitation for the NHBRC’s warranty cover to apply.”

Until then her claim against the warranty fund was “unacceptable”. The NHBRC said it was, however, willing “to advise and assist” Engelbrecht to restore her home and that it had spent more than R17-million on remedial works to the benefit of many homeowners.

But Engelbrecht’s lawyer, Fanie Botes, said the NHBRC had not responded to Engelbrecht’s queries and legal action was the only recourse.

“We want a declaratory order from court that the [Building] Act should be interpreted in such a way that Mrs Engelbrecht is entitled to some form of assistance,” said Botes.

He said Engelbrecht’s case may signal hope for other victims of shoddy building work.

Affidavits were in the final stages of being drafted and were likely to be submitted to the court by next week, said Botes.

Article by - BOBBY JORDAN - www.sundaytimes.co.za