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Building a new home might be stressful, but renovations can turn out to be a lot worse – especially if you’re still occupying the premises and having to navigate around the dust, rubble and security issues.

Just ask Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs, who’s probably seen more lofty building projects tank than succeed.

McCloud has visited many ambitious self-building projects in which people have tried to convert everything from a nine-storey Victorian water tower to ­crumbling ruins, cowsheds and barges into homes.

But, unlike the sometimes hare-brained ideas of some of these owners, Bonisile ­Nkente wasn’t exactly pushing the boundaries with a staircase design for her home, which she was renovating.

In March, she contracted ­Dial-a-Floor to erect a first-floor slab and build stairs.

“The stairs were not built according to the plan; rather they were very steep and dangerous, and I asked them to fix that.

“They came to check and also found out the problem and they charged me R1 000 to fix, but the fix was even worse.

“They then suggested the stairs be demolished and they start afresh. Surprisingly, the quote for the new stairs was now R15 800, whereas the original quote which I paid was R3 000.

“I see this as running away from their responsibility – how can the price go up so much in a month? I just want them to demolish the stairs and make new stairs as per their recommendations.

“I feel that this is very unfair, especially when they know that the mistake was on their side,” she said.

The stairs weren’t simply badly done, they were appalling, an independent building contractor told me after examining pictures, and no architect would have signed off on the design.

The steps were uneven and the “rise” above the brickwork was completely wrong – if they were not redone, they were ­destined to crack.

After some wrangling, the floors were torn down, but ­Nkente was told it was for her account as her architect was at fault, not Dial-a-Floor’s engineer.

Nkente disagrees: “They (the stairs) were not as per the plan that they were working on. They designed them (Dial-a-Floor), which they did not need to do, because my architect drew the adequate stairs in the plan. I don’t know why they did their own thing.

“They also agreed that the stairs were not in spec, and why now do I have to pay for their mistake?

“R15 000 for new stairs?”

Daniel McConnell, director in the construction practice at Norton Rose Fulbright, told me: “Structural renovations to a house (which would include erecting a slab and building stairs) require municipally ­approved building plans.

“These plans must comply with, among other things, the national building regulations and building standards.

“The builder says he built according to the design given to him by the reader’s architect. If that is correct, the reader should take it up with their professional.”

However, the stairs were not built to plan – definitely not a qualified architect’s – and now Dial-a-Floor has tried to pass the blame on to the client, attempting to make Nkente pay for their poor construction.

My builder contact, who declined to be named for professional reasons, told me: “It’s quite simple, really: the setting-out and formwork to the staircase were poorly done.

“From my observations, whoever set the staircase out had very little idea of what they were doing: the risers and reads are not consistent and the waist is uneven, tapering to what seems like maybe 50mm at the most.

“This staircase will fail sooner or later, because of the poor construction – and not the design.

“I suggest she lodges a complaint with the Master Builders Association (MBA, a voluntary association) and the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC).

“If they’re not registered with the MBA, she should sue them. She’s not liable for their poor work.”

Complaints about “new builds” are comparatively easier to resolve: the NHBRC has been set up to protect the interests of consumers and to ensure that builders comply with industry standards.

Builders of new homes are – by law – required to register with the council.

However, builders themselves are not regulated by a central governing body, McConnell says.

“The work for your reader is not covered under the Housing Consumer Protection Measures Act (which established the NHBRC) that applies only to ‘new builds’ and not to renovations of existing houses.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean Nkente needs to go the legal route.

“In order to obtain compensation or financial relief, the matter may be reported to the National Consumer Tribunal. Building services are ‘services’ covered under the Consumer Protection Act, and the reader therefore has rights under the act to demand a quality service.”

McConnell warns that consumers must protect themselves from unscrupulous builders: “One of the most ­effective tools for ensuring ­construction work is done properly is to have a competent building professional (an engineer or an architect) employed by the consumer, to oversee the works and ensure that they are done properly.

“Anyone undertaking a substantial renovation should ensure that an appropriate ­contract is in place.

“It is always best to seek legal advice in relation to such contracts.

“However, there are standard form building contracts available – for example the JBCC (Joint Building Contracts Committee) publishes a building contract (the Principal Building Contract) which is widely accepted in the South African construction industry as being even-handed.

“The JBCC also publishes a ‘Minor Works Agreement’ for smaller, less complex projects.

“Both forms of contract are available online for a small fee (R150 to R400 at http://www.jbcc.co.za/docs_eservice.php).

“Be wary of contracts that are not standard-form contracts which are proposed by the builder.”

It’s always a good idea to do your research to avoid nasty surprises: go online and check out contractors before signing them up.

Ask for recommendations, too, and check their status with the NHBRC.

Dial-a-Floor had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

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Wise up

Go with a pro: Engineers and architects are governed by professional bodies, for example, the Engineering Council of South Africa regulates and disciplines engineers. Architects, quantity surveyors and other construction professionals have different professional bodies which regulate their conduct, and have the power to sanction members who breach their codes of conduct.

Masters of their trade: The Master Builders Association: 011 205 9000 or visit www.masterbuilders.org.za.

New home?

NHBRC: http://www.nhbrc.org.za, email [email protected] or call 0800 200 824.