Ups and downs in a new development


But what is life really like in the first three years of a new block? Is it the dreamy, easy-peasy lifestyle the marketers would have you believe - all coffee on balconies, chatting to neighbours and cocktail parties around the pool - or is there work involved in getting everything up and running?

Do you just move in and everything turns like clockwork or do you have to take a closer look at the inner workings before you can relax?

The latter was certainly the case at the $16 million Arc Apartments in Zetland's Victoria Park, the first apartment complex in Sydney to achieve a five-star environmental energy rating when it was finished in December 2003. It had also picked up the 2002 South Sydney Development Corporation Design Award for its architects, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer.

A smart seven-storey building with 58 apartments and two restaurants as well as a convenience store and one other retail space below that has yet to be filled, it's bookended by a block of five townhouses. The grassy courtyard has a barbecue area and a lap pool and spa set in decking. A gym has new equipment.

Business consultant Di Tornai decided to buy an apartment there after a spell in a terrace in Redfern following the sale of her large house in the suburbs. However, the move wasn't as smooth as she'd imagined. "It can be treacherous in unchartered waters," Tornai says. "The buildings are new and sometimes strata title might be new to the buyer. You have to upskill yourself very quickly."

People should learn what's required in a new building and about the roles and responsibilities of those on the executive committee - the voluntary group elected to run it, she says.

"The problems can be like those in a house, but multiplied. You have to know that every dollar you spend is spent in the best possible way; you have to run the place like a business."


Arc has had the same kind of difficulties experienced by many new apartment buildings throughout Sydney. There have been issues to settle about pets, contracts with strata managers and cleaners, defects and even the composition of the executive committee.
"At the first AGM, the first executive committee is often elected according to how much you can resist raising your hand," says Tornai, now serving as the committee secretary.

"So you sometimes end up with owners who are ill-informed novices, naive, gullible and unprepared - or others who see business opportunities and give contracts to their mates.

"Then all of a sudden you have all these responsibilities on you to run an entire building; it can be crazy."

In Arc's case, the executive committee changed a few times until there was a committed group of owners in place who were much better versed in looking after the building.

"It's now very well run," says fellow owner Eduardo Andrade. "It's difficult at first. You're learning about the building, about the area and about your new neighbours. But finally, everything comes together well."


The executive committee of Arc changed strata managers three times before finding a suitable company and manager. "It's a highly unregulated industry and you don't have to go far before you hear about cowboys," Tornai says. "We've finally found a strata manager we're happy with to manage our finances and give us legal advice. Beware of underservicing and overservicing."

For those complexes with a full-time building manager, there should be similar due diligence given to the contract. But at Arc, where there is no professional building manager, Tornai has taken it upon herself to learn everything she can about the way the place works. Sometimes, that can be an arduous task. There are days when she spends five hours looking after the building's affairs, she says.

An invoice payment system has been formulated, after it was discovered that past strata managers were paying not only their own bills but those for other buildings out of Arc funds.

The cleaning company has also been changed, an agreement about duties drawn up and a system of annual audits of security keys implemented. Strata levies have also been raised, following a sinking fund assessment. "Strata levies are set [low] to attract people rather than for the amount of money that's needed to run a building," Tornai says.


There's one issue that's guaranteed to stir controversy in new buildings: pet ownership. Arc is no exception. Some people moved in with pets but now the executive committee has agreed that future buyers or tenants will not be allowed, under the bylaws, to keep animals.

The risk is too great, they've decided, for pets to become a nuisance, being allowed to walk on common property, making a noise or let into the gardens to relieve themselves.

In the beginning, there were also some difficulties with cajoling the retail businesses to obey bylaws. One didn't understand the design codes the executive committee had for fitouts and changes and a couple of disputes ended up going to the Office of Fair Trading to be settled.

Restaurant owner Harry Hatzis says he too had teething difficulties. "There were some issues in the beginning and I wasn't very good about complying with the bylaws," he says, at his Little Piazza Bar and Grill. "They were a bit vague and the body corporate were hesitant; they didn't want to be the bad guys about implementing the bylaws and I don't think some people were very good. Residential and retail tend to have different needs and different interests. But now we get on well. The people who live in the building are fantastic and we get a lot of regular custom from there."


All new buildings have defects and making sure they get rectified is often one of the most demanding tasks of an executive committee. Tornai says she's careful about documenting any problems and has fostered a good relationship with the builders, Grocon, and the developers, Austcorp, who've attended to issues quickly.

"You have to take a close look at any problems that arise," she says.

"You have to decide if it's a problem needing a Band-Aid - or a surgeon. A full engineer's report on the common property may be commissioned next."


Another priority in the first three years of Arc has been fostering a sense of community among owners and tenants. There's a noticeboard for minutes and announcements, a regular newsletter and a register of all email addresses.

"Apartments can be quite isolating, but we haven't found that to be true of here," Tornai says. "People mix in the gym, we've had some community barbecues and people get on very well. We've had our challenges but I've been pleasantly surprised how successful apartment-living has proved."


* Elect an executive committee of people with diverse and complementary skills, who are prepared to share the workload.

  • Educate yourself, as much as you're able, about everything to do with how your building works.
  • Negotiate contracts with service providers on the basis of what you want them to deliver, not on what they might deliver.
  • Foster good relations with your builders, developers and retail owners and tenants.
  • Take steps to improve your building and turn it into a harmonious community.


When company director Gerald Chia (pictured) decided to move from a house into an apartment, he wasn't really ready for the work ahead.

But it's now paid off handsomely, with the 221-apartment, 33-storey Epica tower in Chatswood running smoothly.

"We have been extremely active in Epica, to the extent that we have rewritten the strata manager contract and flicked the original strata manager," says Chia, 54, who bought a two-bedroom apartment in the Mirvac building 18 months ago.

Creating a good neighbourhood in the building was also a priority for the executive committee.

"We have been promoting a strong sense of community spirit in Epica and Pacific Place," he says. "I now have 150 of the owners on my email list. We now even have a community tai chi group from 8.15 to 9.15 [in the morning]. It's become a great place to live!

AUTHOR: Susan Wellings



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