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Buying an apartment or a house – what does one look for?

October 20, 2006

For most middle class buyers, specially in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore or Calcutta, purchasing a house can turn into a nightmare. After all, purchasing an apartment is a once-in-a-lifetime decision and therefore very critical. The house is not just a financial investment, but an emotional one…and if the ‘dream home’ turns out to be an defective, ill-made structure, it can be extremely frustrating.
Dubious builders
Yet today, more and more fly-by-night developers and promoters are jumping on the real-estate bandwagon solely to make a quick buck, and few can swear by the quality of their constructions. Lack of close supervision of the projects, use of inferior building materials and the short-cuts taken by the builders results in poor and weak constructions.
Some of the short-cuts taken by builders are poor quality of cement used, or the ratio of cement and admixtures not as per the required norms. At times the structures are not ‘cured’ properly and this can weaken the construction.
Investing in a sub-standard apartment can mean not only discomfort in daily living with leaking roofs and commodes and cracked paint, but at times tragedy can strike. There was a case not very many years ago when a comparitively new residential building called Shivalik in Calcutta collapsed, killing a large number of it’s residents. There was also the spectacular case of the collapse of a twenty year office building at Worli, Mumbai in the late nineties. 16build1.jpg
Poonam Chambers

‘One should approach only well-reputed and experienced firms which are professionally managed,’ says Prabir Mitra, architect. ‘These firms should have the infrastructure and manpower to handle the project.’ For prospective apartment buyers it is very important to check out (in detail) several alternatives before taking that final buying decision.

Be involved from the start
Once the decision has been made, one should not just forget about it. It’s better to get involved right from the planning stage. It’s less of a head-ache to buy a ready-made home, but one can never know what went on during the construction, and one must rely only the reputation of the firms involved.
On the other hand if one buys a proposed apartment, the investor can select the design himself and also keep a watch on the construction process. Regular visits to the construction site prevents any unpleasant surprises later on, for what seems good on paper may not translate as well into reality. There have been innumerable instances where owners have been disappointed with the actual livable area of the apartment, which has seemed sufficiently large in the work plan. This happens when space is wasted on transit areas like corridors. Parking spaces (or lack of them) can also pose a problem. One buyer discovered to his chagrin that he could maneuver his care into the cramped parking space only with great difficulty. Another felt that it was too long drive to his allotted parking space.
Where the buyer himself is not qualified to check on whether the design is technically sound or whether the construction is being carried out according to specified norms, he can certainly ensure that qualified and competent people are on the job on his behalf. Ofcourse, the builder will not take kindly to such interference in the construction process. Not very surprising as if there is a technical problem with the building, it is the promoter who will be liable, not the builder (unless he is also the promoter). And in the event of design failure, it is the architect and structure engineers who will be held responsible, not the builder! Defects in the constructing, once again, are the liability of the promoter.

Aesthetics and space utilisation are not the only important aspects
What every prospective buyer should keep in mind is that aesthetics and space utilisation are only the tip of the iceberg. The most important aspect is safety. ‘Safety and the legal aspects are very important and it’s advisable to check that all necessary permissions have been taken and consulting a lawyer is a good idea. For example, the electrical wiring should be done only by competent persons. For fire safety, necessary clearances have to be taken by the authorities. There are also other legal aspects such as the title of the land, number of storeys permitted, whether the area falls under the jurisdiction of the corporation,’ says Mitra.
Broadly speaking, the factors which clients should familiarise themselves with fall into three categories:

Environmental
Structural
Safety Regulations

Environmental factors
These concern the location of the site. It should be in a suitable residential area and should not be a low-lying area which get water-logged during the monsoons. Seepage can not only be a nuisance, it also affects the foundation of the building. A garbage bin or open drain close to the site can mean offensive odours, flies, mosquitoes and other insects. A factory nearby means additional nose and air pollution. If it is unavoidable, the client can ask for sound-proof walls.

Structural factors
To construct a structurally safe building, the client has to ensure that competent people are closely supervising the work. Two important factors ignored by many promoters are anti-corrosion measures, which are particularly important for cities like Calcutta, Mumbai or Chennai, which are near the sea. These measures should be applied during construction and also as a maintenance routine. Nitty-gritty’s like sunlight in the rooms or whether the bedroom windows are facing the wind directions are also important. The client can also ask for extras like netting on the windows and exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathrooms.

Safety
All necessary permission required by law need to be taken.

Poor Maintenance
If in spite of taking all the necessary precautions, the construction develops snags – it is usually because of poor maintenance or construction of illegal structures without proper pillar support after the building has been competed. A building, for example may not be designed to take a terrace garden with two to three feet of earth. Truckloads of material carried carelessly to the higher floors can damage support structures. This was what was alleged to have happened in the case of the damaged Shivalik apartments. A pillar was accidentally knocked down and not repaired. Often offices and residences brazenly re-model their spaces and this too brings in additional load on the structure.
At times, construction work in another part of the building can cause vibrations and damage the structure.

Why the secrecy as to the causes of collapse?
Building collapses are not a strange phenomena for those living in India. The problem is that here it’s not easy to get to the root case of a building collapse. The authorities as well as the builders are usually vague or tight-lipped on the issue. Such secrecy is ridiculous, considering the re-occurrence of such incidents and the loss of life. If the results of investigations into major air and rail disasters can be made public and the causes can be pin-pointed, there is no reason why the public cannot know the reason for each and every building collapse.
Partly this is the fault of the media as it does not follow through to find out the exact causes of the disasters and also partly due to the money that changes hands amongst the builders and those in power.
This kind of apathy, on the part of our society is strange, considering that a study commissioned by HUDCO said that the cost of repairing a building after 20 years will be what it costs to construct it!

(An slightly revised version of what was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta. Additional inputs are about the collapse of the well-known Poonam Chambers, an office building at Worli, Mumbai. The photo is sourced from Rediff on the net.)

Note: This article was published some years ago, but the situation seems to have got worse because of the construction boom and the fact that India’s burgeoning middle class has the money to invest in real estate. India today is in the midst of a real estate boom -for the first time Indians are buying houses, not renting them. Unfortunately, unscrupulous builders are also thriving and its not only home buyers whom they target. They are hand-in-glove with government officials and this results in poor quality roads and infrastructure.

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