Cold comfort for bushfire victims

Cold comfort for bushfire victims

16 May 2010

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Australia — BLACK Saturday victims have been left out of pocket and without a roof over their heads after builders failed to complete their homes, demanded money up-front and made them suffer through months of delays.

Dozens of victims of the deadly fires are unable to move into their new homes because of red tape problems, or expensive contract alterations and other problems with their builders, who raced to cash in on the post-fires construction boom.

The Sunday Herald Sun met eight families at Kinglake last week who were still without a home, despite desperate efforts to rebuild and move back into their community.

Seven of the families are unable to move in due to problems with builders – and four of them are using the same builder, Variety, the company recommended to them when they bought homes from PAAL Kit Homes.

Variety and PAAL both acknowledge there are problems completing homes in the Kinglake area, but blame each other for the delay.

The residents blame Variety, saying the company has left them months behind schedule, demanded money from them in advance and forced expensive contract amendments on them.

Without permanent accommodation 15 months after the Black Saturday fires claimed 173 lives and wiped out thousands of homes, the families have turned to solicitors, the Sunday Herald Sun and Parliamentary Secretary Bill Shorten for help.

Fighting with their builders is the final straw for stressed victims, most of whom were insured and were grateful for extra payments from the $379 million bushfire relief fund.

“I’m not sleeping at all. I often finish in tears,” said Jennie McMurray, who is living in a freezing tin shed because her Variety-built PAAL kit house was not finished on time before Christmas.

Mr Shorten called a meeting for the victims at Kinglake last week and said he believed the dozen or so people who attended did not represent the full extent of the problem.

He told Federal Parliament during the week that, while many families were having good experiences with their builders and were getting on with rebuilding their homes and lives, others were experiencing real problems.

“I believe there are some who are taking advantage of people in desperate circumstances, some who are forcing people to live in sheds for longer periods than they should whilst they wait for their houses to be rebuilt,” he said.

“I believe there are some who are ripping off their fellow Australians in a time of need.”

Mr Shorten told Parliament he believed the taxes and charity provided to families in bushfire areas was “in danger of being fleeced by unscrupulous, exploitative operators”.

“I have now, in the last two weeks, uncovered too many stories of builders failing to complete work, of overcharging and of leaving valuable housing equipment on sites to deteriorate in the environment as they are unable to complete the promises that they made to their customers upon signing contracts,” he said.

“Deliberately or perhaps just recklessly through an excess of optimism by the builder, people are facing difficult circumstances with a lack of money and unfortunately we are witnessing tactics which are bringing the building sector into disrepute.”

Variety director Glenn McCormack said the problems were with provider, PAAL Kit Homes.

“I’m in talks with my lawyer at that moment in that regard,” he said. “I’ve tried to get this across to the owners. The delays are purely and simply with the kit homes.”

Mr McCormack denied he was a preferred builder of PAALs and said he would “never touch them again”.

He also denied claims made by two home owners that his company had pressured them for money and said his finances were sound.

PAAL spokesman Ken Samuels acknowledged delays, but blamed the builder. He confirmed PAAL had recommended Variety to some buyers.

“We recommended them to a number of our customers … they got seven or eight jobs directly that way,” he said.

Mr Samuels said Variety and PAAL were in dispute over payment for equipment and delays, saying Variety had sought $50,000 from PAAL, which had decided that the costs were actually only $7000, which they had paid. However, the dispute continued.

“The first we became aware there were problems was when we saw a letter sent by Variety to a customer seeking a progress payment before it was due,” Mr Samuels said.

“The situation is our customers are in an arrangement with Variety, not with us.”

Mr Samuels confirmed PAAL was opening a shop in Kinglake in the next six weeks.

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