Persistent Demand But Slow Supply

There is a longstanding adage in Ireland that for investment there is nothing "as safe as houses". Traditionally, the understanding and most common perception was that houses were, in effect, a completely safe bet.

Through our company's long standing, independent, professional inspection practices Inspex is committed to assisting Local Authorities fulfil their responsibility to inspect and improve accommodation standards in the Private Rented Sector (PRS).

Statistics tracking the change in Ireland’s national population in comparison to the change in the housing stock up to 2016 seem to lend some weight to recent, anecdotal claims of a disparity between the quantity of accommodation and the corresponding demand from accommodation seekers in recent years. Between 2011 and 2016, the national population grew by 3.8% while the housing stock increased by only 0.4% during the same period (CSO). In addition, there has been an outpouring from mainstream media and social media commentary regarding the so-called “housing crisis”, with local and national government officials, opposition parties, and members of the public all weighing in on this contentious topic, with the Taoiseach describing the housing situation in front of an Oireachtas Finance Committee as “extremely disturbing” (Irish Times).

With the government under intense pressure to curb the rising trend in homelessness and ‘emergency accommodation’ provision; government agencies focussed on protecting the rights of tenants facing possible rent increases and eviction notices; and tenants scrambling to secure and/or retain the roof over their heads, the recently rolled-out Housing Regulations 2017 face the possibility of being forgotten in the midst of the scramble to ease public tensions and increase the pipeline of supply.

Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), a sub-sector of the market has become of interest to investors and developers of late, where the risk/return ratio often is like the general residential market and often with the added benefit of higher yields achievable in PBSA (CBRE) .  This leaves students embroiled in a frantic, and often fruitless, attempt to find accommodation close to their chosen third level institution, at an affordable price, and of acceptable quality. Such has been the desperation of the student masses to secure adequate accommodation in recent years, that the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) this year released a guide to student accommodation and finances, in partnership with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), to assist students in their search.

Student-accommodation may be perceived as a niche within the PRS market but, regardless of the demographic of the tenant in any private rental property, the standards do apply, and every tenant is entitled to live in a comfortable and safe home. Particularly with homeownership rates on the decline, falling from 69.7% to 67.6% in the five-year period to 2016, while there was a corresponding 4.7% increase in the number of rented households making renting the tenure choice of almost 30% of all occupied dwellings nationally (CSO). Based on these trends, it is imperative that rental accommodation in Ireland is maintained in accordance with the standards prescribed by the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government (DHELG), to safeguard the growing rental sector for future generations of private renters to come.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) has also stepped into the breach actively promoting the importance of upholding existing standards and ensuring compliance with PRS regulations, with a special emphasis on the student cohort (NSAI).  Inspex welcomes this as a positive step towards improving awareness of the Standards and moving towards improving compliance rates.

Being cognisant of the challenges, Inspex continues to monitor the PRS market while remaining steadfast to its ideology of independent verification of standards.

Its ongoing support in this space educates landlords and tenants as to their responsibilities and supports Local Authorities in achieving the Government inspection targets for 2021 and beyond.

The Inspex approach can ensure that more rental properties meet and comply with the rental regulation standards.

Housing Shortage

Tackling Ireland’s Housing Shortage

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Housing Minister Simon Coveney and other Cabinet members have published the long awaited Action Plan "Rebuilding Ireland".

Described by Government as an 'action driven plan that will result in a dramatic increase in the delivery of homes nationwide'.

The plan provides an action-oriented approach to achieving Government's Housing objectives including

  1. Tackling Homelessness -  6170 people recorded as homeless in May 2016
  2. Increasing Social Housing Output - 47000 units to be delivered by 2021
  3. Increasing Housing Output  - 25,000 units per annum by 2020
  4. Improving the Rental Sector - 324,000 registered tenancies 
  5. Utilising existing Housing Stock - 198,358 vacant homes in Ireland

Ultimately, the most effective way to reduce and stabilise rents in the medium to long term, according to the Minister, is to increase supply and accelerate delivery of housing for the private and social rental sectors.

In addition to focusing on the supply issue, the plan attempts to address the important issue of standards of private rental accommodation as well as improving the inspection and enforcement functions provided by the Local Authorities.  Consistent and fair enforcement of accommodation standards is considered critical so that the compliant and responsible landlords are not operating at a disadvantage to the non-compliant irresponsible landlords as a result of lax inspection regimes and poor enforcement.

A shared services model for inspection and enforcement of the rental accommodation standards regulations will be developed by the local government sector, either through a single national lead authority or a number of local authorities leading for their regions.

In order to increase the numbers of properties inspected, specific funding for inspection and compliance activity will be identified from 2018 onwards and annual targets for both inspection and compliance will be agreed.

Can 'Rebuilding Ireland' really tackle the country' housing shortage?  Only time will tell whether any or all of it has been made possible.


Universal Design Guidelines

At the start of the 20th century, older adults and people with disabilities were true minorities. The average human lifespan was only 47 years. Today, due to better medicine and healthier lifestyles, the average lifespan has increased to 76 years.

The concept of Accessibility, which had then begun to address the needs of people with disabilities at that time, evolved in what is now Universal Design (UD). This concept takes into account the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. By human diversity, we can create an environment that will be better for everyone to use.

Far from being a purely aspirational concept requiring ‘rocket science, it’s one currently being tackled head-on at the CEUD. Dr. Ger Craddock, Chief Officer at the Centre tells about the future publication of draft ‘Universal Design Guidelines for homes in Ireland’ strategy.

Consultation workshops

He explains ‘This process has come about following Public Consultation workshops which took place over the past two years. The Universal Design Guidelines are intended to inform national policy and new home design standards which can accommodate people of different ages, size, abilities or disabilities. These are readily adaptable which will take into account the needs of the individual over their life-cycle.’

‘Key stakeholders who took part in the process include Disability, Age and Statutory  representatives; the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI); the Construction Industry Federation (CIF); the department of the Environment, Community & Local Government, and a number of voluntary housing groups’ he says.

Public consultation process

Also amongst the stakeholders was Managing Director of Inspex Solutions, Anne Millar who says ‘Improving the quality of the built environment, both commercial and domestic, and the impact of the built environment on human beings lies at the core of our mission.  This includes the built and new-build structure; be it the commercial or residential context.’

Anne says ‘While the publication of the Guidelines is both timely and essential, the question of how the buildings will meet, with and compare to the Guidelines is key. This is where the rating system within Inspex Solutions is also so timely and relevant.’

In relation to the public consultation process, Dr. Craddock says, ‘The comments stage has closed for review now and we can expect the draft results to go for publication in the next couple of months once final edits have been completed.  We are also working on Universal Design of Dementia friendly dwellings which have gone through the same rigorous consultation process and these will be available also come this summer.’

He says ‘In the past we’ve been focusing on care for people with dementia in nursing homes versus how we can support them to live longer in their own homes., With design modifications to existing homes as well as incorporated into newly built houses will dramatically improve the quality and standard of living for these individuals.’

Ger says ‘Neighbours and community play a great part in the lives of this section of society, and in keeping them out of care homes and at home for longer. Another important factor to consider is the carer; partner or parent for example. It’s only when the carer, such as the partner of the person goes into hospital or a nursing home themselves, that serious difficulties arise. While addressing the needs of the person with dementia, it’s crucial that the Carer is also cared for.’

Universal Design

Where there’s user-friendly design incorporated in the structure of a house, everyone; especially the person with dementia is safer and remains healthier for longer. According to Ger, ‘Following the national international best practice review, research and guidance in home design, a cost assessment of a universal design built home versus the standard built  is also being produced which should convince builders to think Universal Design in all their building projects.

Universal Design is good for all people as it focuses on the diversity of our society such as people of small stature to people who are very tall. The catch phrase of our work is “understand the extremes to inform the mainstream

He points out that ‘Some of the basic, but key-areas in a house when considering the needs of the elderly, and those with disabilities and dementia includes the exits; kitchen; bathroom. A big problem can be the stairwell in a house. Many people go off and pay for expensive modifications without any consultation with the person these are being carried out for. They come ‘home’ afterwards to what is foreign or strange to them.’

The design expert says ‘It’s critical to involve the person with dementia in the design process for example. Giving them the time to be clear on what they want, and what they don’t want changed, must be a priority. I’m very excited about this initiative. It’s all about arriving at an understanding what it can bring to the quality of life for people in their own homes. We’ve been missing that key element ‘til now.’ Craddock says.

On a practical level, Inspex Managing Director, Anne Millar gives the example of where the CEUD Guidelines might recommend that a ramp needs to be a particular gradient, or a wall surface needs to have a particular texture, and queries how this required gradient or wall surface texture will ultimately be rated?

She says ‘Ask the question; does the ramp meet the specification, and does the wall surface meet the specification. If it does comply; it’s crucial to establish to what level on a 0-5 scale? With its unique rating functionality, Inspex offers the solution to these issues. Our advanced rating solution ensures the data collected is effectively used for its ultimate purpose which is to meet the required UD standard.’

Without a Property Inspection

Did you know that the standard surveyor’s report you’ve paid for to support your mortgage application doesn’t actually cover the nuts and bolts of the condition of the house? Often, it’s only after you’ve moved into your new property that you discover the true condition of your massive investment.

Understandably, potential home buyers are under a lot of pressure and perhaps checking out a number of houses at the same time as dealing with the banks.  But flawed nuts and bolts can sometimes be very costly, distressing and inconvenient. A full property inspection report from the right service provider can save hundreds – if not thousands of Euros, and ensures that you avoid this scenario. A comprehensive inspection report can sometimes help in the price negotiations with the vendor.

It’s important to remember however, that the quality of the report you’ve commissioned can vary considerably; depending on service you choose.

Dublin based architect Philip Crowe says ‘The standard method of property inspections is generally rather unsatisfactory. Choose the wrong inspector and you can find yourself with a report that’s unclear and difficult to interpret and prices can vary considerably amongst service providers.’

Philip says ‘When it comes to the actual format of the report the client receives, you generally receive a text-heavy document that is quite impenetrable, and gives little direction in terms of the potentially huge decisions being made. For example, ‘Is this house worth buying? Will it have too many problems for my budget etc.? Photos tend to be separate from the text and at the end, which can make it difficult for the client to interpret.’

No house is in perfect condition, but it can be difficult to gauge without getting a builder to come and assess it. This of course means more hassle for you, more valuable time, and more money.

Philip gives an example of what you can inspect from a reliable property inspection service; ‘Inspex effectively brings building condition surveys into the 21st century. For starters, the report they furnish the client with in terms of format and layout, is much easier to navigate. The report comes with photos adjacent to relevant tables.’

‘The Inspex report timeframe is much shorter than the average report takes as there’s no waiting on a surveyor to write up their notes and set out the report’ Philip says. In a traditional situation, the actual inspection process can draw out the tense period of purchasing a property which adds to the stress on the buyer.

For the average person, the regulations and standards relating to different aspects of buildings (and their use) are a minefield and very difficult to negotiate at the best of times. On the other hand, the contemporary Inspex system directly relates regulations and standards to different elements of the building. This allows you to see clearly where investment is needed to bring a property in line.

Taking their standard report beyond a traditional visual inspection service and its inevitable limits, thermal imaging is an additional service provided by Inspex. Philip says ‘It will mean clients know from the outset where the weak points are in a building in terms of the thermal envelope and how it will perform in terms of thermal comfort. As a result, it will indicate where to improve insulation and air–tightness. This is critical with energy price hikes and more demanding building regulations.’

On the recommendation of an architect who specialises in carbon neutral design, John Doyle and Sara Carroll commissioned a pre-purchase property inspection of an unusual property in Glenmalure, county Wicklow. John says 'We were very interested in the 1,400 square feet, Finish design log-built property which also has 600 square feet of decking. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, living-room area and sauna.'

'We chose Inspex because we knew that Robert and Anne Millar are very familiar with 'other-than-normal' architecture with a special interest in sustainable energy building. Sara and I don't know much more than the usual person about how sound a structure is.’

He says ‘We were delighted with the report  we received after we’d agreed the cost of the inspection, and given Inspex the 'go-ahead'. We had specified that we were interested in a sustainable energy efficiency report and with a view to retrofitting the house’ John says.

‘It was a remarkable report, it was completely comprehensive.  It even indicated down to the kitchen cabinet door which needs to be replaced. The inspectors used thermal imaging as we had also requested that the moisture content in the wood be identified. The report itself was absolutely clear and easy to understand. We couldn't fault it.'

'I wouldn't dream of buying a property without first having a pre-property inspection carried out. To the untrained eye, potential damp and structural problems are not visible.  It would be unthinkable not to have a professional inspection on an investment such as a house' John says. 'The fee was a very small price to pay for such an in-depth insight into the property. I would definitely recommend the service offered by Inspex.'

Not in Consumer Best Interest

Claims by several members of the RIAI (Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland) that the proposed new building regulations are not in the best interests of the consumer or the building industry, were rejected by a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Heritage and Culture. Earlier this week he said 'The Department has spent over two years reviewing the system and preparing for the implementation of SI No. 80 of 2013 on March 1st of this year.'

The proposed regulations come in the echo of past construction catastrophes such as ‘Priory Hall’ and are designed to deter, if not eliminate altogether defective design and rogue-construction in Ireland. The proposed changes include the statutory registration of builders, mandatory latent defects insurance (LDI), appropriate independent inspection and/or auditing systems and, above all, State support for the system.

Taking into account the pre-existing planning, and health and safety regimes, the addition of the further layer of certification in the building process is viewed by some industry professionals as pointless. Their introduction apparently mean changes which will add to the multiplicity of approvals and certificates required to build and the numerous appointments necessary for all new building endeavours. These include: an architect, engineers, quantity surveyor, project supervisor design process, project supervisor construction stage, design certifier, assigned certifier.

Regarding the statutory registration of builders, Joan O’Connor says ‘A voluntary register of builders is ‘a nonsense’. Registration with teeth needs statutory backing and would take at least two years to develop. It necessitates the establishment of a registration board, standards and codes of practice, grievance procedures, codes of conduct and the like so that there is fair procedure in the event of a challenge to a builder’s registration. 

Highlighting the vulnerability of the end user in relation to the proposed amendments to S.I. 80, Ms. O’Connor says ‘How is a consumer building a house, or indeed a small shop-owner carrying out some alterations supposed to know whether a builder is competent or not? What’s needed is a State-sponsored, self-funding, independent inspection system which is credible and authoritative.’ 

She says ‘Basically, the obligations of the main parties to a building contract with regard to building standards are simple; this is to design and to build in compliance with the Building Regulations. This encompasses everything including fire, thermal performance, disability access, structural stability, etc.’

Ms. O’Connor further suggests that there are means by which Government could control design and construction quality equivalent to the operations of the Revenue Commissioners. They rely on the use of licensed auditors as a means of discharging the State’s functions in the control and overseeing of their business. 

Other RIAI members say that the implementation of the new regulations will result in house or apartment owners who discover flaws or faults in a building post-construction having to seek redress in the courts; a route is costly, time-consuming and carries no guarantee of satisfaction for the plaintiff.   

According to Ms. O’Connor ‘The consultation process carried out prior to the introduction of the proposed Building Regulations was limited, and failed to include a meaningful appraisal of the proposed amendments, such as was carried out in the UK in *2012.’

She says ‘It would seem that the impact of the proposed Regulations on SMEs, the industry or the consumer was not properly assessed at any stage in the consultation process. Nor was a Regulatory Impact Assessment carried out in respect of the March 2013 wording of SI 80. Ms. O’Connor added ‘although a “light-touch” assessment was carried out in 2012, its conclusions are at best superficial, and at worst, suspect and potentially misleading.’ 

Those RIAI members who disagree with the proposed regulations say that Regulations also failed to heed the recommendations of significant reports such as those of the National Consumer Agency 2012, The Pyrite Panel 2012, and The Competition Authority 2012. 

Commenting on the BReg Forum, Dublin architect Maoiosa Reynolds says unfortunately, the central role that the original poster refers to, is one to which intolerable liability will attach to under the current proposed wording. So the vacuum created when independent professionals shy away from the certifiers appointments due to increased insurance costs, will be colonised by vested interests.’ 

‘These include unregistered contractors and insurance limited companies, which will be in a position to fold shelf-companies after developments are completed to limit their exposure to consumer redress.’ Mr. Reynolds views the introduction of the new legislation as ‘A wasted opportunity to create a proper system of independently regulated building control in the country.’ 

Commenting on the consultation process prior to the introduction of S.I. 80, the spokesman for the Department says ‘This included a comprehensive public consultation process during which an unprecedented 503 detailed submissions were received. The RIAI, Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland, Engineers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation have welcomed the new regulations and are actively supporting their implementation. He says ‘Minister Hogan remains firm in his determination to follow through on the proposed implementation date of 1 March 2013

Acknowledging the divergence of view within the RIAI on the proposed amendments, Joan O’Connor says ‘It is true that there has been a difference of opinion within the RIAI regarding S.I. 80 and its effectiveness, with the BReg Forum noting that it is as presented; unworkable, uninsurable and inadequate as a means of protecting the consumer and procuring better building.’ 


SEAI Upgrade

250,000 Homes Upgraded

250,000 homes upgraded in Ireland through Better Energy schemes. 

Free home energy upgrades have been completed in 100,000 homes through the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme.  A further 150,000 homeowners have availed of the popular Better Energy Homes grants for insulation and heating upgrades.

Mr Pat Rabbitte TD, Minister for Communications Energy and Natural Resources flags €600m investment in buildings and 3,800 jobs maintained and confirms schemes will continue in 2014.

Minister Rabbitte said: “The scale of this achievement is immense, amounting to €600m investment in the small buildings sector and an average of 3,800 full time jobs over the last five years.  I am particularly pleased with the inroads our current programmes are making in respect of energy poverty, with more than one quarter of eligible homes addressed to date.  This Government has a strong commitment to energy efficiency. We will continue to provide funds for the Better Energy Schemes next year. We recently commenced a separate programme of retrofit investment in the Local Authority housing stock. We have also created a new fund this year to boost activity in terms of public and commercial building energy efficiency initiatives.”

The Minister marked the milestone at the launch of a community energy project at Ballyfermot, Dublin where 77 homes, supported by NABCO, the co-operative housing provider, will receive wall and roof insulation, replacement windows and high efficiency heating systems and controls.

A report to be published by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) tomorrow shows the hugely positive impact to the housing stock in Ireland of our successful energy efficiency and retrofitting schemes.  These homeowners have already made energy savings of €150m over the past few years, and will continue to save €60m annually.

The Minister further commented:“The significance of reaching this milestone should not be underestimated – retrofitting 250,000 homes out of 1.6m permanently occupied homes is a huge achievement. However, it’s also appropriate to look forward and consider the economic and health benefits that we could realise if the rest of the inefficient housing stock was upgraded. I encourage everyone to ‘get efficient’ and take advantage of the Better Energy grant programmes.”

Commenting at the same event, Dr Brian Motherway, CEO of SEAI said: “Retrofit is now a healthy and important sector in Ireland, worth hundreds of millions of Euro and providing thousands of jobs.  Investing in retrofit means money previously spent on expensive imported fossil fuels is now being spent on valuable jobs and making homes more comfortable and affordable.”

Building Regulation Inspection

Senator Appalled at Home Inspections

The Priory Hall example is by no means an isolated case of trusting home buyers and tenants being thrown to the mercy of reckless and avaricious developers and inadequate Local Authority planning enforcement. In a letter to Senator John Whelan, angry resident Andrè O'Dubhghaill invites all interested parties to visit the Riverside Estate in Portlaoise. ‘Come and see an NSAI certified; Bord Gais approved; passed by a certified engineer; uninsurable estate’.

O'Dubhghaill says There was raw sewage flowing into the River Barrow, and in March 2012 14 lorry loads of this waste was cleared from the drains as the pump had stopped working, and was piped into the river by the developer.

The render is cracking on the walls and falling off, rain soaks through causing major build up of mould internally, because of this have become uninhabitable, to either rent or live in. The tiles on the steps up to the duplexes are loose and missing and the interior plumbing is a total mess.’

As a direct result of ‘the shoddy construction work’ and subsequent level of claims by the Riverside residents, the Block insurance on all the apartments has been cancelled by the insurer. So far, they have been unable to secure insurance elsewhere.

According to Senator Whelan ‘In the space of a decade, over 600,000 units were built in this country. For example; 96,000 were built in 2006 where 25,000 would have been adequate. This demonstrates the level of inadequate planning and regulation enforcement, and permission given during this period. Units were being thrown up while clearly no one was really following up. Local Authority Managers should have been conducting spot checks on developments.’

Whelan says ‘Local Authorities argue that at the time, they were overrun and understaffed.  Planning is an entity which got off scot-free.  They gave all that permission without having to stand over their decisions.’

‘There’s a Priory Hall in every county in Ireland’ says the Laoise/Offaly senator. People are living in substandard accommodation, negative equity and with high mortgage tied around their necks.  It’s bad enough these days living in a house that you’re happy with. But we’re looking at unfortunate people living in unsafe buildings with flawed electrics, sewage and utilities on top of the ‘usual’ burdens. They have to live in poor quality houses – literally thrown up by rogue builders which were not subject to regulation scrutiny.

Whelan says ‘In one situation in Portlaoise a developer aggressively ordered one young student assisting on the site to get up and plaster while he was taking his lunch break. When the student informed his boss that he was the labourer carrying out such tasks as mixing mortar; nailing slabs and helping with scaffolding, he was reprimanded and told 'If you can stand, you can plaster, just get on with it'.

This begs the question of the standard of building inspections and the urgent need for regulation. In the context of the Government €600 million spend on the highly successful energy efficiency and retrofitting schemes, Senator Whelan says ‘This was a fine project due to the fact that the work was adequately carried out.’

Speaking at a conference in Dublin last year, Prof Malcolm Hollis was reported to have said that the British model of independent inspections, where developments are examined before, during and after construction, protects occupants and ensures the value of new properties.

The professor of building pathology at the University of Reading said ‘It appeared that the lack of legislation requiring mandatory inspections and enforcement in Ireland had resulted in cases where new construction did not achieve the required standards.

He said ‘We have already seen the result of this in relation to fire safety. But the health and well-being of occupants can also be put at risk through failures to achieve required standards for ventilation, water-proofing, drainage, heating and energy conservation.’

The leading British authority on building defect recognition said ‘a key issue in Ireland appeared to be the lack of independent assessment of the design, together with detailed checking of the building work.’

Illegal Flats

75% of Landlords ‘Illegally’ Split Houses Into Flats

Less than 10 per cent of flats surveyed have ever been the subject of an application for planning permission, and most of these applications were for TV satellite dishes.

The 1963 Planning Act made it illegal to subdivide a house into flats without planning permission.

The report compiled for the council by Paul Kelly of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland found most houses surveyed were built before 1963, but not split into flats until after the Act applied.

Mr Kelly’s report compiled surveys of more than 500 properties in parts of the city most densely populated by flats: the North Circular Road, Cabra Park in Dublin 7 and Grove Park in Dublin 6.

Only a quarter of the flats existed before 1963, just over one third of the tenancies were registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board, and less than 10 per cent of the flats had ever been the subject of any type of planning application.

The owners of 22 per cent of the flats could no longer be prosecuted because they had been converted more than eight years ago. “But significantly there are 50 per cent that are still outside the planning process and are illegal.”

See the original Article on the Irish Times