Housing

A strange tale of floods, builders and a kitchen blender

A flood and a botched insurance job has forced a Howick couple out of their home for almost two years. But it's a story with some strange twists.

Three things you don’t expect when you get an insurance-funded repair job on your flooded home:

1) Tradespeople use your kitchen blender to mix up grout.

2) Workers say they will leave your keys in a locked box, but actually they put them under a flower pot and they get lost or stolen.

3) Builders use your bookcase as a sawhorse

You couldn’t invent this stuff. But this is just the more crazy part of what civil engineer Sulo Shanmuganathan and her husband Mano Manoharan say they have been through since a pipe burst in the roof of their Howick home in November 2017.

The day it happened, Shanmuganathan came home from work to find 4cm of water all over the floor. They haven’t been able to live in the house since.

Close to two years on, Shanmuganathan says no one will take responsibility for the botched-up repairs. And with the house uninhabitable and an ongoing battle with Tower Insurance, the couple are still living with Manoharan's father. They say they have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to get their home back to how it was before the flood.

Sulo Shanmuganathan  in her "repaired" bathroom. Photo: Supplied.

Tower's building inspector says the post-flood remediation work is fine. But one of the ironies of this case is that Shanmuganathan is involved in the construction trade herself. She leads the civil structures team for engineering company Holmes Consulting. She knows what good building work looks like.

And in the case of her own house, she reckons the repairs were mishandled from the start. She argues Tower needed to get resource consent for work in the bathroom, and builders didn't allow the house to dry out properly before plastering and painting the walls. 

Tower and the builders don’t agree the work was substandard, although Tower has offered a settlement, which it says should be enough to fix the problem. The couple does not agree.

Shanmuganathan says she has seen too many leaky building problems to believe what the insurance contractors did was adequate.

And two reports from independent builders she commissioned back up her view. Both agree with Shanmuganathan the house wasn’t dried out properly before the property was repainted, and waterproofing in the bathroom was substandard.

Garry Chalk is one of those experts. Chalk has spent 50 years in the construction industry, first as a builder then a building surveyor. He says the small things - contractors going into the pantry and taking out the food processor for mixing grout, tradies leaving the garage door unlocked and the house keys under a flower pot when they were off-site, people using the bookcase for sawing, or washing tools in the kitchen sink - are a sign of the bigger problems.

“It’s a lack of ethics. You wouldn’t do this in your house.”

Shanmuganathan's kitchen blender was used to mix cement

Leaky buildings

Chalk, who specialises in weathertightness, says this isn’t a one-off. Substandard water-related repairs are common.

“People are trying to do work cheaply. It’s going on everywhere - people not following good building code practices. I can show you three houses at the moment - they will all be settled out of court. Like a guy who bought a house and it’s all rotten under the floor, but it’s been covered up.”

He says insurance companies aren’t the only culprits; patching over water-related problems is common when people put their houses up for sale too.

“Thousands of people do it. If they are selling a house, they do a cover-up. Sometimes [surveyors] pick it up, but some licensed building practitioners will inspect it, sign it off, and then it goes through to sale.

“It gets quite frustrating.” 

Building surveyor Garry Chalk gave evidence at the Building Practitioners disciplinary hearing earlier this month. Photo: Nikki Mandow
 

Chalk believes the Licensed Building Practitioners scheme, brought in by the government in 2007, sets the competence bar too low. MBIE is looking to toughen up the rules under its proposed overhaul of the Building Act.

No happy ending

Flooding is always hard to deal with. A guide released by building industry research organisation Branz in 2004 says “being a flood victim will always be a traumatic experience, even when it has a happy ending”. This story does not have a happy ending.

With Shanmuganathan and Manoharan's home, water didn’t just flow in from ground level, it poured in from a burst pipe in the roof, meaning it was not just the carpets, flooring and the lower parts of the walls that were damaged. 

Ceilings came down, insulation and wall gib was wrecked; floor and wall tiles in the bathroom were damaged.

Chalk says the insurance company took the cheap repair option.

“The gib should have been removed and the place allowed to dry out,” he says. “But Tower didn’t allow them to do that. Instead the contractor brought in big heaters, but didn’t take the gib off; they just started painting.”

Building standards state a house has to have a moisture content below 18 percent before remedial work can start, Shanmuganathan says, but she says the contractors at the time didn’t measure the moisture content properly.

It’s technical, but she says they should have used a resistance system and not a probe.

“The insurance company should have made sure the person measuring was using the right method. Six months after the flood they came back and found the moisture level was above 18 percent,” she says.

These issues mean the house’s timber framing could be quietly rotting underneath, Chalk says.

It’s hard to be sure, but Chalk’s report on the remediation work is scathing.

“The state of the concrete substrate and walls is unacceptable. Applications of the [waterproofing] membrane have been a waste of time... The works completed are unauthorised, substandard and carried out in an ad hoc manner.”

Garry Chalk doesn't mince his words in his report. Photo: Supplied.

A second builder, Steven Lorigan, was also brought in by Shanmuganathan to check the post-flood repairs. He had similar concerns. 

“Waterproofing poorly installed,” he wrote in his report. “Spa bath left untidy with waterproofing and a noticeable scratch may require replacement. Doors require replacement due to damage. Whole house will need some plaster repairs... Visible cracks in paint and plaster on wall and ceiling possibly due to high moisture when painted.”

Reports noted substandard waterproofing
The spa bath may need to be replaced, Steven Lorigan says. 

However, Tower has a different view. Its insurance assessor Keith McDonald visited the house in 2018 and wrote "We inspected the waterproofing and it is to a high standard and correctly installed."

Shanmuganathan has tried several avenues for redress. Earlier this month she took a complaint against one of Tower Insurance’s building contractors, Tony Gamble. But the Building Practitioners Board did not uphold the complaint.

Gamble argued he hadn’t done the waterproofing himself, although he had inspected it, and that Tower had pulled him off the job before the remediation work was complete.

“From the time I was asked to stop the work, I was not involved in the ongoing dispute between the complainant and Tower Insurance,” he argued.

Still at the disciplinary hearing at the beginning of the month, a visibly-moved Gamble apologised for his part in almost two years of stress he said Shanmuganathan and Manoharan have gone through.

“I’ve learnt a lot from this... I’m not here to make excuses, but I expected a lot from the waterproofer and he didn’t deliver.”

In a decision released last week, the Building Practitioners Board decided that although there had been “minor quality and compliance issues”, Gamble had not been negligent or incompetent. 

It also ruled the repairs didn’t need a building consent - something Chalk and Shanmuganathan dispute. 

Uninsured and uninsurable

Meanwhile Tower has refused to insure the property while the dispute is unsettled, and no other insurer will pick up the mess, Shanmuganathan says.

She says following a site visit late last year, Tower’s lawyer offered a final settlement of $55,682.27, as long as that was the end of the matter, including no press coverage. The couple refused to accept those terms, although Tower paid up anyway.

Shanmuganathan says building quotes she has received have put the cost of restoring their home to the state it was before the flood at close to $150,000. That's more than the original repairs would have cost because of the botched job and because the house has sat empty for two years. 

She says it's not just the money - there's a principle at stake too.

“They should recognise what went wrong and there should be some responsibility,” Shanmuganathan says.

A Tower spokesperson told Newsroom the company "works hard to set things right for customers quickly and fairly, with this situation being the exception, and not the rule.

"This claim has a complex history and Tower has attempted to fairly settle the claim, however, settlements require two parties to agree and that is sometimes difficult to achieve.

"IFSO is the appropriate place for a dispute of this nature to be resolved," the spokesperson says, referring to the Insurance and Financial Services Ombudsman, where the couple have taken a complaint. There's no timing for when any IFSO case might be heard, but decisions of the organisation are binding.

Shanmuganathan says they are lucky to be able to live with her father-in-law, but it's not ideal. Meanwhile, she and her husband have full-time jobs and the insurance battle with Tower has taken up a huge amount of time, money and energy. She says it has involved hundreds of pages of documents and hours spent with lawyers, surveyors and putting together timelines and photographs. And it's not been cheap.

“When I reported it to the insurance company, they said I needed an independent report, that’s why we hired Garry, but I have to pay for everything. We don’t have children so we are in a privileged situation where we can do something meaningful.

“It’s shocking and it makes me sad. I’m in the same industry and I hate to see what’s going on. People working for an insurance company but with no pride in their work.”

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