Monday, December 27, 2010

Ill-conceived renovations put houseowners' safety at risk

WHEN I first moved into my condo more than 10 years ago, a contractor asked if I wanted to have additional floor space by renovating the air-well.
When I asked him if it was legal, he said since other condo owners were doing it, it should be all right with the law.

The authorities would have to think twice before tearing mine down, he said, because it would be too much hassle for them.

Not only would they have to act in my condo complex but also across the entire Klang Valley. And possibly, even the entire country.

The thought of having additional floor space was tempting, but I told him it would eventually give me sleepless nights.

Putting a floor where it does not belong is courting trouble. Adding load-bearing structures to completed buildings without considering additional stress created on existing beams and steel bars spells danger.

Anyone who had gone to engineering school will tell you that. Besides, air-wells are created to allow proper ventilation. So, I declined the offer.
Recently, this paper carried a story about how Kampung Chempaka residents' penchant for renovation could one day spark a tragedy should a fire break out. If you have read the story, I think you will share my concern, too.

There are many "Kampung Chempaka" around the Klang Valley, of course. From Desa Setapak in Wangsa Maju to Taman Sri Sinar in Segambut.

You will probably know more such places hidden on the fringe of Puchong or Shah Alam where greedy houseowners flaunt their wealth and expose their poor understanding of aesthetics at the same time.

I have seen two-storey low-cost cement-brick houses built in the early 80s that have been today transformed into three-storey bungalows. They stick out like sore thumbs in the neighbourhood. Some are designed like flashy stainless steel fortresses, others have more floors added, and roof gardens.

Corner-lot houses are especially susceptible to renovation, I noticed. Small porch areas are enlarged by claiming public road into one's own and the buffer zone between houses are turned into additional kitchen space.

There is no limit to the renovator's creativity. If you have the cash, some builder out there will be willing to help you turn chicken coops into castles.

Asking if some renovations are legal will make you look stupid, of course. But seeing so many where they should not be makes you wonder about the enforcement of building laws or the lack of it.

Who approves such renovations in the first place?

Do we blame the renovator for his greed, his neighbour for not reporting it to the authorities, or the authorities for their lack of vigilance in monitoring conspicuous illegal renovations or extensions?

And if such renovations contribute to loss of lives, directly or indirectly, whom do we hold responsible?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Low priority given to highrise maintenance

HOW do you compel highrise owners to contribute their share of the maintenance fee, a colleague who lives in a condo asks.
The deterioration of services and facilities she used to enjoy since she bought the property is causing her sleepless nights.

She has learnt that the problems were brought about by the poor payment of maintenance fees.

The management committee of her condo is helpless against the bad paymasters. Slow rubbish collection, lifts that break down frequently, and water in the swimming pool turning milky green are driving her up the wall.

I said she would get used to the conditions over time. I know I did.

My condo's swimming pool was an outdoor fishpond until the conscience of the majority restored it back to its former glory.

The lifts are better looking now although they are still a long way from convincing me to take a ride to the first floor.

But I am thankful that the stairwells are well lit, and the corridors are clean. These days, I only pray that people will stop flinging garbage from their homes into the garbage chutes.

I used to wonder how the maintenance of highrises could be improved, too, but I have given up. The good living in highrises I read about in advertisements is but a fleeting dream. Malaysians are not born for highrise living -- not unless they are made to appreciate the term "common property" and understand the need to pay for the maintenance of common property and facilities for them to run in good condition.

I was hopeful things would change when the Strata Title Act 1985 was amended three years ago and the Building and Common Property (Maintenance and Management) Act 2007 gazetted.

With the creation of a Commissioner of Buildings (COB) to adjudicate problems related to non-payment of maintenance fees and charges, I thought the authorities would enforce the laws related to highrise living. I was wrong.

Very little has changed.

You only need to ask highrise dwellers about their nightmares. No, you don't even need to ask. Just look at the outward appearances of the older flats, apartments and condominiums, and you will see what I mean.

Weathered walls, unmanned security posts, and poor maintenance of the perimeter areas are some of the clues to the financial health of the highrises' coffers.

How do you recover debts from freeloaders against whom the residents' management committees are helpless?

How can the bad paymasters be made to contribute their share of the maintenance fees so that those who pay are not deprived of the facilities? Is the management of highrises in Klang Valley monitored by the COBs or do they merely exist as a requirement by law?

Managing highrises is tough and leaving residents to run it by themselves often lead to failure in a matter of years unless the management body has the means and ways to retrieve bad debts.

Otherwise, it won't be long before apathy rears its ugly head and everything that was once in good condition will go down the drain.

Perhaps my neighbour's suggestion is worth considering: monitor the management of highrises to protect both the property owners and the managers.

If standards are not met, then have the alternative of privatising the management of these residential highrises to a licensed professional property manager equipped with the logistics to manage profitably and provide satisfactory services.

Empower the COB to oversee and enforce the collection of maintenance fee, and raise the collection to the level of efficiency of the Income Tax or the Road Transport departments. If people can pay their income or road taxes without prompting, surely highrise owners can be encouraged to do the same.

In the city where highrise living is becoming a permanent feature, the authorities must take charge to improve the management of highrises so that they do not turn into concrete slums.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Woe betide this generation of pampered job seekers

TODAY's new job seekers have never had it so good, a friend tells me recently. She said many school leavers had been given a headstart most new job seeker in her time did not get. The friend, who owned a headhunting outfit, said she had advertised for junior executives as part of her company's expansion plan and was elated to receive an avalanche of applications.

Most of the candidates had their own transport but what amazed her was that nine out of 10 of those shortlisted not only owned cars but had paid for the vehicles as well.

It was a far cry from what she experienced two decades ago, she said. She had to use her savings to finance her first car by installment. Every month, huge portions of her pay went into servicing loans and maintenance expenses. Thankfully, she was staying with her parents who did not depend entirely on her financial contributions.

I told her she was luckier than those who started working during my time. For those who were required to have their own mode of transport, they could only afford motorcycles.

In the days when the Sunny 130Y or Toyota KE70 ruled the roads, banks were also not as generous with vehicle loans as they are now with the issuance of credit cards. Interest rates were also high.

Even if you had the down payment in hand, you still had to consider if you could afford the monthly installment - and maintenance costs - even though petrol was pretty cheap then by comparison.

Today, if you look around, you will see that most city children already have driving licences by the time they go to college. Some would have driven to school by the time they are in Fifth Form.

One girl I know has been driving to school since she was in Form Four. Her parents had given her one of those mini cars for her sixteenth birthday and she was already a pro behind the wheels before she was of legal age to apply for a driver's licence. Fortunately, she has managed to steer clear of accidents - and the traffic police.

A colleague attributes the phenomenon to kiasu city parents over-pampering their children.

Some buy their children cars by the time they are ready for college. Some put the down payment for the cars and have their children pay for the installments and other costs if the latter has found a job. Richer parents not only service the monthly loans but also pick up the tabs for the vehicle's maintenance.

Perhaps it is not so much of pampering. Families today are smaller and parents who have saved reasonably well are likely to have enough money to buy their children cars by the time they get a job.

While many parents pass their old cars to the children, I wonder how many image-conscious city kids would dare be seen driving their parents' 30-year-old jalopy these days.

With some jobs requiring you to have your own transport and public transport not being entirely reliable, there is very little choice for many.

However, for parents who buy cars for their children without having the latter work hard for their ownership, they may be contributing to their children's hardship later on.

Relieved of the responsibility of paying for the car and its maintenance, who can tell when the young and upwardly mobile will become chained to credit card debts when their parents are forced to cut the apron strings?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Working from home can be a risky business

IN the 1970s, working from home was quite common. In the village in Gombak where I grew up, my sister and I pasted tikam boards for extra pocket money.

Tikam is a game of chance now seldom seen except in shops in the rural areas. It is a large piece of cardboard from which cash or toys hang. At the bottom of the board are rows of paper foils containing numbers. For five sen, you get a pick. If the foil has a number that corresponds with a number on a prize, you win prize. Otherwise, you are given a sweet as compensation. Or nothing.
Pasting tikam boards was monotonous but easy.

We cut the numbers from a sheet of paper and pasted them onto paper foils that were then folded and mounted in neat rows on the main board. For each 144-foil board pasted, we were paid four sen. The earnings - less the cost of tapioca flour used to make starch - were our nett income.

Our neighbours made shopping bags from recycled cement packaging. For each bag measuring a foot by two feet, they were paid one sen. They had to first clean the paper of cement and trim it before it could be folded into bags. The only hazard was breathing in cement dust when the packages were sorted out.

Another family cleaned beer bottles. They were paid four sen for each large bottle; two for a small one. Since their well provided free water and the factory supplied detergent, the cost was only time and effort. The only risk they faced was getting cut by submerged broken bottles.

There were less hazardous moneymaking opportunities, too, I remember. A friend decided to check out one of the ads he saw in the papers one day. It promised a RM50 income a week working from home. My friend took me along to check out the advertiser located in a shopping complex in Bukit Bintang. It turned out to be a typing job for which I had neither the skill nor typewriter. My friend had both, so he got the job.

Having paid RM50 as deposit from which the penalty would be deducted if he failed to meet the delivery deadline, he was given a ream of paper to type sales letters at 50 sen apiece. Within two days he completed the job and was promptly paid RM25.

But at the end of the second week, when he had completed 100 pieces and gone to the office to hand in his work, he had a shock.

A group of disgruntled home workers had gathered in front of the locked office. My friend learnt that the employer had absconded with their deposits days earlier and the job offer was a scam.

When I saw banners on lamp posts advertising between RM500 to RM1,000 for working from home recently, I was reminded of the scam. I wonder if the banners were baiting school leavers waiting for their results and home workers in need of extra cash.

When opportunities are aplenty, I am sure opportunists are never far away.