Living in a strata community does not come without its compromises. Whether it’s putting up with your neighbour’s annoying tuba lessons, letting go of your dream of sunbathing nude on your balcony or taking the stairs to avoid your over-zealous owners corporation representative, adherence to rules are an important part of enjoying a harmonic existence.
But while we may not always be 100 percent enamoured with our living circumstances, there is provision for those who own their own strata titled property to make changes, through renovation.
While strata titled properties usually have a smaller footprint than a standalone house and are therefore easier to transform, the challenge arises when the alterations begin impacting on others and confusion reigns because the rules governing renovations differ from state to state.
New South Wales
Fair Trading NSW says typically there are three types of renovations for strata homes: cosmetic work, minor renovations and major renovations.
Under NSW law owners can undertake cosmetic work – such as installing hooks, replacing handrails, interior painting, laying carpet or filling minor holes – without approval.
To undertake minor renovations, the likes of which include a kitchen renovation, changing recessed light fittings, installing hard floors, changing internal walls – owners are required to submit any plans of the work, together with approximate time lines and relevant tradesmen details to the strata scheme’s owners corporation (formerly known as the body corporate).
Assuming it does not go against any of the scheme’s by-laws, at least 50% of the owners corporation at a general meeting must vote in favour of the plans before work can commence.
For major renovations, it is a different story. Most major renovations will not only require a special resolution at a general meeting, but in most cases a works by-law will be required as well.
To undertake what is considered major renovations – involving structural changes, waterproofing to the bathroom and/or wet areas, changes affecting the outside appearance of the property such an access ramp, or work that requires council approval – the work usually requires a special resolution vote at a general meeting as well as by-laws.
Bathroom renovations are the most common major renovation and they will always require a by-law in NSW.
The owner must give the owners corporation at least 14 days written notice before the work starts and the owners corporation cannot delegate approval for major renovations to the strata committee.
In the event an owner needs to use part of the common property, such as would be the case if they needed to attach an air conditioning unit to a common property wall, they must get approval through a common property rights by-law.
If for any reason, the owners corporation disapproves of your plans because they believe your paperwork was not complete or your alterations will affect common property or other residents, you can challenge the decision.
This is done through the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT), and it will decide whether the owners corporation is being fair or whether mediation or an appeal is appropriate.
In Victoria, currently there is no set legislation that requires lot owners to seek permission to make improvements to their own lots. But while there is no specific legislation in the Owners Corporation Act, it is possible individual building rules (based on model rules from the Act), may cover internal improvements.
Strata owners in this state are required to notify their owners corporation if the renovations require a building or planning permit.
Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) says the strata lot owner is also required to keep the exterior of their lot in “good and serviceable repair” where its appearance does not affect other lot owners’ use and enjoyment of the property.
If an owner fails to keep the exterior in good condition, an owners corporation can order the owners to carry out repairs. If the requested repairs are not carried out within 28 days, the owners corporation can perform the work without the lot owner’s approval and charge the owner for the cost.
Consumer Affairs Victoria says under the Company Titles (Home Units) Act 2013, residents of company title properties and stratum title subdivisions may apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for a hearing to resolve a neighbourhood dispute.
Neighbourhood disputes, as defined in the Act, include matters such as noise, residents’ conduct as well as unit repairs and ‘maintenance’.
Alternatively, strata owners can also resolve disputes with their owners corporation through the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria. However DSCV can only try to resolve a dispute if all parties agree to take part in this process.
In Queensland, the rules are different again.
Michael Kleinschmidt, a legal practitioner and director of Stratum Legal in Mooloolaba, says in a standard scenario renovations are contained within the boundaries to the lot and any other area of exclusive use.
Kleinschmidt says renovations inside the lot are usually governed by by-laws in the relevant scheme, along with certain basic underlying provisions of the Act (not to damage other people’s lots etc).
It is also possible they may be governed by an architectural and landscaping code (which requires approval by an architectural review committee, typically).
“If renovations also involve an area of common property, typically exclusive use, then a close examination of the relevant exclusive use by-law is required as some by-laws may authorise the work to be done and therefore no body corporate approval (or a lesser form of approval) is required. Otherwise approval may then also be required under the Act and/or Regulation Module,” Kleinschmidt says.
In South Australia it also appears that there are no set legislative requirements demanding lot owners seek approvals to make improvements to their own lots – although, again, this may differ from scheme to scheme depending on their by-laws.
In the event the owners corporation decides you have breached a by-law with your renovation, and you disagree with their assertion, help is available through Community Mediation Services which acts as a neutral third party to help resolve the issue.
In this state there is no government agency to oversee the management of strata titles or to resolve disputes.