Janine Starks offers a word of caution for red-zone residents and explains the importance of getting personalised professional advice.

By Janine Starks*

Janine, We are in the earthquake red zone and must abandon our home. We have a very low GV of $215,000, compared to our purchase price of $240,000. Our mortgage is $205,000, on a floating interest rate of 5.6 percent. If we accept the government offer, there won’t be much left over for a deposit on a new house. We are thinking of taking a mortgage holiday and putting our monthly payment of $2,200 into a savings account to build a bigger deposit, but most financial websites say mortgage holidays are a last resort. Should we do it? -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Red Zoners should weigh up their options Let’s back-up the horse a bit. Before we get into the perils of mortgage holidays, we need to turn this problem back to the issue of “accepting the government offer”.

As a rule of thumb, do not assume that you must accept. You should begin by viewing the government as a ‘buyer of last resort’; purely a backstop. When you have exhausted the insurance option, turn to the government. Right now, the most well spent dollars will be on a lawyer. There are many people in the red-zone who are jumping to the conclusion that they must take the government offer, because their home is repairable and their insurer will not pay out its full replacement value.

To my mind, insurers could be on shaky ground and the pedestals they’re currently sitting on could be given a wobble by a good lawyer. They are saying it’s not their fault the damaged land can’t be built on, so they are not responsible for replacing a house which could be repaired. The end result is that all homeowners are not being treated equally.

Email questions to starkadvice@gmail.com, subject line: Financial Agony Aunt. Anonymity is guaranteed

On one hand they are all being punished equally; they are being asked to leave their homes and land in the red-zone. But they are not being equally compensated. Based on no more than the spin of a wheel, some are able to claim full replacement from their insurers if the home is badly damaged and others will have to take some spurious 2007 ratable value from the government, leaving them wondering what the point of paying premiums for replacement cover was.

Red-zone blind spots

Challenge your insurer in the red-zone Those in the red-zone with houses which can be repaired need to consider challenging their insurer via negotiation or legally. One example would be where the repairs require building consent. While the repairs could physically take place, they legally can’t, as the council won’t give consent where the land is damaged.

The insurer may argue that this is the council’s decision and it can’t be held responsible. But, given the council’s actions are directly linked to the earthquake, insurers might find themselves in the midst of some sticky legal liquefaction. If they don’t want to see this tested in court, they may well capitulate before it gets that far.

The objective for homeowners is to argue that the repairs cannot legally be carried out; therefore the house must be fully replaced. There are a number of scenarios where I sit and ponder what the outcome would be if it was properly challenged. I’ve seen one insurance-appointed engineer’s report that gives quite a remarkable repair solution. They say they can pump up one half of the house to level it up and demolish the other half, joining new and old foundations in the middle.

But in May, new building regulations were introduced, changing the rules around foundations. It seems implausible that the council would allow an insurer to cobble together a pumped-up old foundation, with a new compliant foundation. Before the engineering fraternity cries foul and fills my inbox with letters claiming that this is perfectly acceptable, I must of course concede that I’m a mere layman in these matters.

The point I’m trying to make is that an insurer can pay an expert to concoct a complex repair solution for a house in the red-zone, in the knowledge that their bluff can’t be called. Given the repair can only take place on paper, the homeowner will never know if something complex or impractical would have been carried out in reality, given the risk of cost over-runs, or changes to the building code.

Should damaged land trigger a full replacement claim?

It seems obvious that insurers might be more incentivised than usual to find repair solutions for houses in the red-zone. By doing so, they avoid full payouts and simply direct homeowners down the path of the government’s ratable value offer. It leaves taxpayers wearing the difference between the ratable and paper-repair values.

Both the government and insurers have side-stepped the expensive replacement-value-elephant sitting at the front door and homeowners don’t get what they paid for; the ability to build a new house. You could almost be forgiven for thinking the insurance industry designed this package themselves. It seems a little bit too cute. It would have been more helpful if the government had tested the insurers through the courts, to determine if damaged land triggered full replacement payments on homes.

I’m sure behind the scenes this was discussed with the industry at length. It would have saved a great deal of money and angst, as we are now in the situation where individuals must mount private challenges.

Fighting for replacement value

For a good number of people, replacement value will be worth fighting for. As an example on my own home, the difference between replacement value and ratable value is a six figure number. You’ll only figure out the size of your own gap by paying a quant-surveyor to do the maths.

While there are always exceptions and different policy wordings, insurers could have a fight on their hands when customers wise-up to the financial difference. Many policies provide for architects, engineering, surveys, and council consent fees.

I’ve just written a cheque for $4,750 for council consent fees alone. We are not even out of the ground yet and the professional costs have exceeded $60,000. Is it any wonder insurers prefer to repair houses?

Mortgage repayment holiday

You are in a situation where you will only have $10,000 equity left in your home if you accept the government offer. While this is a small deposit, you should find that your bank is flexible on the deposit size of a new home. You will have proven to be a reliable payer of your mortgage in the past and they will take this into account. Mortgage holidays are not mortgage ‘gifts’. While you pay nothing for 3 or 6 months, the interest still gets added.

A holiday is only going to erode the $10,000 equity you have. Given this is a slim margin, your bank will exercise caution in approving it. A mortgage holiday could turn out to be a pointless exercise in your situation, but there are other options to consider such as extending the term of your mortgage or paying interest-only for a period of time. You need to sit down with your bank or mortgage broker and look at what is on offer for red-zone customers.

To their credit, the banks have stepped up to help. Westpac are offering a 2.59 percent discount on their floating rate, reducing it to 3.65 percent. BNZ are giving a 2 percent discount on the floating rate and paying 2 percent more on your savings account. As an example, increasing your mortgage out to 25 years, at 3.65 percent, will reduce your repayments to $1043 per month.

You must take personalised mortgage advice and legal advice to get the right solution.

 

*Janine Starks is Co-Managing Director of Liontamer Investments. Opinions in this column represent her personal views and are not made on behalf of Liontamer. These opinions are general in nature and are not a recommendation, opinion or guidance to any individuals in relation to acquiring or disposing of a financial product. Readers should not rely on these opinions and should always seek specific independent financial advice appropriate to their own individual circumstances.

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8 Comments

Watch those home loan teaser rates. They won't last forever, or as long as many need, and certainly not as long as many hope.

As far as I can see, with no new insurance policies being written in CHCH, the most popular solution is to take the money and leave.

This is probably one of the saddest stories you are likely to read about the ChCh EQs, I nearly wept at certain points:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/columnists/joe-bennett/5496533/A-warning-to-authorities-about-that-red-sticker

Have a good weekend all, Les.

...... I wept the whole way through , not just at certain points ..... Gummy tears rolled onto my pink powder-puff ( 100% organza ) tutu , down my sheer silk stockings , and into my better Bata Gummy Boots ...

Bless you , Sir Les  , for sharing that wee treat with us !

 "... I was to be picked off by a transvestite Bulgarian sniper employed by the Vatican." - meant it was going to be a little different to most of the sad eq stories one hears. Ha.

Cheers, Les.  

I can imagine those distinctive CERA jackets (as modelled by Brownlee) quickly becoming unfashionable.

This fiasco is all an absolute disgrace.

National have become lunatic dictators who have no idea what they are doing.

Firstly they nearly as good as murdered (or at the very least carelessly caused the deaths of) about 150 odd of those who died on that February day through their own malfesance and incompetance.  Then they have tormented many tens of thousands more by their usurpation of the very rights that they so ardently purport to defend.

The unspeakable inequality that has been thrust upon innocent victims of this event defies comprehension.

The nonsensical vairance in Government Valuations have made them unusable by real estate professionals for years for all but the vaguest approximations of value.  It is no surprise residents in Avonside and Avondale are not complaining too much about the Governement's offer, in many cases their valuations were $100,000 above market value.  Then consider those in other areas like Bexley where valuations sat perhaps a third below the market value, how can any equity be seen in such an arbitrary measure.

Furthermore these were the very people that were, in general, insured for their market value either through EQC or via their private insurers.  There is no loss to the Government by sorting this matter out properly.  The Government is really only exposed to costs on the repairable houses, but EQC will pay the cost of relocating these under the act up to $115,000 (which for those who have never relocated a building before, would cover the cost of reinstating all but the very largest of houses - 95% would be shiftable at that price).  But even if they weren't shiftable, over 50% have the market value of improvements below the $115k covered by EQC anyway.

The real issue is that the Government was poorly advised to make the GV offer and are now stuck defending the indefensible.  This is much like the arbitrary redzone itself.  Read the outrageously (and erroneously) defensive article by Brownlee in today's Press:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/perspective/5510547/Red-zone-of...

But more importantly the murderous malfeasance that John Key's Government embarked on after September 4 should have sunk any Government, but the total closure of ranks by engineers and officials has stymied any real exposure of the truth.

On top of this the total lack of understanding of the real construction issues that caused so many deaths are being ignored.

The CTV building collapsed for one real reason only - inadequate design.  Why was it inadequate:

Firstly the only lateral support was provided by the column/slab junctions and by the connection with the lift shaft.  The column slab junctions are not ductile so preweakened during September 4 they provide no lateral support.  The building (essentially a cube of vertical columns and horizontal slabs attached to a lift shaft on the north side side) was essentially free to oscillate around the shaft with what would have been considerable displacement from the vertical on the upper floors.  Initally the structure moved elastically but once connections failed failure was imminent.

So considering many buildings had this construction why didn't others fail?

The second and most important reason why the CTV building failed was resonance.

The area around Madras/Cashel (like much of the CBD) is silts (known as the Springston Formation) overlain dense gravels (known as the Riccarton gravels).  The depth of the silts in this location is around 20m.  Typically in soft soils vibrational waves move at around 40m/s.  The typical period of natural frequency in a 6 level building of the CTV building's style of construction is 0.5 seconds.

Anyone who did high school Physics will know that is a recipe for disaster.  (Indeed I remember a 7th Form Physics exam question on exactly this, based on the 1985 Mexico City earthquake in which buildings of up to about 15 storeys resonated with the silt that they were built on over the dried bed of Lake Texcoco). [For those who didn't do 5th Form Physics velocity=frequency x wavelength, and period = 1/frequency, hence a standing wave (resonance) in the soil will occur with a period of T=wavelength/velocity=(20m)/(40m/s)=0.5s which unfortunately is the same as for a structure the height of the CTV building and is also unfortunately about the same as the CTV building's horizontal dimensions so there was possibly resonance in all three dimensions.

For those who don't know about resonance (ie you've never shaken a glass of water at different speeds) here is the most famous example - the Tacoma Narrows bridge:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-zczJXSxnw

Of course it's a similar storey for the 6 level PGC building, which rotated around it's central lift shaft/stairway core. 

Distressingly it was the same for the 5 level Harcourts Grenadier building which collapsed on June 13.  However despite the evidence from the other two collapses, engineers told staff who were clearing equipment from the building before demolition that the safest part of the building was the rear of the structure (away from the lift shaft).  The rear of the building pancaked on June 13, however the lift shaft remained intact much like CTV.

How engineers again got the risk assessments so wrong defies belief.

More importantly, the complete disregard for safety and lack of engineering and construction knowledge that EQC staff displayed before February 22 is astounding.  We had badly damaged brick structures with diagonal cracking that EQC claimed was repairable or undamaged and currently safe.

Indeed there was much raucous by officials that claimants were exaggerating the extent of damage.

Furthermore buildings which were structurally compromised in September were allowed to be used in their perilous state.

I have photos of the corner of Mollett and Colombo Sts taken after September where the building lost it's end wall.  Without any more than rudimentary repairs, the facade was left balancing above Colombo St awnings unsupported from the side.  It collapsed on February 22 and four people were killed in that location.

Wave House in Gloucester St was damaged on Boxing Day with stone and bricks falling to the ground, no real repairs were done yet the 3 level brick building was uncordoned and cars and pedestrians were allowed to pass immediately below it.  1 person was killed in February.

Enough said, Brownlee's article in the paper riled me up this morning.

Why does the electorate not send a message, that it's just not been good enough.

Now don't get me started on insurance....

and on the fact that the CCC want to promote 6 level roughly cube dimensioned buildings in their new city plan...

Thanks Chris.

The 6 level height limit on the new city plan does seem to reflect CCC's level of competence - there is no way I would be prepared to work long term in such an area.