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Where to get help when confusion turns to conflict

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As more and more Australians move into apartment blocks, three distinct tribes are beginning to emerge.

There are the young first-timers, who have never owned an apartment or any property before and may be oblivious to the rights and responsibilities apartment ownership entails.

Or they could be renters who’ve lived in share houses or family homes up until now. For first-time owners, years of renting may have coloured their attitudes to committees and strata managers, so they often come in with a glass-half-full attitude.

A sub-set of apartment newbies, down-sizers tend to be a lot older but not necessarily wiser when it comes to apartment living.  When you have been the kings and queens of your own castles for decades, it can be hard to adjust to having other people – most of them strangers – having a say in what you do with property that you own.

And finally we have the old-hands – people who’ve been living in apartments since Moses drafted the first by-laws – but who may be stuck in a rut of strata laws and by-laws that were in place when they moved in but have evolved and adapted over the years in ways that they can’t quite fathom.

These three groups have very different perspectives and, while many apartment residents get it right away, there are plenty of people who labour under misconceptions about what strata living entails.

Add to that, the fact that every state’s strata laws are different, and confusion leading to conflict is almost inevitable.

Thankfully, in most states there are government and social profit organisations that will provide support and advice.

In NSW the first stop for official help is Fair Trading where you’ll find information as well as links to the various forms you’ll need if you want to escalate issues to a formal complaint at the NSW Civil Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). 

Mediation at Fair Trading is a non-binding prerequisite to taking most issues to NCAT, which can and does adjudicate and issue orders and fines.

The Owners Corporation Network (www.ocn.org.au), is the community based advice service for owners and strata committee members and is also very active in advocating at a government level.

And, possibly uniquely in Australia, Marrickville Legal Centre will provide free legal advice, and possibly even representation, for NSW apartment owners who can’t afford to pay lawyers

In Victoria, the official first port of call is Consumer Affairs Victoria, which provides a similar service to Fair Trading in NSW and will, at the very least, direct you to where to take your issue for resolution.

The organisation WeLiveHere – originally set up to combat out-of-control holiday letting in Melbourne apartments – seems to have slipped off the radar but OCN is also active in Victoria.

In Queensland, the strata set-up is different in so many ways but your initial source of advice and assistance would be the office of Body Corporate and Community Management, which, unlike its equivalents in NSW and Vic, will ultimately adjudicate on issues.

The state also as a very active consumer group in the Unit Owners Association of Queensland (www.uoaq.org.au).

Elsewhere in Australia, where the apartment living sector is less developed, the advice, such as it is, tends to be mostly from government agencies.    

In Tasmania, you’ll find information about strata living at the Lands Office website, in South Australia you might start with the Strata Titles pages on its Planning and Property website and in WA you’d head for the Landgate strata web pages.

In NT you’ll find advice on the government’s “homeowners and landlords” section of its property website.

For general strata advice online, in NSW the ever-reliable Strataman website has mined the state’s legislation for practical advice and Lookupstrata provides answers from strata professionals to questions from all over Australia.

Its content is wide-ranging, both geographically and in terms of topics, although it must be said that the professional constraints on strata managers and lawyers can lead to the prose being a little, well, prosaic.

Strataanswers, sponsors of this website, is a service run by a qualified strata manager and a former strata chair to offer practical advice and support (for a relatively modest fee). They are also heavily involved in City of Sydney’s strata education program.

And, of course there’s our own Flat Chat website with our lively forum.

When it comes to seeking advice, I have left tenants to last because wherever you are in Australia, if you log on to www.tenants.org.au, you will be taken to your state Tenants Union website.  The best of these contain a huge number of invaluable fact sheets of practical information.

If you are a landlord, especially if you are in a dispute with your tenants, you would do well to visit your local Tenants Union site.  That’s where you will get a more accurate picture of their rights than you might receive from your rental agent, for instance.

Finally, if you get to the point where you need legal advice, look for an experienced strata lawyer – your loyal family solicitor probably won’t know all the ins and outs of strata law.

Have a look at the ads on the top of the Forum page for two strata lawyers who are sponsors because we rate them highly (rather than the other way round).

An edited version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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