x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Oman's rogue builders rankle with homeowners

With unfit structures being built at an alarming rate, the ministry of commerce suggests that it could establish a construction watchdog.

MUSCAT // Oman's homeowners and construction industry experts have urged the government to tackle rogue builders by passing laws to terminate the business licences of those found guilty of poor or unsafe work.

With the prices of building materials soaring and tougher rules imposed on the recruitment of cheap construction workers, some builders are now cutting corners and handing over substandard homes, one surveyor said. John Pereira, a quantity surveyor at Al Hashmi Architectural and Consultancy Company, said: "They try to save money as the price of building material such as steel go up and the clampdown on cheap illegal construction workers squeezes their profits. The end result is that homeowners get houses that do not conform to specifications."

In the past few years, Oman has been going through a boom in construction. Towns have grown in size and new villas have sprung up to create neighbourhoods of perfectly lined streets, thanks to subsidised mortgages and free plots of land distributed by the government. For Abdallah al Obaidani, a 36-year-old telecommunications engineer, the chance of having his own home built to his specifications was a dream come true.

But three months after his builder handed over the villa in Muscat last December, thin cracks started appearing on the walls. Mr Obaidani said the windows rattled if a heavy vehicle drove along the street opposite his new house. He called for the government to ban unscrupulous builders from doing business. "The government must take a firm stand about it. Builders must be crossed out completely and never allowed to practise again if found guilty for handing over poorly finished properties," Mr Obaidani said.

The builder of Mr Obaidani's home, Al-Juhais Building Contractors, blamed the soft soil on which the villa was built and the location of the site. "The foundations needed more concrete and steel but some owners are reluctant to spend more money. Also, his site is on the main road to a major government development and heavy vehicles passing his house cause vibrations," Nasser al Juhais, the proprietor of the company, said.

Fazel Rahman, an architect with Al Hashmi, said many builders opt for cheaper material not specified in the original plan. "For example, they use less cement but too much sand, don't use anti-rust steel, inferior blocks and illegal workers who have no experience in construction, just to get the cost down," he said. According to suppliers, global demand has meant the price of steel has soared to 620 Omani rials (Dh5,900) per ton in 2009, compared to just 250 rials per ton in 2008. A 50kg sack of cement cost 3.2 rials in 2009 up from 1.4 rials per bag a year earlier.

Baljit Singh, general manager of Rowan Construction Material Co, said: "We import 90 per cent of the building materials and the prices have been going up like crazy. Builders have been complaining because their bills with us have more than doubled recently." There are no statistics of how many illegal workers are in Oman. The government started rounding them up last August and more than 75,000 returned to their homelands since then.

"Most of these illegal workers know nothing about building houses. They don't even have papers to prove what they say they are. In most private villa constructions, they just stack one block after another guided by one experienced foreman," Mr Rahman said. Jaffar al Fairuz said his six-floor commercial property has developed serious problems just 18 months after handover. "An independent civil engineer last year said my property has a faulty foundation and it needed immediate repair or the whole thing will collapse like a pack of cards," Mr Fairuz said.

He successfully sued his builders, whose name cannot be disclosed for legal reasons. The court ruled that the builders had to repair the faults, but Mr Fairuz was not compensated for the loss of rental income while the repairs were done. A ministry of commerce official said that the department was considering establishing a construction watchdog to keep an eye on builders. Masood al Bimani, the head of building permit conformity in the ministry, said: "We have had many complaints about disputes between builders and owners. One of the considerations we are looking into is to establish an independent regulator to make sure such builders get their licences revoked."

Mr Pereira agreed with the establishment of a construction watchdog, saying that it was difficult for the government to crack down on rogue builders with the present system that oversees the construction industry. @Email:salshaibany@thenational.ae