General Meeting

21 August 2007

MINUTES

 

Chair:                                           Marian Stokes

Minutes                                         Sheila Vango

Guest Speaker                                Hasan Sungur, President, Estate Agents Association / Complaints Committee

The meeting was opened at 4.00pm by Marian Stokes, who thanked everyone for coming at such short notice at this odd hour of the day. There are people present today who have been to every meeting since the group was formed and it is wonderful to see them still supporting the group’s aims. The aims of the group were simple; to get people to lobby the government and to get them to act on our complaints and in doing so, ensure that buying property here became a safe, enjoyable experience.

This meeting today is a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedicated lobbying by lots of people, sometimes we got it right and made great strides and sometimes we got it wrong.

First and most importantly, on behalf of all foreign buyers, I would like to thank the Prime Minister, Ferdi Sabit Soyer and his staff, who took time out of busy schedules to meet and listen to us, which resulted in the opening of the Prime Ministry’s Property Complaints Office (PCO) – an initiative that is not available to foreign buyers in any other country.  All past and future TRNC property buyers are very fortunate to have such a positive commitment to ensure that their investment is safe.

We were also lucky enough to have the support of some wonderful people: 

·         All the TRNC English language newspapers, especially Cyprus Today for accurate and consistent reporting on all our issues.

·         The Presidents Office and his staff

·         The Interior Ministry, especially the Permission to Purchase office staff.

·         The Construction Contractors Union

·         The Chamber of Architects and Engineers

·         City Planning Department

·         The TRNC Consumers Association

·         The TRNC Human Rights Association

·         KibTek (Electric Authority)

I would like to talk about one of our less successful actions – the list of builders that was published on our website. This list tarred everyone on it with the same brush, without giving details of ‘crimes’ and in so doing it did injustice to some of those named.  We have always prided ourselves in providing factual information to current and potential buyers.  However, by publishing names of builders prior to a proper investigation being carried out, was an error and we apologise to all companies which were listed.  It was never our intention to harm any company, individual or the TRNC economy.

I am here today to tell you that this will be the last meeting of the HBPG, in its present form. The newly created PCO should be your first point of contact for any property problems. The original aim of the group has been fulfilled and I for one will be glad to get back to the original reason for me coming here – to enjoy this lovely island. The group is not disbanded, but hopefully no longer required as a protest group; please watch the press for any forthcoming meetings.

The newly formed PCO has made an impressive start, Hasan Sungar will tell you about this later. But from my side I must say that all reports I am getting is that Tuğçe Volkan is doing a tremendous job. She is easy to talk to, takes her job seriously and behaves in a thoroughly professional manner. Appointments are kept and additional information requested by e-mail or by phone, if needed. Remember to complete an application form before going to the office – if you cannot complete it all, fill out what information you can – the important thing is USE THE OFFICE

Let me say this again – it has taken a lot of hard work by all parties involved to get this important initiative (PCO) off the ground - Use it or lose it. If you continue to moan to your friends instead of the office – nothing will change and nobody will listen to you. This is the best opportunity we will ever have to help this country become a place where people will be proud to own a home and solve our own problems at the same time.

Guest Speaker

I hoped to have three guest speakers for you today, but things have changed during the day.

We still have Hasan Sungar, who is the President of the Estate Agents Union and is involved with the committee who are investigating the complaints lodged with the POC and will talk to us about that.  Hasan is joined today by other members of the executive board of the estate agents union and we are very grateful for their attendance.

Cafer Gürcafer, who is the President of the Construction Union hoped to be with us, but must have been detained at another meeting.

I had also hoped that Mustafa Inan who is the President of Baro (law Society) would be here today to tell us of the progress his office is making concerning complaints about solicitors but I think something got lost in our request and he is not coming.

However, we do have a replacement speaker whom I will introduce when Mr Sungar has finished.

Mr Hasan Sungar

Thank you for inviting me here today.

2007 has been a year of change for me as President of the Estate Agents Association as five months ago we became a legal entity; we now have teeth and will set industry standards which our members will have to adhere to. There are still some points in the new Estate Agency Law (EAL) that need to be ironed out, but on the whole we embrace the law. I have also been invited to be part of the Prime Ministers Committee that has been set up to investigate the complaints received by the newly formed PCO. I am here to tell you today that a total of 43 complaints have been received in the six weeks since the office opened, 33 of these have been subjected to investigation and solutions for 8 of those are very close. The 10 that we received last week have yet to be investigated. So far, our investigations have proved that all the claims have been valid.

I must admit that when I first saw the HBPG site and the list of ‘shamed’ builders I was very upset and annoyed, but once I met Marian and listened to what she had to say and came to see that she was dedicated to finding solutions and loved the TRNC, I came to understand better that it was a list born out of frustration. This does not make that action right, it is wrong to act as both jury and judge, especially when ones wrongdoing is not stated. The right way to have your voice heard is to report your complaint to the PCO; we are taking our responsibilities as investigating officers very seriously and will let you know of progress as events unfold. As we are just starting this process we are following a number of processes and applying them in every case. We are looking to see if contracts are stamped, that the project has been approved and adhered to, we are inviting the builder/estate agent into our offices to ascertain their side of the story; we are actively looking for solutions and bringing pressure to bear on the offender to rectify his/her mistakes to the satisfaction of the customer. Please remember that this process is new to us and progress might be slower than you would like, but we are actively working on them all.

On the subject of lawyers, it is evident from reading the files that there are some black sheep lawyers out there and many of you have lost faith in our legal system. Again – the PCO should be your first point of call when you have a complaint, if we cannot solve it, then the legal route may be the only avenue open to you. We have been giving some thought to listing lawyers whom we believe to be independent of the construction agency and hopefully I can let Marian know about this shortly. Within the next month I will give Marian e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of other associations you can turn to for help. For instance I see a lot of the reports in the files are not from people whose reports would be acceptable in a court case, it is important you only employ the services of someone whose word will be heard and not questioned.

There is one point I would like to make, it is about the differences in our cultures. You can fall out with your builder or estate agent, you may even punch him, but once you start calling his honour into question – all helpful dialogue dies. If you are reaching the point where you are falling into insults – stop – contact the PCO – we will investigate your complaint and suggest a solution. As we progress with these actions, I am sure many of these situations will be avoided as people become better at customer relations or when the word spreads that these practices will no longer be tolerated.

The Prime Minister is dedicated to finding a way forward to make things better for the customers, who are yet to come, by learning from the mistakes made with the customers we have and solving those problems so all we have are satisfied customers. However it does no good to just come down heavy handed on the builders/estate agents, there is nothing to be gained by forcing them into bankruptcy, and we hope to find solutions acceptable to both sides.

Thank you for listening.

Marian then took the floor again; she asked that we hold our questions for Hasan as our other guest speaker was due at another meeting in an hour. She then went on to invite Mr Ali Safa to take the floor. She stated that she had the opportunity to invite Mr Safi here this afternoon following on from a meeting she had with him regarding the articles that had appeared in his paper the Kibris Star. The articles related to the ‘shamed’ builders list, of which Mr Safi’s firm was one of the named 40.

Ali Safa

First let me thank Marian for inviting me here today to voice my concerns on the matter of the shameful 40 – especially as I am named as one of those rogue builders! As I have said in my paper, it is not right for anyone to act as Judge and Jury and it is certainly not nice to be on that list which does not state your crime – but hangs you anyway. This is not the way to solve problems, why should I talk to anyone who damns me out of hand without giving me the courtesy of knowing what I have done or even asking me if it is accurate.

What I find upon talking to Marian is that we are similar people, she is a very courageous, principled person who has impressed me with her sincerity and I accept that she was ill advised to publish such a document. We are agreed that this was not the way to find a solution and that everyone deserves the chance to defend themselves. Since finding out about the list and the nature of the complaint against me, I have carried out my own investigation and it transpires that I am the innocent party. I have received a public apology from the person making the erroneous claim and between us we will pursue the guilty party. I can appreciate that getting to the truth can be hard for a foreigner and sometimes things get muddled in translation, but if I had been approached in the first place the solution would have been found and my good name would not be besmirched.

I am a very vocal man and have stood up on many occasions and pointed out what needs to be done to protect the construction industry as a whole. I was very aware that bad publicity about any one of us would damage the industry as a whole, so of course I was very angry when the actions of some members of the industry impacted my business and I ended up being banded together with the rogues. If I was buying in the TRNC and saw that list I would not buy from anyone on it!

So I too, applaud the opening of the PCO and the work they have started to do. I saw, some three years ago, the construction industry as a whole was heading into trouble and I wrote a report to the government on this very subject. I deplore the fact that some people have been defrauded, that some buildings have been constructed poorly and the perception of the TRNC property market has suffered as a result, but I could see that it could happen. I have voiced my concerns at high level meetings and asked that precautions be taken, so although this action may be late in coming it is here and it is fair to both sides.

My paper is an independent publication, wrongdoing must be highlighted – even when the wrongdoing is done by those who have been wronged against – two wrongs do not make a right. However, as I have said, I do not doubt Marian’s commitment and principles and I accept she was ill advised and applaud her tenacity in succeeding in her aim to be listened to and in succeeding in getting an office opened to deal with legitimate property complaints.

I too hate to see people cheated and it was to this end I had hoped to help all those caught up in the nightmare that is Aga Developments. I simply asked for transparency and the 100% support of Aga customers and the government of the TRNC. However, the Aga Developments problem is fraught with injunctions, and lots of groups all pulling in different directions, with different agendas. I was unable to help. 

Finally, let me finish today by once again congratulating Marian on the courage of her convictions and fighting this cause because she believed it to be right. As I say we are alike as I have the courage to come here today and defend myself against the claim that I am a rogue builder, which you as a group labelled me. I am glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight by talking to you today, to be able to tell you how cross your actions made me and for Marian accepting that the publishing of that list on the website was wrong.

My basic views have not changed; I will always stand up for those who have been wronged. I am a busy businessman and my time is limited, but if I can help anyone at all who has been wronged, I would like to do so. Thank you for listening.

Marian thanked Ali Safa for talking to us today and opened the floor to questions.

Q:      Some time ago we were told that site inspectors would be visiting building sites, has this started?

HS:     In 2003 there were 63 registered building companies in the TRNC, now there are 900+. The site inspectors are being trained, vehicles have been purchased and staff recruited. Inspections will be started very shortly.

Q:      Mr Safa, do you think you will get involved in finding a solution for Aga in the future?

AS:     There is an English saying – Once bitten, Twice Shy – and I think that applies here. As time passes finding a solution becomes more difficult as paper trails go cold and people split into different groups with different aims. For a solution to work you must have 100% co-operation from all the people involved and I was not finding that. I looked at the problem as I knew how much it was damaging the reputation of the TRNC property industry, I did not want to make lots of profit, I just wanted to find a solution for all those people who have been wronged. I did not succeed, but I understand an offer is on the table and the matter may be resolved soon.

Q:      Mr Safa, I take on board that the publishing of the shamed builders list was offensive to you and accept that it might not have been the right way to go around things. However, when you drew up your report for the government about the construction industry, did you make any reference to how vulnerable we as foreign investors are? It appears that we have no rights here at all, that we are not protected or seem to have no recourse in law for shoddy builds, fraudsters or the lack of advice from lawyers. What choice did we have but to make lots of noise and grab attention where we could?

AS:     I agree that our laws do not offer much protection – for either of us. The 1960’s laws were good for that period, but they should have been updated to offer us all the protection that laws do currently in the UK. Maybe new laws will become more robust thanks to the work being done by the PCO, I hope so and the new EAL is a good start.

At this point Mr Safa had to leave for a scheduled appointment, he was warmly applauded by the HBPG members as he took his leave of us.

Q:      We were told that if your complaint is already the subject of a court case that the PCO cannot interfere, however should the problem still be reported to you?

HS:     Yes it should. We can still carry out investigations that will not form part of the court hearings and it shows a pattern of behaviour that we may have the opportunity to amend. Any investigation that we carry out may add to the strength of your claim as what you say is proved to be correct and your lawyer can use this in the court.

Q:      Many of the problems which were reported to the group in the first place may now have been solved. In many instances these may have been solved to the disadvantage of the buyer, for example deeds may pass to the buyer, once the buyer has paid the builders tax. Can you still report it?

HS:     Yes please do, if you have been coerced into coming to a solution, by paying more than you should, by forgetting penalty payments or simply by threat of not getting your deeds unless “……….….”, then let us know. We cannot change processes unless we know where the abuses of the process take place. People who abuse this system in this way tend to do it to everyone so a pattern of misbehaviour will soon become clear.         

I would appeal to you all, if your builder is not playing fair, to report the matter to the PCO first. If a solution can be found without resorting to a lawyer, then that is all well and good. If the only solution is litigation then the matter would have been investigated thoroughly and you will know your chances of success in court. We will have checked that the builder has done everything he should, paid his taxes, applied for all the relevant permissions and completed the project. Anyone found lacking in these matters will be dealt with. Any builder/estate agent who wants to continue in business will have to satisfy us as the Estate Agents Association, as we will not sell houses from bad builders or have estate agents who do not meet our standards. We are very serious in this matter.

Q:      Can you explain what this contract tax is please?

HS:     Yes, within 21 days of a contract being signed you should pay 0.5% of the contract price to the tax office. The contract is then lodged with the land registry office.  It is the builder’s responsibility that it is done. If you pay it late, then you incur a penalty – between 21 days and 3 months it is 1% of contract price and after six months it is 1.5%. 

Q:      Can I register my contract after 21 days by paying the tax

HS:     It becomes a legal document if you pay the tax on it, so yes. 

Q:      If you have a complaint about an estate agent, should you go to the EA Association or the PCO? 

HS:     Both – so it is filed and investigated. 

Q:      What can be done if the company you are complaining about has absconded or gone bankrupt? 

HS:     We can do a lot. We will investigate all his business dealings and if we find properties or land that has not been sold or developed we can then use the profit from selling these to sort your complaints or finish your builds. You must report these things to us with any other things that you know about the company concerned – like other assets. 

Q:      We talked earlier about AGA developments, but there are a lot of smaller Aga sites that seem to get overlooked. I am at H Omer site at Çatalköy, it is mostly finished, but I have been living there for 18 months without electric and water. I am trying to get everyone to get together and complain, but it is hard work. Do you want a joint complaint or can I put my own in? 

HS:     Put your own in, if the others join in then that is good as it adds weight to your complaint. However, if a solution can be found for you, then hopefully that solution is acceptable to everyone, maybe Mr Safa would be interested in dealing with a small scale solution like this, who knows.

At this point there were no more questions and the meeting drew to a close at 6.45pm. Marian thanked Hasan Sungar and reiterated for the last time – Use it or loose it. If in doubt, register your query or complaint – if it is not valid you will soon be told!

Details of the next meeting will be published on the website and in the press. Maybe the first item on the agenda will be a name change – HBSG – Home Buyers Solution Group!