Houses aren’t the only type of investment property; in fact, when it comes to secondary real estate, individual apartments are the most common investment purchases, and are usually rented as a source of income. Apartments, or units, can indeed be renovated, but there are many more rules and regulations that come into play with shared property.
‘Strata title’ is a type of ownership of multilevel apartment block buildings, and properties under a strata title are governed by what is known as a ‘body corporate’ or ‘ownership corporation’. This is an organisational group formed by the owners of a shared piece of land and works as a committee to make management decisions regarding physical property and communal living issues. There are by-laws in place that specifically state what a body corporate can and cannot decide or do, but essentially the presence of a body corporate means than even an apartment owner is not free to make individual decisions but must go through the official processes.
Before you purchase
If you’re looking to purchase an apartment as an investment, there are a few things you should watch out for in potential properties before you buy.
Choose a unit that already has important sustainable features such as smooth plumbing and thermal features, which can be tricky to implement after purchase. Check for the property’s Green Building Council rating, which will give you a good indication of how sustainable the apartment is.
If possible, make the opportunity to meet with the body corporate of the building to gain an understanding of their general openness to ‘improvements’. Don’t purchase a property held under a conservative body corporate who are likely to delay or oppose your renovation ideas; instead aim for a development with a progressive body corporate focused on sustainability and growth.
If you have a notion of the minor changes you would like to make, run your ideas past the body corporate and gauge their reaction. Obtaining pre-approval in writing will make the process much quicker after purchase. Also, check that the property has had all the official approvals for past renovations.
In addition to these legal recommendations, other design features you’ll want to look out for in units are appropriate window glazing and maximisation of natural daylight, cross-ventilation, acoustic separation, and individual water tanks.
Reno Rule #5 Know the rules before you buy
Body corporate approval
Approval from the body corporate is the most common permission required when undergoing a unit renovation. Though an exhaustive process, seeking approval from the body corporate/community association is in everyone’s best interest. Not only does it give other owners a say in what is essentially a shared investment, but it also provides you with the opportunity to learn more about the structural elements of the property that can
save money on damage repairs. For example, when making structural alterations to an apartment you could interfere with the plumbing or electrical network of the entire unit block, or accidentally remove a load-bearing wall which is architecturally vital to the stability and safety of the building.
Body corporate approval is relatively simple to obtain with a written request to the committee outlining your renovation proposal and requesting permissions. They may request further clarification or documentation, or you may have to make some adjustments to your original plan, but going through the motions is worth it in order to have a pre-approved renovation policy. Sometimes a bond may be required to cover the cost of any damage to the common property areas.
So, what happens if you just … don’t? The body corporate is entitled to enforce any specific by-laws, which means that if any aspects of the renovation you’ve undertaken were not approved, they can ask you to undo those changes, and if you refuse they are entitled to take legal action against you. When purchasing a rental property, be sure to check for proof of approval of any prior alterations that may have been undertaken. You can also request retrospective approval, which is just as valuable but more difficult to obtain.
The most common unit renovations that require body corporate approval are knocking down internal walls, changing the floor covering, and any changes that can be seen from another unit or part of the common property.
Statutory approvals are more official requirements sourced externally to the building management. Examples of statutory approvals are a certificate of development consent/compliance, a construction certificate,
an occupation certificate (from either the council or a private certifier), and, if necessary, plumbing approvals from a water services coordinator. The exact statutory approvals you will require will vary depending on the renovations that you choose/request to undertake.
Notification needs to be provided to the original architect of the building, to give them official notice that their original design is going to be changed or modified. In some situations there is the possibility that the architect’s ‘moral rights’ (under the Copyright Act 1968) could be infringed upon. Here is where the architect has the opportunity to bring to attention any major design flaws that the renovator has not yet realised or considered. For example, the renovator might have planned to knock out a single wall, only the find that the wall was a load-bearer that maintains the structural integrity of the entire complex. With enough research this is the kind of information that should be available to you, but quite often it may not become apparent until work on the project has already begun. Regardless, the architect legally requires notification of any alterations to their design.
Community association and building management committee approvals
These are more likely to be required if there are plans to do work that will be visible on the outside, and that will have a visual impact on any other properties or public space in the area. The types of renovation that most typically require these kinds of approvals are work on the roofing, balconies and windows.
Even after intricate planning, purchasing an apartment property and considering all the by-laws and approvals, there are still other concerns associated with doing renovations that you need to plan for.
The main thing to consider is that renovations are loud, and that can be a serious detriment to your neighbours. Even with the standard use of noise-isolating materials in the walls and floors of apartment buildings, a power drill to the wall is still going to be loud enough to be a nuisance to those living around you. When possible, try to organise a renovation plan that allows you to map out when the noisiest construction days are going to be, and try to clear those days with your immediate neighbours. Unless it’s a small block, you won’t be able to accommodate everyone in the building, but take into particular consideration your neighbours on either side, across the corridor, and above and below your unit space. Try to arrange a schedule that they are aware of, which gives them time to prepare and avoid any individual sources of conflict. If your floors are made of timber or tiles, those materials amplify noise from within to anyone externally, so be aware that your renovation will be particularly noisy and the apartment will remain so after the renovation is complete (unless you’ve decided to lay down carpets or another type of flooring).
Doing a renovation is also a very messy affair, which generates rubbish and dust every day. You’ll want to be aware of whether any of your neighbours are particularly allergic to dust so you can allow them to prepare for the process and take any precautionary measures. Not only will there be steadily increasing debris but there will also be building materials lying hap hazardously around the place, quite often in the realm of common property that is shared by all the unit owners in the building. This makes the property a hazardous place to be; something to be particularly aware of if there are children in the vicinity. Request that your tradesmen keep their mess localised to your unit, and ensure that all the other apartment owners and/or tenants are aware of the potential risks caused by your renovation.
On that note, as workmen will be let loose on your apartment, and by extension the entire building, make
sure you’ve chosen your tradesmen wisely, checked their references, and ensured they are legitimate, professional, and have insurance cover.
Given the small space, there will likely only be a couple of tradies at a time working on your unit renovation, so try to get to know them and build trust. If the opportunity arises, introduce them to your neighbours so that your neighbours don’t need to feel uncomfortable or intimidated by the idea of people they don’t know in what is essentially also their own home. At the same time, it makes your tradesmen feel less like intruders and more like welcome guests.
Just ensure that they don’t become too welcome and still stick to the work plan that you organised so that your neighbours are aware.
So, what are the best potential renovations to do on a unit investment property? After completion of most unit renovations, the property is held and rented out to a third party – or sold and then rented out by the new owners – so it’s important to keep in mind throughout the process that your renovations should suit a tenant’s requirements.
Provided you go through the proper avenues to gain your approvals and everything is confirmed, you will mostly have free rein in terms of the improvements you’d like to make to the property. Any restrictions that apply will be specific to each individual case as assessed through the process of obtaining approvals, but as a general rule try to steer clear of major structural interference by planning a renovation that is more cosmetic.
In order to make a smaller apartment space appear more spacious, keep the colour scheme white and bright. Painting the walls white or a neutral cream colour will create the illusion of more light and open up the space. If you have room, place large mirrors on walls that will reflect windows to capitalise on all the natural light the room receives.
Use these same design elements in the bathroom, which will also create the impression of cleanliness and good hygiene. The combination of a small shower with a transparent glass door, a ceramic toilet and a stand-alone sink is a simple way of providing the necessities without taking up any unnecessary space.
Change or replace the flooring with a carpeted finish. Carpet is one of the most sound-resistant options
for flooring, which is often a major consideration for the body corporate, and also one of the cheaper flooring options. A lighter colour will have the same effect in opening up the space as it does on the walls, but light-coloured carpets are also much more susceptible to getting dirty and can be difficult to clean, which isn’t ideal for a rental property. If the feeling of a larger space is your preference, then opt for a lighter shade, but if not, go for a neutral darker colour that will appeal to most customer types.
Revamp all the cabinets and drawers by simply replacing the handles or knobs on all of them with something fresh and uniform throughout the apartment (or at least throughout the room). Replace any old kitchen appliances with new ones, although keep in mind that some might need to be installed by a tradesman.
Although a lot of the basic design elements and renovation tasks will be the same, there are a number of extra considerations to take into account when renovating a unit as opposed to a house. Requesting approval is the primary consideration, and when in doubt it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. Have a comprehensive plan of your ideal renovation to present to the body corporate initially, and ensure that they are kept up to date throughout.
Request approval for everything and be courteous of your neighbours in order to do everything you can to achieve a smooth-running renovation and what will hopefully become a higher profit margin.