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Money down the drain: The hidden costs of plumbing renovations in Finland

Delays, shoddy work and rising costs mean many homeowners and tenants question the system of replacing of outdated copper pipes.

Mies asentaa viemäri- ja vesijohtoputkia.
Image not related to the accounts in this story. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

The plumbing renovation on Paul Newill's* apartment building began in January 2015, and he was still dealing with the fall-out in September 2018. Originally projected to last little more than three months, the upgrade on his 61 square-metre apartment became mired in problems and postponements - although he did not even want the refurbishment in the first place.

As is common in Finland, Newill does not own his apartment as such, but rather owns ‘shares’ in the apartment building’s housing company. The residents own and manage the housing company, and communal decisions about issues such as maintenance of pipes, walls and windows are decided by majority vote. When homeowners raised a proposal to renovate the building’s plumbing system at the housing company’s AGM in 2014, Newill voted against it but the majority backed the plan, and the renovation work began.

Reaping the mistakes of the past

The common need for plumbing renovations has its roots in Finland’s rapid urbanisation during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when apartment buildings were hastily erected to meet the demands of a housing crunch. The copper pipes used in the construction of apartment buildings during that period have a maximum lifetime of approximately 50 years, meaning that many thousands of properties will soon require an overhaul.

The Finnish Real Estate Management Federation (Isännöintiliitto) is an umbrella association for 500 real estate management companies and 23 associations, that account for more than two-thirds of real estate management in Finland. The federation's membership in turn covers 40,000 housing companies that manage the apartment homes of 1.5 million people in Finland.

Part of the federation's remit is to ensure that repair projects go according to plan. The organisation told Yle News that members carry out about 1,800 plumbing renovations affecting roughly 108,000 people annually. It said that it doesn't expect these annual numbers to fluctuate much over the coming decade, which means that plumbing renovations will affect over a million people throughout Finland between 2018 and 2028.

Statistics Finland estimates that housing companies spent a total of 747 million euros on water and sewage system renovations in 2016 alone. This figure was up from 629 million in 2015 and 577 million in 2013 with the upward trend expected to continue.

Residents must move out of their home for the duration of the renovation - usually for a period of up to three months - and the work can add tens of thousands of euros debt to their home loans.

The renovation on Newill's building ran into complications almost immediately so that by the time work began on his 5th floor apartment, it was already well behind schedule.

"When the contracted renovation work in my own apartment commenced I still had not received an acceptable price nor drawing plans", he explains. "But the work simply went ahead in an attempt to maintain the timetable."

Disruptions, and delays and sleepless nights

Newill believes this haste led to even further confusion. Each apartment in the building had a unique "apartment card" - attached to the inside of the front door - which detailed the materials chosen and any additional work requested by the apartment owner.

Newill had laid out certain specifications for the renovation of his apartment, including the preservation of certain features as well as the use of other materials he had purchased. However, when he visited the apartment one weekend during the renovation, he noticed that the original features he wanted to keep had been destroyed and the new purchases had disappeared.

Story continues after photo.

Työmies poraa kaakelia seinästä. Putkiremontissa uudistetaan yleensä koko vessa.
Image not related to accounts in this story. Image: Minna Rosvall / Yle

He had been due to move back into his apartment in October 2015, but was not permitted to do so until December - yet work still continued on his apartment well into the New Year. As the project progressed, so did his list of grievances: a walk-in closet that should have been removed was instead painted; kitchen plumbing was installed, then removed and reinstalled and a towel heater was fitted in error.

"By that stage I had no enthusiasm for pointing out more mistakes."

The renovation - and the rectification of errors - was eventually deemed by Newill to have been completed in March 2018, fully two and a half years after it first began. He is now embroiled in protracted negotiations for compensation - with associated legal costs - and considers the entire experience hugely stressful and frustrating.

"The waste of my time in attempting to get something to happen has meant many, many nights of not getting to sleep, or waking up and not being able to stop thinking about the mess they had no desire to clear up." Altogether, Newill estimates that the project has added more than 60,000 euros to his home loan and that additional costs could run to many thousands of euros.

New debt, extra flat rental

Originally from Romania, Dezsö Dénes has been living in Finland since 1999 and his apartment in Espoo is currently undergoing renovations. The project began in June and by July Dénes had no option but to move his family to a rented apartment as their home had become uninhabitable.

Dénes must bear the cost of the rental himself, and as he was unable to obtain a nine-week rental lease he must pay for three months - longer than his family needs - plus a four-month water charge. This is on top of the debt added to his home loan.

As if the inconvenience, the additional debt, and the cost of renting another property were not enough, Dénes says he is further frustrated by the fact that his home will not be restored to its previous standard. After renovation work began on Dénes’ apartment, he was informed that certain features of his bathroom, such as the wall tiles and floor heating, would not be re-fitted - unless he paid more.

Story continues after photo.

Vanhoja purettuja kylpyhuonekalusteita.
Image not related to accounts in this article. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

"My home would be in a worse condition if I did pay not extra. It is exactly the same as if I broke the windshield in your car, and then told you that I will fix it if you pay me."

The contract that Dénes’ housing company agreed with the renovation company only covered the basic renovation, and residents must therefore pay for any specific work or features considered outside the contract. Like Newill, Dénes has speculated that his post-renovation mortgage has swelled by 60,000 euros, while additional out-of-pocket costs will only be fully known when the upgrade is complete.

"I don’t like the system in Finland where you do not own your apartment, but only shares", says Dénes. "The housing association can decide everything by a majority vote. If you are in the minority you just have to shut up and pay."

FREF: Improvements to be made

Homeowners and residents do however have some recourse if they are dissatisfied with their renovation experience, such as to seek advice from the Finnish Real Estate Federation (or Suomen Kiinteistöliitto in Finnish).

FREF’s Development Manager Jari Virta explains that the federation represents property owners and landlords in Finland, and "provides renovation construction advice, arranges training on renovations, and provides instructions, books, and web applications for construction maintenance and renovation."

Virta says he recognises that the entire system and process of plumbing renovations needs to be further analysed, and changes made where needed, and he advises households to "invest in trusted professionals to carry out the work, and the acquisition of a qualified project manager is of paramount importance."

However he concedes that the time may have come to revisit the current system that has been in place for decades.

"There are certainly improvements to be made, from starting at the very beginning by increasing clients’ know-how to improving the solutions offered by the service providers."

*Alias used to protect the identity of the interviewee.

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