A group of 12 home owners of One North Residences in Bouna Vista have banded together to seek compensation from the property developer.
The dispute, over whether they are allowed to build another level within their units, has thrown the spotlight on a very grey area of what constitutes a "loft".
All 12 bought one-bedroom simplexes - single-level units with high ceilings - when the project was launched in 2007 by Vista Development, a joint venture between property-related companies UOL Group, Low Keng Huat and Kheng Leong.
Collectively, they own 13 of the 27 simplex units in the 405-unit development.
The owners claim that sales agents had told them during the marketing phase that they could build a mezzanine floor in their simplex unit but that they were later denied permission to do so when the project was completed.
They also say that the floor-to-ceiling height of their completed units is only 4.7m, a shade lower than the 5m they were promised when they bought their units. One of the owners said marketing materials used by sales agents stated the height as 5m, although these materials were not distributed to buyers.
The dispute has now reached a stalemate, with Vista Development denying all claims. But it throws the spotlight on an area of ambiguity - lofts - where home buyers are unsure what exactly is permissible under the law.
In an interview with The Straits Times, three of the simplex owners said the project's showflat had featured a loft-styled duplex unit and not a simplex unit when the project was launched in March 2007.
However, they claim the sales agents told them that if they bought a simplex unit, they could similarly build a mezzanine floor after the unit was completed to have it look like the duplex.
This would increase the unit's size by at least 50% and was a much cheaper alternative as it meant that the unit per sq ft (psf) price would be brought down.
For example, one of the owners, who declined to be named, had paid $598,000 - or $1,157psf - for a 517sqft simplex unit. He said that he was told by an agent that a mezzanine floor could be built for about $40,000, enlarging the apartment size to about 800sqft and bringing down the unit price to about $798psf.
This was lower than the $800 to $900psf being charged for the other units and seemed like a good deal at the time.
However, when the owners collected their keys in mid-2009 and tried to obtain approval from the management office to commence construction, they were told that the developer had already built to the maximum gross floor area (GFA) and that it would be illegal for them to build a mezzanine level.
While a second mezzanine level is not possible, it appears a small platform-like structure is allowed as long as it can be dismantled. This is because it is seen as part of the interior design of the unit. However, the owners are not keen on the alternative.
Some of the simplex unit owners contacted one another and lodged a complaint to Vista in January last year. They found that similar promises had been made to all of them.
They claim that Vista said the simplexes' dearer prices were due to their higher ceiling height, which made the apartment more spacious, and the better views.
The 12 owners decided to band together to seek legal advice.
In July last year, all 12 owners put their names down on notice listing their grievances and sent it to Vista through their lawyers.
Vista replied a month later denying all claims.
The group recently filed a complaint with the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). They also approached the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) but were told that CASE was not an appropriate avenue to turn to for such a big issue.
"There's no clear line of authority or government body for buyers like us to take our grievances to," one of the owners added. They are now undecided whether to proceed with legal action due to the costs that might be incurred.
When contacted by The Straits Times, Vista said that it had conducted detailed investigations with its marketing agents, Knight Frank and Savills, who said that they did not make the representations as alleged by the owners.
"We have no reason to believe that the sales agents would have represented that a mezzanine floor can be constructed in a simplex unit, as such construction would involve an increase of gross floor area, and requires prior planning permission from the URA," the consortium said.
"Any developer would have planned to maximize GFA of the development and planning permission would have been obtained from the URA prior to marketing the development. We are no exception."
Vista added: " As part of our efforts to reach out to customers, we had also actively engaged these few buyers on the issue but have not received a response from them since August last year."
On the issue of ceiling height, it said that the units were constructed according to the building plans approved by the authorities and that the units were sold according to specifications shown in the sales brochure.
On its part, THE URA said that it evaluates proposals to build lofts in apartments on a case-by-case basis.
The URA confirmed that it had received a complaint but declined to comment further as investigations were ongoing.
Owners, developers and architects have to provide details of the proposed loft structures for URA's evaluation to determine whether planning permission is required.
"As a principle, large loft structures that form part of the structural element of the building, such as mezzanine floors, are considered part of the GFA of the development and will require planning permission from the URA," it said.
If the site has already fully maximized its allowable gross plot ratio (GPR) as stipulated in the 2008 masterplan, however, the additional loft structure will not be allowed.
On the other hand, furniture or fixtures - they do not form part of the structural element of the building - which are about the size of a normal bed will not constitute GFA nor require planning permission, URA said.
Any such structure, however, will also have to comply with the requirements of other relevant technical agencies.
Vista is 50% owned by Kheng Leong, which marketed the project. UOL holds 30% and the remainder is owned by Low Keng Huat.
The wife and I are pretty certain that when we visited the showflat of The Trizon back in November 2009, the marketing agent told us that it is possible to build a loft in the "double-volume" (6.7m) master bedroom of the 3-bedroom unit. However, this is subjected to approvals from first the MCST and then the BCA, but only after the CSC is obtained. And to be fair, he also said that it is not a given that approvals will be granted.
We also recalled that a loft was actually built for display in The Trizon's showflat. And the structure is definitely much larger than the size of a normal bed - the loft was actually used as a "Study" with a study table and book shelves sitting on it.
So if it is indeed true that "any developer would have planned to maximize the GFA of the development and planning permission would have been obtained from the URA prior to marketing the development", does that mean that the developer of The Trizon, as an exception, had not maximized the GFA for the project, thereby giving the buyers of "double-volume" apartments the option to build a loft?
We certainly hope so...