Fair Go: Neighbour's 'mancave' hole leaves Dunedin homeowners feeling unsafe

The Proctor family had found their forever home in Dunedin and happily lived there for 11 years, but now they feel too unsafe to stay.

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What do you do when your home is deemed unsafe, and the reason for it, and the only way to fix it, are completely out of your control? Source: Fair Go

It's all because of a huge hole dug by their neighbour who wanted a mancave in the garden.

The hole was two metres deep - almost right the way across the width of his property - and ended only 700mm from the Proctors' boundary.

The serious earthworks led to cracks in the outside wall of the Proctors' house and stress fractures in the cornices and ceilings.

Heidi Proctor couldn't believe what she saw, saying: "It's pretty worrying and pretty stressful to think if there was a significant rain, it could all fall in".

They're also seriously worried about the earthquake risk. Dunedin is close to the Akatore fault line, and they believe even a minor quake could cause extensive damage to their vulnerable home.

Their first thought was that at least they had full home insurance with AMI, so the problems could be quickly fixed. But after eight months, repairs to their house are a long, long way off.

Work can only begin after a permanent retaining wall has been erected by the neighbour to prevent any further slippage, and there aren't any signs of that wall being built. They're stuck.

It was last November that the cracks first appeared. When that happened, the Proctors quickly opened up a dialogue with their neighbour.

They'd always been on good terms. But just as the cracks appeared in their wall, they quickly appeared in their relationship.

They say their neighbour was adamant he'd done nothing wrong, even though he hadn't got consent for the extensive earthworks.

The neighbour gave no indication of fixing the problem, so the Proctors got in touch with Dunedin City Council.

After investigating the site, the Council confirmed the damage to the Proctor's house was caused by the neighbour's unconsented excavation.

They also told the Proctors that their main bedroom was too dangerous to sleep in, and the adjacent children's bedrooms were also at risk.

The Proctors swiftly gathered their belongings and moved into Heidi's mum and dad’s house. Not an ideal situation, as this meant six people, three dogs, and a collection of budgies and fish all living under one small roof.

While the Proctors were living away from home, the council informed them that the neighbour had been ordered to install a large metal shipping container in the front of his property to act as a temporary support to the excavated face.

The neighbour had until April to do this. The Proctors say they had to continually chase him up to get it done. It was finally on site, but only after the deadline.

The council re-inspected the properties and said the Proctors were now safe to move back in.

However, engineers from the Proctors' insurance company also examined the site, and in an email detailing their initial report, they stated that as the container "had not been piled or backfilled", the Proctors' house was "uninhabitable and that there is a danger that further movement could occur and more damage could be caused".

Heidi and Ronnie didn't want to take any risks, especially as they have young children, so they felt they couldn't move back in on a permanent basis.

Then further frustrating news. The Proctors say they were told by AMI that if they took the payout for repairs, their insurance policy would be cancelled.

Ronnie feels this would put them in a very difficult situation, saying, "If they cancel the policy, and with the way things are going at the moment, then no one will insure us and we need insurance for our mortgage".

They had to put this concern to the back of their minds, as getting back into their own home was their first priority, so they continued to ask the council to speed up a permanent solution next door.

Fair Go contacted the council who sent a statement saying, "We're doing everything we can to bring about a solution, but legally we must allow time for the owner to fix the problem, and we have to work within the processes. If this doesn't happen, legal action can be taken".

Legally, a person has two years to rectify a problem. Dunedin City Council says it has reduced this to one year due to the serious nature of the problem. But the Proctors feel this isn't soon enough.

Given the real risk of an earthquake, and the fact they don't feel safe to live at home, they'd like the wall to be built much more quickly.

They think the council should be able to enforce this, especially as the initial earthworks was done without consent. No good news on that front yet, but there was some positive communication from AMI.

After all this time, the insurers rang the Proctors and confirmed their policy wouldn't be cancelled after the payout.

So, while there's still a long way to go before they can relax back in their own home, at least they have peace of mind that they'll still be fully insured once that happens.