The political controversy triggered by illegal structures in the homes of senior government officials has once again grabbed public attention on this issue.
The problem with illegal structures is that they are hard to locate. For instance, basements and indoor structures are often hidden from public view.
But they are illegal. Offenders can be fined up to HK$200,000 and imprisoned for up to one year, with further fines of HK$20,000 for each subsequent day of failing to comply with an order, according to the Building Ordinance.
To ensure that properties are free of illegal structures or unauthorised modifications, experts suggest that a pre-purchase inspection be conducted by an authorised person, such as an architect, an engineer or a surveyor, before signing on the dotted line.
'Additions or alterations to the existing building without prior approval and consent from the Building Authority, and minor works that have not been registered under the Minor Works Control System as required by Buildings Ordinance (Chapter 123), are considered unauthorised building works,' says Kelvin Ng, a solicitor and partner at Yip Tse & Tang Solicitors.
When unauthorised works are found, the landlord will be ordered to remove or dismantle them. Ng warns that the state of title to the property will be affected once an order is issued by the Buildings Department. 'That means that if the owner wants to sell the property, he or she is legally required to present a good title. The owner must carry out all the works as required by the outstanding orders so as to clean up the title. By that time, the opportunity to sell may no longer be there.' Ng says legal advice is important to help the buyer make an informed decision 'but it is more a commercial decision for a buyer to take the risks if he or she insists'.
Vincent Ho, chairman of the Building Surveying Division of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, says that larger building works in violation of the Town Planning Ordinance, specifically the statutory Outline Zoning Plan and the land lease agreement, are also deemed as illegal works. He suggests the buyer appoint an authorised person to inspect the premises thoroughly. 'Before splashing out millions, it makes sense for a homebuyer to ensure that the building quality and standards - and especially the safety of the property - are really worth the money.'