For most home-seekers, buying a property is likely to be the single-biggest investment they will ever make and they will live with the consequences of their decision for many years, if not a lifetime. Given the high stakes, the watchword before making that down payment on a 20-year loan should be 'look before you leap'. Unauthorised works: Rising concerns over illegal building structures have prompted prospective flat buyers to treat unauthorised works in a property with extra caution since overlooking such works could lead them to suffer huge losses. 'In some cases, owners sell properties whose structural walls have been removed. If a buyer purchases such a flat without paying attention to this, he or she may be asked to restore the flat to its original condition even though he or she did not pull the wall down,' warned Andrew Kung Sui-lun, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors' building surveying division. 'If the removal causes cracks in the building, the cost of repairs can be huge.' The surveyor said one flat owner in his experience needed to pay up to HK$200,000 to rebuild a load-bearing wall soon after removing it. 'Some buyers think it's not a big problem to purchase flats with illegal structures and may use their presence to ask for a price cut. But the prospective repair or removal fees are part of the cost, and this will affect your investment and budget,' Kung said. 'And the most serious consequence is that it jeopardises the safety of the unit and the building.' Flat buyers now appear to be taking these warnings to heart and are showing more concern about illegal structures since reports of recent controversies involving some government officials and lawmakers who had unauthorised building works in their flats, Kung said. 'If part of an illegal building structure falls off and injures someone on the street, the owner and maybe the tenant too could be deemed responsible - and insurance companies would not pay for the damages,' he warned. The same applied to the creation of open kitchens in a flat that might have violated fire safety rules. Buyers have a right to ask a seller to prove that the property is in good title and has no illegal structures, Kung said. The Estate Agents Authority (EAA) advises prospective buyers to check with their estate agents if a property has any unauthorised building works or building order registered against it. The buyer can also seek advice from professionals such as surveyors and lawyers for related information. 'With this information, the prospective purchaser can weigh the risk and the possible consequences of purchasing the property, the budget for demolition or repair work, and the risk of not being able to obtain a sufficient bank mortgage loan to complete the purchase of the property. They can also clarify the responsibilities with the vendor before signing the preliminary agreement for sale and purchase,' a spokeswoman for the authority said. 'Intangible' matters: Apart from the physical condition of a property, there were many 'intangible' things that buyers should watch out for, said Serena Lau Sze-wan, senior vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors. She cited the case of a wife who sold a residential property without informing her husband. The buyer paid the woman who later fled with the money. The title to the home was in the name of the woman rather than her husband. But he had paid for the flat and the court eventually ruled that he therefore had an equitable interest in the property and the buyer could not get the flat or the money back. 'Apart from doing a land search, buyers should observe who lives in the flat when viewing it, and ask the agent and the owner if there is any doubt,' she said, adding that in the case of the runaway wife the estate agent had conducted proper due diligence and committed no wrongdoing. She said there were many cases, for instance, where a father had paid for a flat for his son and daughter-in-law but the couple then sold the property and took the money. The surveyor said prospective buyers should also check with the management company of the property to establish if there are any refurbishment works planned, or outstanding maintenance work due to be done on dangerous slopes, as owners may need to contribute to such costs in the future. In the case of properties that provide parking spaces, buyers should pay careful attention to the spaces, which are factored into the flat price, since some could be too small or badly located, which made parking almost impossible. 'It may require a three-point or four-point turn before you can park the car,' she said. She added that buyers might also want to know if their neighbours have the habit of burning joss-sticks in front of their door, or if someone had died in the property or the building. Jointly owned properties: In the case of a jointly owned property, the Estate Agents Authority cautions prospective buyers that a provisional agreement for sale and purchase should be signed by all owners, and any absentee vendors will need to provide written authorisation. According to the estate agent's watchdog, there has been a case in which a buyer intended to buy a flat which was co-owned by two vendors. When the buyer received the provisional agreement for sale and purchase from his estate agent, he noticed one of the owners had signed in her own capacity and also on behalf of the other owner but without providing authorisation documents. The transaction fell through and the owners refused to pay any compensation to the buyer after they argued that the agreement was ineffective because it was not properly signed by both of them. The buyer's estate agent was sanctioned by the EAA's disciplinary committee. Handing deposits to the right person: Richard Lee Chi-sing, chief executive of real estate agency Hong Kong Property, said buyers should be careful that the seller they deal with is the real owner of the property, particularly when they are not buying a property through an agent. 'It has happened before that a buyer paid a deposit to a fraudster and suffered a loss. If you have an agent he will help you do a land search and check the stakeholders involved,' he said. 'And it's better to settle the deposit by cheque and do it at a law firm, instead of paying the vendor cash directly.' The Consumer Council said it received 107 complaints dealing with properties in the first five months of this year, up from 91 over the same period last year. There were 213 complaints last year and 216 cases in 2009. Its spokeswoman said most of the complaints revolved around late delivery, flat quality, and misleading sales information, mainly involving property agents who allegedly gave buyers the wrong orientation of the flats or false information. The EAA urged consumers to check the publications it provides, as well as those from the Consumer Council, which remind consumers about the important points to note when buying properties. To strengthen the regulation of the sales of new private residential properties, the Transport and Housing Bureau has set up a steering committee to discuss issues relating to the regulation of such sales. The committee is expected to come up with recommendations by October.