The Buildings Department has taken too long to publicly reveal its orders to property owners to remove illegal structures, affecting the interests of property buyers, the Ombudsman has stated in its latest report. In one case, it took the department seven years to register an order in the Land Registry. The property had already been sold to a new owner a year before the official record was made known. The new owner thus had to bear the responsibility of removing the illegal structures. Q&A: what makes an ‘illegal structure’ in Hong Kong, and how you can change a flat without breaking the law “[The department’s] practice has undermined the confidence of prospective buyers in [the registry] as a source for verifying the status of a property before completing a transaction,” the government watchdog said in the report, released yesterday. Registering removal orders in the publicly accessible registry will lead to a drop in property values and thus encourage owners to take immediate actions in removing any illegal structures. The department will remove the orders from the registry after compliance. Owners who fail to comply may face a fine and imprisonment. In 2011, the department adopted a new policy requiring officers to promptly register removal orders. Yet, certain events could muddy the process. In the case where the order was registered seven years late, the department had issued the first order to the original owner in 2009. The owner later appealed against the order. No registration was made by the department since the appeal was underway. The property was sold in 2015 but the buyer was not aware of the first unregistered order until a new one was issued by the department in the same year, and registered in June this year. In arguing against the case, the Ombudsman said the 2009 order should be registered and valid until the appeal was successful. The department said its website encouraged potential buyers to individually inquire about properties, but the watchdog countered that there was no clear indication to the public that they not only needed to do a registry search, but also to make specific inquiries in case of unregistered orders. The department has updated its website following the report’s recommendations, according to the Ombudsman. Hong Kong Lands Department tightens control on illegal structures in wake of ‘luxury squatter’ controversy Wong Leung-sing, associate director of research at property agency Centaline, said agents tended to only search the land registry as that there were no instructions for them to also make individual inquiries to the department. Wong raised issues such as whether there would be a 24-hour inquiry hotline, and the length of waiting time for a response to an inquiry. A department spokesman said the department would register outstanding removal orders promptly. But he did not address the response time for inquiries. A spokeswoman from the Estate Agents Authority said the practice regulation for agents prescribed the registry as the only source for any legal burdens related to properties. She added that the regulation also required agents to seek sellers’ statements about the condition of their properties. The spokeswoman said as it remained unknown how long the waiting time for an inquiry response would be, it might not be practical to require agents to verify with the department regarding such unregistered orders.