When Helen Lee and her husband bought a place in Vancouver's Olympic Village back in 2007, it was still being built. But a gold-medal sales pitch compelled the couple to fork out $1.8-million for an 11th-floor, 1,475-square-foot condo with expansive mountain and water views.
"It was going to be our dream home," Ms. Lee remembers.
Four years later, the couple's dream has officially turned into a nightmare. And they are not the only Village dwellers being kept awake at night by homeowner horror stories.
The Lees are among more than 60 condo owners at the Village who have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding their money back. It couldn't come at a worse time for the city of Vancouver, which had to take over the project in 2009 and had recently launched a new sales campaign in an attempt to recoup some of its money.
Now the disgruntled homeowners have gone public with a disturbing video documenting a litany of problems, including water pouring out of light fixtures, heat not working, cracks in ceilings, hardwood floors that are bubbling because of moisture and bedrooms that are too small to fit a bed.
"One of our bathroom doors opens out into the hallway," Ms. Lee told me. "I have two children who run back and forth in front of it and they have been hit by the door. Our floors are wrecked. We've had no heat for two months. The flex space we were promised is half the size."
The Lees, I'm sure, would love to find a way to get their money back. They, like most of the others involved in the lawsuit, bought at the top of the market. Condo marketer Bob Rennie recently slashed prices by as much as 30 per cent in a campaign designed to ignite stalled sales. But who would buy in the Village now with owners producing documentary evidence suggesting the workmanship in the project is wanting?
Glitches in new condominium projects aren't uncommon. A legal representative for the sales companies selling the Olympic Village condos earlier played down the condo problems and suggested the lawsuit has more to do with a drop in the value of the units themselves. When the real estate market goes down, said lawyer George Macintosh, buyers look for ways to have their sales cancelled.
But the Olympic Village was supposed to be a one-of-a-kind wonder built to the highest environmental and construction standards in the world. The project's troubled developer, Millennium Development Corp., was reported to have spared no expense during construction.
But like so much about the Olympic Village, it appears to be a contentious claim.
Of course, the small print of every real estate deal includes the words "buyer beware." And this one was no different. So there are many people who don't feel a bit sorry for the aggrieved owners. Many figure they're just looking for a way out because they paid too much to get in - especially compared to their new neighbours.
But this case is a little different.
Most condo owners have someone to go after when things go wrong - like the developer. But Millennium went into default. The project is in the hands of a receiver, although technically the city of Vancouver really owns the project. It is selling the condos through shell companies. But think about it: The warranty for the heating and plumbing systems - which have experienced huge problems - expires next June. After that, there will be no one for the residents to go after if they have problems because they bought from a shell.
Bryan Baynham is the lawyer representing the angry condo owners. He said his clients have an ongoing "right of rescission" under consumer protection legislation on the grounds they were misrepresented when they purchased their units.
"The law is meant to cover situations like this where you have nobody to turn to, to remedy or get relief from your problems," Mr. Baynham explained.
His clients represent about a third of the original group of buyers who gobbled up 240 units when the project was still being built. He estimates it would cost the city of Vancouver in the neighbourhood of $50-million if it were to refund the owners' money. It could probably recoup 75 per cent of that amount after it fixed the problems and put the units back on the market.
Personally, I can muster some sympathy for the owners. When you fork out $1.8-million for a condo you expect it to be built to the highest standards. You don't imagine the shoddy quality found in, say, the condominium the Lees bought.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson needs to take ownership of this issue now. The entire reputation of the project is at stake. He needs to begin by assuring the owners their problems will be fixed. He needs to assure the public, and potential buyers, quality control problems will be sorted out.
In the end, he may have to agree to give some people their money back.