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House renovations: How to avoid the trap of making illegal property enhancements?


Knowing the “Dos” and “Don’ts” of renovating a home can save you from unnecessary heartache, pain and financial loss when the authorities come knocking.  This article will help shed light and offer helpful references to familiarise yourself with before embarking on a renovation plan.

House Renovations: How to avoid the trap of making illegal property enhancements?
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Renovations are a great way to spruce up your home. Even an old and decaying building can be given a second lease on life and transformed into residential gems with a little imagination, design and tasteful additions.

However, before you begin work on your palatial aspirations, you should know that “dreaming big” has its limits. There are several municipal regulations and state-building by-laws that are in place for the common good of communities, and not abiding by these or receiving prior approval results in hefty fines or being forced to break down portions of your redesigned home (under the threat of legal action) if you breach any codes.

Worse still, a municipal council can apply for a court order to enter your home and break it down themselves, if you refuse to comply.

Hence, it really pays to know what you can and can’t do when it comes to home renovations, and this article will help shed light on that, as well as offer some helpful references that you should familiarise yourself with before embarking on a renovation plan.

What is home renovation?

Simply put, renovation is the act of improving your home by making structural or any other form of physical changes. It involves remodeling or making additions to the home that necessitates either minor or major redesign to interior spaces, the exterior façade or even an upgrade of facilities that service the home – such as electrical wiring, plumbing or sewerage systems.

Home improvement projects cover a broad spectrum of enhancements to the property, motivated by an equally extensive number of reasons:

  • personal preference or comfort
  • maintenance and repair, expansion of living spaces
  • safety enhancements
  • make your home more energy efficient in the future

As such, it is important to identify which types of renovation activities are considered minor and do not require prior authorisation, and which ones do. A general guideline that will help you decide is to always remember you live in a community, therefore there are laws in place to ensure any renovation undertaking does not change the look of the overall surroundings, does not cause damage to neighbouring properties, does not compromise the property for future owners and does not infringe on town and city planning safety regulations.

Guidelines may vary in different municipalities, determined by geographic, population volume, socio-economic and environmental factors. Therefore, it is never a bad idea to “look before you leap” and check in with local councils about regulations.

What is illegal renovation?

House Renovations: How to avoid the trap of making illegal property enhancements
© sal73it | 123RF

Generally, if you have made any upgrades, refurbishments or extensions that have altered the original structure of the building, and you have done so without approved renovation plans from the authorised local council, then the renovation work is deemed illegal.

It is also considered illegal if your completed renovation work has been altered or does not adhere completely to the plan that has been already been approved by the authorities.

This shouldn’t be taken lightly as local councils are often strict about “sticking to the plan” because public health and safety are a big part of their purpose, and they can be quite stringent about what has been approved and what hasn’t.  

From the overall perspective of town and city councils, there are two key reasons why a permit is required before conducting major renovation works: 

i) To ensure that you don’t build on someone else’s land

You may think you are conducting work within the privacy of your land, but you can never be too sure. For example, a wall built around your house could accidentally extend into a neighbour’s compound, or onto public land, making your act an illegal one. It’s about specific zoning and land titles, so it’s best to get the “ok” from the people who have all this information before you start.

ii) To make sure that safety standards are met

Permits are also needed to ensure that renovation activities are not hazardous to anyone in the area. The proposal for the renovation submitted to the local council must include a detailed description of who the renovation contractor is, what they plan to do and how they plan to do it. If a particular design is considered dangerous, the local council will reject your permit.

What illegal renovation mistakes are you making?

Renovation mistakes come in many forms, ranging from innocent oversight of regulations to truly bizarre design choices that invade public spaces, such as room extensions that hover over back alleys and balconies that stretch way beyond the front gate.

Home extensions that go beyond the permissible perimeters are a regular type of infringement. Many homeowners, for example, believe they are well within their right to extend their kitchen to the very edge of their rear property demarcation, but this is in fact breaking fire safety regulations. Back alleys must always be free of encumbrances and a certain amount of “open” space (as well as a back escape route) must be in place to provide Fire and Rescue Services with access during emergencies.   

However, such errors could be easily avoided if many of us weren’t guilty of the most common mistake in the first place, and that is failure to seek proper authorisation for our renovation work in the first place.

For those who believe it is difficult to ascertain if your renovation plan requires a permit or not, the Street, Drainage, and Buildings Act 1974 offers a clearer perspective. It states:

No person shall erect or cause or permit to be erected in any building any partition, compartment, gallery, loft, roof, ceiling or other structure without having the prior written permission of the local authority.

If this law sounds wide-reaching, that’s because it is. It means a great number of renovation activities fall under the purview of the law, and it is best to rely on your local council’s definition of what these are – and not your own!

Furthermore, it also depends upon what type of property you live in, and guidelines on obtaining authorisation differ for stratified and landed properties.

  • Condominiums and apartments

If you live in a high-rise, you must first get a letter of authorisation from your property management. The management has the right to reject your application if it doesn’t meet the guidelines set by the house rules or the Deed of Mutual Covenant. In most cases, you’ll have to pay a deposit to the management, which will be refunded once the renovation is complete, provided no part of the property was damaged in the process.

  • Landed houses

Stricter laws apply to landed properties because it involves local councils, surrounding public land and specific zoning restrictions. To get an authorisation permit, homeowners will need to draw up a renovation plan and submit it with a fee outlined by the council. This too can be rejected if it does not meet the council’s guidelines.  

Often, very minor renovations do not require permits, but because “minor renovations” are not always well-defined by various local councils, it is best to check before proceeding with a plan.

As a general guide, the table below offers some examples of renovation activities that require permits and the ones that normally don’t.

Modification of existing gate/border wallAir-conditioning installation/replacement
Building a pagoda/pergolaMinor awning installation (subject to local council guidelines)
Installation of additional shelter/awning/membranous, involving additional poles or cablesInstallation or repair of rainwater downpipes
Installation/replacement of wall or floor exceeding 6.5sq mInstallation of built-in cabinetry or countertops
Installation/replacement of ceilingPainting works for the house
Modification of sanitary wareInstallation/replacement of wall fittings, windows or doors
Any form of modification to fittings that changes the property facadeReplacement of water tank (maintaining original tank size
Building a water catchment system not exceeding 0.5 metres in depthWiring works for landscaping, decorations, CCTV or automatic gate
Building or repairing plaster cement floors that exceed 6.5sq mInstallation of ready-made fish ponds

What are the consequences of illegal renovations?

While basic guidelines are similar across the board, local councils defer in their approach to fees, fines and grace periods for renovation infringements.

Depending on where you live, local councils may also be actively campaigning against and clamping down on illegal renovations, or they may be benevolently offering to “legalise” your wrongful renovation if you declare and pay a blanket fee during a certain time period.

Keeping close tabs on announcements from your local council could help ease the pain if you have already broken regulations, but the general advice is that it is better to declare and pay up for your mistakes now than face more stringent action in the future.

The alternative could be far worse because local authorities have the right to demolish or break down any renovation that is considered illegal or constructed without their approval. Their first step is actually to give you notice, demanding that you carry out the demolition at your own cost by a certain date. If you can’t pay for it, the council will do the work for you, and initially bear the cost, before charging you for it at a later date.  

Illegal house renovations without permit can cause demolition by local councils.

Sometimes, homeowners purchase a house after renovation work has been done on it. In this scenario, it is important that you seek any letters of approval from the previous owner to be kept in your possession as proof.

If the previous owner conducted illegal renovation work on the property, and you were genuinely unaware that this was done without a permit, then you can appeal to the local council and it is unlikely that you will be slapped with a hefty fine. The authorities will probably allow you extended time to apply for a permit, provided the renovation in question adheres to the safety standards set by them.

Fortunately, the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 is not a one-sided law, and it does protect homeowners if local councils act too hastily and there is a valid permit for renovation (and it was mistakenly thought that you didn’t). In such a scenario, if the council has wrongly demolished a portion of your property, Section 33 of the Act says that you must be adequately compensated for losses.

Section 33 of the Street, sub-section 5, of the Act states:

Local authority to pay if erection lawful (5) If such projection, encroachment or obstruction has been lawfully made, the local authority shall pay the expenses of the removal or alteration thereof and make reasonable compensation to every person who suffers damage by such removal or alteration and, if any dispute arises touching the amount of such compensation, the same shall be ascertained in the manner hereinafter provided.

Who do you call if an illegal renovation is causing harm?

Sometimes, it is not your renovation work that is causing pain, but your neighbour’s. Other than home extensions that invade your territory, certain types of renovation work can cause structural damage to neighbouring properties, and if cracks begin to emerge along your walls, what course of action is available to you?

You can make a complaint to your local council if your neighbour’s renovation work has caused damage to your property, trespassed into your land, or even private nuisance (which means your neighbour has interfered with the enjoyment of your own land).  

A private nuisance is a tough one to prove, but it can be seen as a legitimate complaint if neighbouring renovation works have, for example, permanently blocked the sunlight into your garden, detrimentally affected the airflow into your home or somehow invaded your privacy. In the past, plaintiffs have won cases when CCTV cameras were unduly pointed at their compound without permission.  

Before you decide to take any action against your neighbour, ensure that they are actually building on your land. Sometimes, it may seem like they’ve built on your land, but in reality, they have not. 

Your neighbour needs to get prior permission before starting their home renovations, and for this, they would have submitted a plan of the renovation to your local council. It is the council’s job to ensure their plan does not affect surrounding properties.

If you think this has not been done properly, you can first ask your neighbour to show you their approved plans. If your neighbour complies, but you are still unsure about your land boundaries, you can go to the Pejabat Tanah (land office) in your area to ask for the land grant, which will show where exactly your land starts and ends.

If your neighbour is not forthcoming about sharing the plan, and you think they are either not following the legally approved one or do not have approval at all, you can make a direct complaint to your local council. The council will investigate the site and issue a stop work order and/or issue a fine if anything is amiss.

Each municipal council will have their own guidelines for specific types of renovations. Some in the Klang Valley, for example, require that the distance between your neighbour’s wall and your house be at least 5 feet apart. Or they might even totally ban some types of renovations altogether.

It’s impossible to know every single guideline your council has set for home renovations, so the best course of action is to lodge a report and allow the proper authorities to investigate. Make sure you have appropriate pictures of the items in question when you make the complaint.

Here is a list of contact details for important municipalities within the Klang Valley:

Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL)+603-2617 9000
Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ)+603-7956 3544
Subang Jaya City Council (MBSJ)+603-8024 7700
Shah Alam City Council (MBSA)+603-5510 5133
Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ)+603-4285 7000
Kajang Municipal Council (MPKJ)+603-8737 7899
Klang Municipal Council (MPK)+603-3375 5555
Sepang Municipal Council (MPSepang)+603-8319 0300
Selayang Municipal Council (MPS)+603-6120 4903

List of guidelines to avoid illegal renovations

As mentioned previously in this article, an important way to ensure you do not fall into the trap of conducting illegal renovation works yourself is to familiarise yourself with guidelines from your local council.

The renovation guidelines for most city and municipal councils can be found with a little research on their respective websites. If not available, you can always contact or visit your local council and make a request.

As an example, we have provided some handy links to renovation guidelines for some key municipalities below:

How to avoid falling victim to illegal renovation by contractors?

Even if you believe you’re doing everything right, it is important to remember that you are not the one actually carrying out renovation work at your home. Adhering to regulations is important, but so much of that process is actually out of your hands, as you will be depending on your contractor to get things right.

Unfortunately, not all contractors have your best interest at heart, and shoddy work and shortcuts are a common theme many of us have dealt with in the past. Sometimes, this includes not following the renovation plan approved by the local council, which could lead to fines in the future.

A good way to judge if a contractor is the “real deal” is if they are well versed with the entire process, indicating they are experienced and meticulous about following regulations. You will be in a better position to determine this if you are well-versed in the process yourself.

Here is an overview of the necessary steps for renovation works:

STEP 1 – Obtain approval for building plans and work permits

The owner must prepare the required documents as follows:

i) Copy of the Sales Agreement

ii) Copy of Tenancy Agreement

iii) Copy of paid latest Assessment (Cukai Pintu)

iv) Copy of CF OR Copy of CCC

v) Copy of Owner / Tenant Identity Card

vi) Copy of Company Registration and Borang 49

STEP 2 – Prepare consultation fees, deposit and processing fees

This includes:

i) Consultation fees for Architect endorsement, and building plans for submission.

ii) Owner is to pay for the deposit, processing fees, and construction waste bin. The deposit will be returned if renovation works is completed according to the approved plan.

STEP 3 – Wait for approval/work permit

This process can take between 14 to 30 days depending on the local authority you are dealing with.

STEP 4 – Additional documentation, submissions

For certain renovation works which involved new structural works, the owner is required to engage an engineer to do structural submission and endorsement, depending on the local council’s regulations.

If the extension and planned renovated areas exceed 50% of the original building size, the owner may be required to engage a registered town planner to do planning submission and endorsement.

Should the owner choose to begin renovating before obtaining all necessary approvals, a fine will be imposed at a rate of 10 times or 20 times the council’s processing fees.

Even if all these steps have been followed, there is no real guarantee that the contractor has followed the plan accurately, or has not made a mistake in the process. To further protect yourself, you can insist that the final payment to your contractor will only be made after final approval.

If you have made any structural changes, the local council will usually follow up with an inspection to give you the final green light. If the inspector requires any changes or adjustments because it defers from the original design plan, then you can ensure the contractor fulfils their part of the contract before releasing the final payment (and you can avoid paying a fine later down the line).

However, local councils can sometimes take time before sending an inspector, and this may not be fair to the contractor. In such cases, the architect or draftsman you engaged to draw up the plan for you can conduct an inspection on your behalf, if you include this as part of their service and fee at the point of engagement.

This is a safe option to ensure everything has been done according to approved plans.

READ: Home renovation cost in Malaysia. Find out how much should you spend on your renovation.  

Disclaimer: The information is provided for general information only. Malaysia Sdn Bhd makes no representations or warranties in relation to the information, including but not limited to any representation or warranty as to the fitness for any particular purpose of the information to the fullest extent permitted by law. While every effort has been made to ensure that the information provided in this article is accurate, reliable, and complete as of the time of writing, the information provided in this article should not be relied upon to make any financial, investment, real estate or legal decisions. Additionally, the information should not substitute advice from a trained professional who can take into account your personal facts and circumstances, and we accept no liability if you use the information to form decisions.

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