The decision that cost this NSW couple $87,000

EXCLUSIVE: It seemed like the stars were finally aligning for Josh Girle-Bennett and his wife Michelle when the federal government announced its $25,000 grant to HomeBuilder in June 2020.

The couple moved from sydney in Orange in the NSW region three years ago, partly because of skyrocketing property prices in the town.

Now is their chance to finally take a step towards owning their first home.

“It really made my wife say, hey, you know, maybe we could do something here,” Mr Girle-Bennett said.

“If we have that extra $25,000, we can do it.”

Josh Girle-Bennett and his wife Michelle, pictured outside their nearly completed first home in Orange, NSW. (Supplied: Josh Girle-Bennett)

Two days later, the couple bought a 650 square meter plot for $215,000.

The couple spent the next six months saving until December 2020, when they had to sign a building contract in order to qualify for the HomeBuilders grant.

They signed on the dotted line with a few weeks to spare.

But their problems were about to begin.

The first sign that something was wrong came when Mr Girle-Bennett received a call from the bank.

The council had approved the plans for the house without a hitch, but the bank also wanted to see a certificate of construction, which would show that building work had permission to begin.

For two months, Mr. Girle-Bennett tried to relaunch the building certificate with the builder, without success.

Mr Girle-Bennett and his wife said they were forced to terminate their first construction contract after no work was done in six months.  The delay cost them dearly.
Mr Girle-Bennett and his wife said they were forced to terminate their first construction contract after no work was done in six months. The delay cost them dearly. (Supplied: Josh Girle-Bennett)

The inexplicable delays stretched on and on.

After 128 days, no work had even been started on the couple’s home, which was expected to take 210 days.

There was still no building certificate.

After consulting a solicitor, Mr Girle-Bennet and his wife terminated their contract with the builder on the grounds that a clause had been breached which stated that work had to start within 20 working days of approval of the council’s plans .

But the termination of their construction contract turned out to have several financially devastating repercussions, some of them completely unforeseen.

For starters, it meant the couple no longer met the rigid dates and deadlines set under the HomeBuilder grant.

Mr Girle-Bennet said he submitted his application for the federal grant anyway, hoping state administrators – NSW Revenue – would consider their true intentions to build and the mitigating circumstances that forced them to terminate their contract.

But in July 2021, the couple received a letter telling them their HomeBuilder grant application had been rejected.

Building their first home came with significant additional financial stress for Mr. Girle-Bennett and his wife missed out on two government grants and COVID-19 drove up construction costs.
Building their first home came with significant additional financial stress for Mr. Girle-Bennett and his wife missed out on two government grants and COVID-19 drove up construction costs. (Supplied: Josh Girle-Bennett)

“It was a bit of a kick in the gut because the way the letter was worded made it look like we had made the decision on a whim,” Mr Girle-Bennett said.

“But it was done on the basis that the builder failed to meet its contractual obligations.”

“It was just unfair and un-Australian.”

The couple then signed another contract with a new manufacturer in August 2021.

They asked Revenue NSW to review their case, but the decision to deny them the HomeBuilder grant was upheld.

A spokesperson for Revenue NSW said a second contract could be accepted after the closing date if the builder goes into liquidation or dies, provided all other eligibility criteria are met.

“The HomeBuilder Grant Guidelines have been enacted by the Commonwealth Government and apply to all States and Territories. Revenue NSW has no authority to disburse the grant where the eligibility criteria are not met”, said the spokesperson.

Mr Girle-Bennett said he and his wife had been happy with the work of their current builder and expected to be in their new home next month.

But the breach of their first contract set them back financially in more ways than one, he said.

Rubbing salt in the wound, a shortage of building materials during the pandemic caused prices to spike during their six-month delay, adding about 9% — or $52,000 — to their costs.

This, in turn, meant that the price of their home was $20,000 over the $750,000 cap for the $10,000 first-time homeowner’s grant.

After signing with a new builder, the couple expect to be able to move into their home next month.
After signing with a new builder, the couple expect to be able to move into their home next month. (Supplied: Josh Girle-Bennett)

“It was a triple whammy,” Mr. Girle-Bennett said.

“We lost the homebuilder grant, we lost the first home owner grant, and we had to pay extra for materials and labor.”

Going over $750,000 would also have resulted in further complications for the couple had they been approved for the HomeBuilder grant.

For contracts signed through December 31, 2020, a cap of $750,000 applies to all new housing.

The cap was later raised in New South Wales to $950,000, but the grant was reduced to $15,000.

Contact journalist Emily McPherson at [email protected]

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