Moving to Lochside Grange – Completion and Handover

Last time I blogged about the new house was prior to completion, now we’re just over a week on from completion so prompted by the round of stories in the press this weekend filled with new build nightmares such as this horrific Bovis story from the BBC and this collection of Charles Church new home owners from the Guardian, I thought I’d continue with our experience with Lovell Homes on Lochside Grange.

Given Lovell’s refusal to allow a pre-completion snagging inspection, the basic plan of action was that I was going to use my last two days of annual leave to drive up to Scotland on the Thursday, complete on the Friday, give the house a good check over to get an idea of what needed doing with the assistance of a professional snagger on the Saturday, then secure the house and head back south on the Sunday. I’d then head back up in December to sort what needed sorting.

In summary, that is pretty well what happened, but what I hadn’t counted on was what happened on the Monday. At lunchtime I got a security alert from the house, and the security camera I left set up in the house got this – an Openreach engineer being let into the house by a Lovell site manager. As we had a handover form from Lovell that said we had all the keys, that then led to me having to take a days unpaid leave to fly up to Scotland and have the locks changed after talking to the insurance company.

So lets roll back to the week before. I went up and stayed at the excellent Cardinal’s Folly guest house in Kinghorn. Talking to the owners, the property was converted from what was the local Catholic church after the Catholic congregation merged with the congregation in the next village at Burntisland. The next morning I had an appointment at the site at 11am for my home demonstration visit, immediately followed by the handover.

The home demonstration visit, starts off with a definite instruction that the visit is not about snagging, and is really just one of the site managers taking you round the house showing you how to open the windows, turn the taps on and off, plus verbally highlighting some of the instructions such as not putting anything in the loft. The assistant site manager doing the demonstration did identify what the pile of cable by the wall was, not anything to do with the TV, but the fibre cable coming from Openreach, and another going into the house to the understairs cupboard.

Ironically after all the emphasis on not snagging, for the completion handover the handover form has you as totally untrained owner doing an inspection of the property, although the sales agent did hurry me up when I started properly looking at stuff. After that, following a phone call from the solicitor saying that they had completed I got the keys, lots and lots of keys. What was curious though was that we only got two front door keys, and whilst we got six keys for one set of french doors we only got five for the other, but this was signed off as all the keys that the developer had. The other thing that was in the house was the internal Lovell Snagging list. The sales agent spotted it and tried to remove it, but I spotted it and asked to see it and found that many of the items on the Lovell list had yet to be completed, and more than that some of the stuff Lovell claimed to have finished hadn’t been done properly, so the lock on the downstairs toilet hadn’t actually been screwed in. The sales agent at this point admitted that her and a colleague had snagged the house earlier in the week, and that many of the items they had spotted then had not been picked up either.

After that the sales agent and site manager left me to it. I started going through the post which was mainly junk, plus a note from Openreach saying they needed access to the property to finish the broadband installation, plus two letters from TV Licensing threatening legal action because the empty house with no TV aerial had no TV license.

From there I headed out to the local Tesco to get some shopping, and set about cooking dinner, and that found snag number one, the cooker hood extractor fan, which doesn’t extract. It sounds like something is stopping the blades of the extractor fan turning as you can hear it try to start, but nothing moving. Then coming to the dishwasher, that hadn’t been fitted correctly so wobbled about.

I’d already booked Michael from MDR Home Inspections for the next morning and he turned up at 9am, I also had AOIDigital booked in to come quote for a TV aerial and security system too.

Michael took the best part of four hours to inspect the house. In general he was pretty positive about the house, certainly he couldn’t find much outside, and a large number of the snags he found inside were finishing issues, so uneven paint finishes, and points where the doors were fouling on the newly installed carpet. The site manager doing the home demonstration the day before had mentioned the same thing and suggested that the carpet would settle over time – Michael laughed at that suggestion. He also highlight some places where the floors and ceilings were uneven in excess of the thresholds that the NHBC allow, and was most intrigued by our staircase, which he said didn’t meet the NHBC accessibility requirements. He put a coloured dot on every issue. Michael also was pretty complimentary over some parts of the house, highlighting that Lovell put covers over the screws on each switch and plug which he liked and some other builders don’t do.

My plan for Sunday was to get packed up early and head south. Unfortunately I didn’t get out quite as early as I was planning as I ended up bleeding a radiator first thing as the boiler started cutting out reporting that the heating system was over safe pressure. I managed to get the pressure down to safe tolerances, and then turned the thermostat down just in case there was an issue, noting down needing to get the boiler looked at when I was back at the house in December, and off I went south.

That brings us to Monday. I had a spare Netatmo Welcome camera which I set up hooked up to a Zyxel 4G router to just keep an eye on the house. The camera basically triggers when it detects motion, and on Monday lunchtime I got an alert on my phone, went to the app on the phone and could see somebody wandering around in my kitchen. I immediately phoned the sales office and said that there was somebody in the house, which sent the sales agent off to find out what was going on, she phoned back a few minutes later to say it was a site manager who had been on holiday and still had a key, and she would keep it in the office, only for the phone to activate again as people triggered the camera again.

Talking to the insurance company we went through the keys including the inconsistent numbers of keys for the french doors, and then talking to a locksmith at Forth Locks, they said that each lock should have three keys with it, so we’d established there was a third key for the front door, but there was clearly a missing key for the french doors. The locksmith was clear that the builders were taking the mickey in suggesting that there were only ever five keys for the french doors. The insurance company was clear that whilst they appreciated we were a long way away, we needed to take steps to secure the house as soon as possible. As a result I arranged to meet a locksmith at the house on Tuesday lunchtime to change the locks, and booked flights for a day trip to Scotland.

James from the locksmith met me at the house within twenty minutes of me getting there, and only an hour after I landed at Edinburgh airport. He didn’t have quite the right sized locks in the van, but did an emergency fix, and we’ve arranged for them to produce correctly sized locks which will be fitted when I’m back up there in December. When I went up to the sales office after the locks had been changed, the site manager who had let Openreach in was sat there and again said he was on holiday, thought we weren’t moving in until December, and when Openreach asked for access he found a key for the site and just let them in as he didn’t realise we’d taken over the house. It’s not really clear quite what happened, suffice to say there was a third front door key and the site manager used it to let in Openreach.

Looking at what had changed at the house, the main difference was that the pile of cable outside the house had disappeared, and we now had an unconnected Customer Splice Point on the outside wall, which explained the drilling noises that were on the second security video. As I was in town I popped down to the school to finish off registering the children at the local school, and got paper work to register at the local GP, and when I stopped back at the house there was an Openreach engineer who had just put a note through the door asking me to call his boss. Talking to him on the phone he explained what the issue with the fibre installation was.

He explained that the reason there was an issue with the broadband was that they had found a fault in the fibre cable that ran from the outside wall to where the GPON terminal was located in the understairs cupboard. Openreach needed the cable re-run, but he said that Lovell had suggested that they just drill through the wall and move the GPON terminal to the outside wall to bypass the cable. The problem with that idea is that the fibre comes up outside the living room, so that would move the GPON terminal from being hidden away in the understairs cupboad, to being very visible on the wall in the living room. I said I wasn’t happy with having my living room looking like a computer room, and he said he would go back to the developer.

Talking to Michael, who sent his formal report on Wednesday, he said that because the fibre cables are considered pretty tough, they are usually laid as part of first fix electrics, and then the floor slab poured over the top, so it seems the reason for not wanting to pull a new cable is simply that the existing cable is embedded in concrete. Needless to say I’ve added the fibre cable to the snagging list too.

Michael’s report ran to 147 items. He said that an average four bed he’d expect to find about 160 issues, so our house is pretty reasonable. Most are simple issues, and there is nothing in the important items to note, so hopefully all stuff that Lovell can easily sort.

My initial idea with this series of blogs, was given that most of the coverage of new builds is from massively unhappy customers with big problems, blogging an average move into a new build might redress the balance. I wasn’t expecting the developers to let themselves into the house with a key they hadn’t handed over of course. What is perhaps interesting is considering what would have happened if I didn’t have the camera, would they have just carried on working on the house, and I would have turned up in December to find the GPON terminal moved into the living room?

Playing the New Build Game Again

So we’re playing the New Build game again. Seventeen years after we bought our current house off plan, and seven years after we last tried to buy a new build at the Milford Grange development in Winnersh, and the solicitor advised us to pull out when it transpired one of the two spaces they were selling us with the property was designated as a visitor space and we weren’t actually getting ownership of, we’re buying a new build at a development from Lovell Homes called Lochside Grange in the village of Kinghorn in Scotland.

The driver this time is that back in September I was offered a new job with Australian company Computershare who are setting up a global development centre in Edinburgh. Computershare were kind enough to give me three months to sort out somewhere to live, so the new build route seemed like the most straightforward way to relocate, especially given the somewhat different conveyancing systems north and south of the border.

Kinghorn ticked a lot of our boxes for a place to live in that we were looking for another village community such as we have in Arborfield. It also needed good transport links to Edinburgh – Kinghorn has a railway station ten minutes walk from the house with a direct rail service into Edinburgh Waverley. It also needed some places to go walking, so I’ll have the choice between heading up into the hills, or down to the beach when I go walking there.

It also ticked another major box in that it had a four bedroom house pretty well ready to move into, that was supposed to have been occupied back in June/July but the original sale had fallen through. Properties like this are always a bit unattractive as you lose one of the main advantages of a new build in that somebody else has already picked most things such as the bathroom tiles and so on, but we did at least get some choice of carpet albeit between beige and grey. The price of course is also attractive as the developer is really keen to shift the house.

The big issue with new builds is as always the pretty dreadful reputation the whole industry have for quality control. Even though the NHBC are well known to get claimants to sign gagging orders when claims are settled it doesn’t take much to find plenty of upset new build owners having long drawn out battles with their builders or the NHBC over their new homes. It’s a discussion for another post, but the simplest explanation seems to be the classic project triangle – new house builders try build as quickly as possible, and they want to make the maximum profit, so the quality slips. The British building industry has been doing it for years, and until government grasps the nettle it’s really not going to change. You do in theory have better protection than buying a second hand house with the NHBC ten year warranty, but that really only covers you for significant structural defects. Certainly the best bit of advice I’ve come across with regards to a new build is from the HomeOwners Alliance:

Never fail to apply a common sense test. For small problems, such as badly-painted walls or minor cracks, it might be better to give up pursuing your builder, get out a paint brush or some filler and sort out the problem yourself, rather than spend time and energy fighting your builder – even if it leaves you dissatisfied with the service you had expected.

So it’s fair to say we’re going in with our eyes rather more open than previously, but we’re trading flexibility over fixtures and fittings for having a pretty well finished house before we commit to the purchase. Certainly looking at the house there were some obvious snags – check out the slightly differently coloured tiles on the porch that suggest some of them have been changed. There is also a coil of cable that you can see on the left hand side where somebody has just put the cable from the TV/Satellite/Radio wall plate straight through the wall rather than where it should be up to the loft box. I also found the usual selection of minor quality control issues such as badly attached drain pipes and things not screwed together quite as they should be. Having said that compared to the nightmare new homes where builders seem to have struggled to properly lay bricks, it actually looked pretty reasonable.

We passed on the developers pet solicitor and got our own who confirmed that unlike in England, in Scotland developer management companies are rather more under control thanks to the intervention of the Scottish Government, and also that there weren’t any issues such as we had at Milford Grange with parking spaces – indeed we have a totally rectangular plot that contains our house, garage and space on the drive for cars.

The main issue so far has been a bit of a discussion with the developers head office over completion. As I said at the beginning, the developer is really keen to get rid of the house as soon as possible. They’ve really been pushing for 16th November, which is fine, aside from the fact that I’m still working down here until 30th November, and with only limited annual leave I can’t keep going up and down to Scotland. The recommended NHBC process is that buyers should have a visit to their house a week or so before they get the keys, and this is the ideal opportunity to spot and report any snags to allow the developer to sort them out before completion, as it’s a lot easier for the developer to do it before people move in. In Lovell terms they refer to this as a “home demonstration” visit. Given that Lovell were insisting on the 16th November, I asked if we could appoint a professional snagger to do the pre-completion visit, the sales staff noted that down, and all seemed well until twenty-four hours later when the sales agent phoned us whilst we were driving back to Reading saying that her site manager had been in and said it was company policy and they absolutely would not allow snagging inspections prior to completion.

It’s not unusual – Taylor Wimpey are well known for operating the same policy. The argument is that given that the developer is supposed to fix all snags raised in the first two years, snagging it before anybody moves in is unnecessary. Given it was company policy we then raised it up via the solicitor, who spent the best part of this last week arguing with Lovell that this was prejudicing the sale because we couldn’t be expected to attend for the week ahead “home demonstration”, and that we should be able to nominate whomever we like to attend the demonstration in our place. Not surprisingly they were having none of it, but it was worth a try. The advice I’ve seen says that if the developer won’t play ball to get a snagger in as soon as possible, and certainly before you move in.

As I said, there isn’t really anything in the house that leads me to think there is anything wrong with it, we’ve also talked to the neighbours who said they’ve only had minor issues and Lovell were quick to rectify anything that was raised, it’s just generally good practice, indeed the NHBC themselves publish their own snagging checklist of things to check.

Anyway, at the moment it looks like completion will be on 16th November, and I’ve got a snagging inspector coming to give the house the once over on the 17th, then we have a few weeks to organise all the essentials like broadband, phone lines, TV aerials and so on before we actually move. Hopefully that should mean that when the kids finish the school term and move up the house is at least vaguely sorted – although when we moved into this house we had boxes from moving in at the back of the garage for years afterwards.

DDD 2018 at Microsoft Reading

After a busy July, finally I’ve got a quiet moment to catch up with my notes from the recent Develop Developer Developer event held at Microsoft HQ in Reading.

I attended a real mix of sessions this year. First up was a real mind bending session led by Francess Tibble and Anita Ramanan, two software engineers at Microsoft talking about Quantum Computing and the Q# language. The session was split into two parts, the first a bit of a crash course in the physics involved in Quantum Computing, with quite a bit of maths too. The interesting take away is that present day quantum computers are expensive and unstable as they are particularly sensitive to external factors so can lose state in seconds. As a result we currently have the Quantum Development Kit that simulates how a real quantum computer should behave.

The key difference with a quantum computer is in the bit, in classical computing the bit is ether 0 or 1, but in quantum computing the bit can also be any point in between, taking the usual light bulb analogy for a classic bit, it’s like having a dimmer attached. I really haven’t got the space to cover all their content in detail, but they did do a version of the same talk a few days before DDD which is online on YouTube.

Moving on I then attended Joseph Woodward talking about Web Assembly, Blazor and the Future of Web Development.

Joseph started with a run through of the history of web development, and the perennial problem that whilst there has been a relentless move towards providing applications in a web browser, the tools to create rich applications in a web browser are really pretty limited. JavaScript, the main language of the web has become that largely by historical accident, and is pretty slow. Web Assembly is the latest of a number of attempts to replace JavaScript as the language of the web, in this case providing what is effectively a low-level byte code for the web and then compiling other languages into this byte code. At this stage it’s still very much a minimum viable product, but does seem to show some promise with multiple languages being able to compile into Web Assembly byte code.

For C# and other .Net support, since they also compile into the intermediate language of the .Net platform, Microsoft offers Blazor, which is a full .Net machine written in Web Assembly byte code. This of course does mean that .Net intermediate language is then being interpreted into Web Assembly byte code, so there are plans to compile to avoid this double layer of interpretation.

The actual coding is familiar to any C# programmers with familiar dependency injection, and the ability to pull in code using Nuget. Interop with JavaScript is provided, and is necessary because Web Assembly does not provide access to the DOM.

It was clear from the talk that the platform is still immature, it lacks performance and has no threading or garbage collection. However it does show promise. Even if it doesn’t provide a replacement for JavaScript, it does allow us to mix and match languages picking the language that is best suited for a particular task.

Next was what for many people was one of the big draws for this years DDD, the return of Barry Dorrans, now .NET Security Curmudgeon at Microsoft, but who before joining Microsoft and moving across the pond had been a regular speaker on security at developer events. Barry was presenting his Code Behind the Vulnerability session, variations of which he has presented for a number of years at conferences around the world. The great advantage of presenting it here however is that it allowed developers who don’t work for companies with the budgets to send their developers to paid for conferences to see this important session. Indeed Robert Hogg CEO of Black Marble who organise the DDD event at Microsoft considered the subject matter so important that he said to any of his developers in the room that they’d be fired if they did anything that Barry had spoken about!

The purpose behind the Code Behind the Vulnerability session is basically to go through security issues that Microsoft have found in their code, and the cause so other developers don’t make the same mistakes. Barry updates this session periodically as new exploits and problems come to light, so it is well worth keeping an eye out online for new versions.

Barry covered eight different security advisories, including hash tables that could bring a system down if they received specific user data – the tip here being not to use user supplied data as keys for a hash table, exposed endpoints that allowed users to work out encrypted messages, and a number of occasions where people had turned off or misused features making security holes, for example turning off signing on view state allowing attackers to create .NET objects, or simply writing a GET API call that changes state.

Barry’s summary slide is the basics, but the whole slide deck is worth a read. His summary is:
– Sign your data, even when it is encrypted
– Don’t use regular expressions
– Don’t use BinaryFormatter
– Don’t overbind in MVC
– Use the right HTTP verb
– Validate your inputs

Barry’s session is a critical one for anybody doing .NET development, many of the issues he shows are easy to make, but can have catastrophic consequences.

The next session I attended was rather lighter, but was also one that has been presented at a major conference but Dylan Beattie was bringing to DDD. You can view the keynote version of Apps, Algorithms and Abstractions: Decoding our Digital World on YouTube and it is broadly similar.

Dylan starts off with talking about how news of his birth and a first picture made it from where he was born in Africa, back to his grandparents back in Oxfordshire – a process that took weeks. He then looks at technology today where we can get a photo appear on a phone in your pocket and respond immediately. In the space of his lifetime the way we communicate has fundamentally changed. His session goes through the basic technology that underpins these changes, and is absolutely fascinating.

This was probably my favourite session of the day as it covers so many different areas of technology. It was also presented in an easy to digest way, and in a way that I’ve been able to show it to my children and they can start to understand all sorts of technological ideas.

My final session was one of those I picked more because I enjoyed the speaker – Gary Short talking about AI Dev-ops. Gary started looking at how the principles that have brought about dev-ops can be applied to AI and machine learning work, for much the same reasons. There has always been a big disconnect between data scientists and coders. Data scientists have a very niche skillset, so in the past they would do the specialist work, and then hand their carefully designed models to developer to implement. However tools are now being produced that allow data scientists to develop an implement their models, and coders to just connect to these rather than implement them.

Gary also had some useful tips, he highlighted that you can only optimise algorithms for false positives, or false negatives, not both, so it is a business decision as to which costs more, false positives or false negatives. This is a useful tip with regards to our products at FISCAL as we have a continual tension between reducing the number of false positives we produce, whilst not missing results, i.e. a false negative.

In summary DDD 2018 was a good day, and well worth spending a Saturday. For many developers there isn’t the budget to go to paid conferences regularly, so it is particularly good to be able to see sessions from those conferences presented live at a free community conference. Particularly for sessions like Barry’s important information about how to code securely is something all developers should be hearing, not just the ones who work for a company with a good training and conference budget!

Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.