`My home should be my castle. It is more like a prison'

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Flat-owners who jointly buy the freehold to their block sometimes run into problems with the management body. In her latest monthly column, Karen Woolfson talks to a London woman who says she is living under a reign of terror.

"I'm terrified they'll beat me up. I cry, feel sick, ill sometimes, it's terrible ... my nerves are shot to hell," says one victim. "It's like living in a concentration camp because we fear them. We're not allowed to question anything they do, they think they have the ultimate right to do what they like. They're a law unto themselves and we're reported on - our movements - all the time. They keep a log on us."

This is 1998, London's riverside, a luxury block of flatsfilled with professional people. They are mainly single, or young married couples without children, or wealthy individuals who have bought a second home in the heart of the capital. Yet in this block the concept of collective ownership, where flatowners jointly buy their freehold, often in an attempt to oust a nightmare landlord or, in this case, when the developers went bust, appears to have gone badly wrong in practice.

The flatowners in this building jointly bought their freehold a few years ago, though not all of the scores of leaseholders chose to participate. The problem is that a firm has acquired a majority stake in the freehold company and has allegedly used their position to create a state of fear, persecuting residents who ask questions and policing the life of the block with porters.

One woman, who says she has been singled out for victimisation, says: "It all started because we asked for disclosure of the accounts." She alleges that anyone who "dares question management, who wants to know how money is spent or to see accounts, they pick on". She adds that they "try to isolate you and give you a hard time". She continues: "I'm an easy target, a soft target, because I'm single and live alone."

The fact is that leasehold flatowners are entitled under legislation to ask for disclosure of service charge accounts, but the process of achieving this can be tortuous. The same flatowner poses the question - if the freeholder has nothing to hide, then why not grant leaseholders their legal right to access the accounts?

She alleges that leaseholders who speak out in attempts to enforce their rights are being subjected to a campaign of terror. She says: "[The porters] entered my flat uninvited, told me I'd left my door wide open. I was frightened and scared when I heard someone in the hallway ... at times I fear for my safety and hate going home. I make sure at all times my door is securely locked because I fear them."

The situation is affecting every part of her life, from her home to work and leisure. "My home is supposed to be my castle. Mine is like a prison. I dared to question where our service charge money is being spent and since then I've been spied on ... written about to other residents warning them I'm an agitator. I hate returning home, walking past the front desk, and sometimes leave from the basement."

She says there's "fear inside me all the time" and says she has been threatened when there are no witnesses around, verbally abused, and is basically unable to enjoy the home she purchased six years ago.

She alleges that people have threatened to withhold her post, and when they do give it to her, throw it at her. "I feel like I've been violated," she says. "My post has been interfered with, it's going missing, specifically bank statements and credit card bills."

She has readdressed her post to her place of work, but some post still goes to her home address.

She also says that her car has been broken into, blocked in and scratched with keys on numerous occasions. She says her friends are frightened to visit her in the block and she is forced to spend much time out of her so-called "home".

"There are times when I've sunk into depression about it. The only way I can get out is to fight to get out," she says. She says that estate agents don't want to come into the block because of the problems, so flats are almost impossible to sell.

This woman is professional, well-off and intelligent, and says she just wants to ensure that her property is well managed. She alleges that the more questions she asks, the greater the harassment and intimidation she is subjected to.

The Government has promised to overhaul the system, but the problem needs to be tackled sooner rather than later to end the misery that many thousands of leaseholders are being subjected to throughout Britain. Legislation needs to be tightened in consultation with leaseholders who have experienced victimisation and have come to understand the intricate strategies of rogue landlords.

Karen Woolfson welcomes comments for her column. Write to: Homebattles, c/o Nic Cicutti, Personal Finance section, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Karen regrets she is unable to reply personally to all letters.

Basic steps for saving yourself a leasehold nightmare

Check your lease carefully.

Where the service charge is payable by tenants of more than four dwellings the summary must be certified by a qualified accountant and supported by receipts and documents.

You have the right to ask for a summary of the costs which should be supplied within one month of the request or within six months of the end of the accounting period.

You can ask to see accounts, receipts and other supporting documents within six months of receiving the landlord's summary.

You may take photocopies if you wish.

Your landlord must consult you if he is planning to carry out works costing more than pounds l,000 or pounds 50 per flat, whichever is the greater. He must also follow the required consultation procedure.

You can seek the appointment of a manager where the landlord is is breach of his obligations to you under the lease or has failed to comply with any relevant provision of a code of management practice approved by the Secretary of State.

You can challenge the service charges through a Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, such as the repairs, maintenance, management or charges relating to services provided, and to seek appointment of a new manager to run the block.

If you have a share in the freehold management company, however small, you can seek enforcement of company law relating to unfair prejudice, designed to prevent majority shareholders from hijacking a company for their own purposes.

If you have ten percent or more of the shares in the freehold you can demand an EGM and prior to that propose the resolutions or discussion points and the management company is required to convene a meeting.

What you can do if problems occur

Ask to discuss the problem with your landlord in the hope you can negotiate an agreement.

Offer mediation (available through some councils).

Contact your local council's housing department for advice

Consult a solicitor to find out what your rights are under leasehold & tenants law and company law

Contact a surveyor who understands the problems in practice and could carry out a report on the block.

Contact the police in cases of harassment.