Money: Stung by a Portuguese Man-of-war

Stuart Findlay talks to Corinne Simcock about being tied to a timeshare
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Stuart Findlay, 51, is chairman of Pelmark Group, a leading supplier of promotional merchandise. At the age of 16, after reading a book in his local library one afternoon called Get Up and Go, he went home, packed his rucksack and spent the next two years hitch-hiking though 55 countries. On returning to the UK he spent one term at agricultural college, had a failed attempt as a pig farmer, then made a fortune in property development and was driving a Bentley by the age of 25. After losing everything in the property crash of 1974 he started all over again and established Pelmark, which today has a turnover of pounds 8.5m.

"In 1983 we sold our house to buy some land just outside our Hertfordshire village and applied for planning permission to turn the existing two-room cottage into a four-bedroom house.

It was completely uninhabitable as it stood; more like a shack, really. There was no bathroom or kitchen ... just a tub outside. I was so confident our application would be approved that I went ahead and started on the work, demolishing most of the cottage in the process.

This turned out to be a mistake, because I was shopped by my neighbour the day before the planners' meeting. The council decided that since there was no longer a house on which to build an extension, I would have to put in a fresh application for full planning permission to build a brand new house.

Meanwhile, we were living in couple of old caravans with our three children. It was the middle of winter and conditions were not good. We had been battling with the council for months and Christmas was fast approaching, so I decided to take the family away for a break.

We flew to the Algarve and fell in love with it. We had a brilliant holiday; the sun shone every day and we assumed the weather was always like that.

One of the local magazines was advertising a Swiss-owned timeshare development which was nearing completion, so we went along and had a look.

It was in a lovely position and the village was totally unspolit. My only concern was that the swimming pools weren't heated, but they said that would be sorted out, so I did the deal there and then and bought the first two weeks of January every year for pounds 6,000.

We had several good holidays there, but times change and things move on. We still loved Portugal, but we wanted the freedom to be able to take breaks at different times of the year. Meanwhile, the whole area had become over-developed, so I started looking for some land on which to build a house.

We wanted somewhere quiet, away from the tourists, and finally found what we were looking for. At that point I tried to sell our timeshare, only to find it was impossible.

The local sales office had given the impression that it would be marketing timeshare weeks forever and that if ever I wanted to sell it wouldn't be a problem. But that office had now closed down, so I wrote to the company in Switzerland. They said they couldn't help.

I put advertisements in newspapers and wrote to timeshare brokers, but no one was interested. I could swap it for timeshare weeks elsewhere, but all I wanted to do was sell it.

Meanwhile, of course, the management fees had gone up every year. They started at pounds 60 a week and are now up to pounds 300, so in theory I am committed to paying an annual pounds 600 for something I don't want and don't use. Needless to say, I've stopped paying it, though they keep chasing me.

As far as I was concerned, I had bought a commodity. I expected to be able to sell that commodity, whether at a profit, at the price I had paid, or even for less. Unfortunately, it seems a second-hand timeshare has no value at all.

I don't think people who buy timeshare are aware of the difficulties of selling them later on. There is no capital growth: on the contrary, it is immediately worth less. It's like buying a brand new car.

And the landlords have you by the balls, though they appear nice and friendly when they're trying to sell you something. The swimming pools never did get heated; they were freezing at that time of year.

The restaurants and supermarkets were always closed for the winter because it was so quiet, but we weren't told that in advance.

As far back as 1984 I made a list of complaints about things that were broken or needed replacing, but they were never dealt with. The company didn't even write back.

Eventually, all the timeshare members got together and formed a committee to present a united front to the management and force some action.

The main objections were with regard to management fees, lack of maintenance and the low level of staff during the winter months.

It was the only way forward, but it meant that people who had initially invested their money in somewhere to relax each year were being forced to spend their time driving to AGMs and writing letters.

It is now six years since we last used the place, and so far I have spent around pounds 12,000 on what has turned out to be a white elephant.

Fortunately, a chap I play golf with goes out there from time to time, so he's going to have a look, and if he likes it I'm going to give it to him on condition he pays the back management fees.

You're far better off buying a holiday every year rather than committing yourself to timeshare.

You can rent a villa for the price of the management fees alone - without the cost of the capital outlay - and still have the flexibility of being able to go where you want when you want."

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