The day you move in ... and the bailiffs follow

What do you do when your new home's plagued by the debts of the previous owner? Emma Haughton finds out the hard way

Several weeks after moving into a repossessed home in Devon, we discovered why the previous owners had disappeared without trace. Letters flowed in from creditors and debt collection firms demanding payment of various bills and council tax arrears, shortly followed by the debt collectors themselves. Even when all you owe, you owe legitimately to your mortgage lender, waking up to a couple of burly bailiffs on your doorstep is distinctly unnerving.

Despite numerous calls and letters to the council and bailiff firms, demands for payment kept arriving, in post and in person. After several months of harassment we rallied, and threatened to sue anyone and everyone who persisted in disturbing our peace. Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick.

According to John Kruse, a specialist money adviser with the Citizens Advice Bureau, this is a common position for home owners or people renting property to find themselves in - indeed, Mr Kruse experienced similar problems himself when he bought a house. "We found summonses turning up, and one or two debt collectors coming round. It's a difficult situation, and often very tedious to get sorted out."

Ridding yourself of other people's bad debts can take a good deal of determination, admits Chris Tye, secretary of the Association of Civil Enforcement Agents (ACEA). There's no quick and easy solution. "Each authority or creditor has on their files the name and address of debtors, but if they just move on, there's no mechanism for notifying anyone that they have gone. The computers will just keep churning out the notices."

If you have a forwarding address for the previous occupants, your first step should be to send on the documents, requesting that they deal with them promptly. Then keep your fingers crossed. If, however, you bought the house as a repossession and have no means of contacting the old owners, you could try handing the mail to the estate agent or to the solicitor acting for building society, and insisting that they pass it on.

Meanwhile, you should write to all creditors and debt collection companies involved, to inform them of the change of ownership. You may be asked for a forwarding address for the debtors, but even if you have one you are not obliged to disclose it.

In theory, that should be the end of the matter. In practice, debt collection procedures still leave a lot to be desired. "The problem is that many creditors, like councils, are not good at administration," says Mr Kruse. "If local authorities, for instance, bothered to check their own council tax records, they would see that the house has new occupants who don't owe them money. There is often a complete lack of communication between councils and the bailiffs; even when a debt is paid, the authority may not bother to inform the bailiffs, and the problems continue."

Although bailiffs are supposed to forewarn of any intended visit, not all firms abide by the rules. "In a lot of cases, bailiffs like an element of surprise, preferring to come suddenly out of the blue," says Mr Kruse. So what should you do if you open the door to an unfriendly face? Ask for their ID and take a note of their names and the company they work for. Hand over a copy of your letters to the creditor, and offer proof of your identity. Not surprisingly, some debtors do try to pretend they have moved on.

If the problems persist, you may have to start getting heavy yourself. In the case of councils, a complaint to the local authority ombudsman should focus their minds. If bailiffs prove too zealous in their pursuit of wealth, you can put the boot in with the ACEA, which has a formal complaints procedure, or with the county court, which certificates all reputable debt collection firms.

Thankfully, judgements against previous occupants should no longer affect your ability to get credit. Since the early Nineties, credit reference agencies have been allowed to hold information only against individuals, rather than against an address; as long as your name is different from that of the previous occupants, you shouldn't experience any problems. If you do, find out from the company from which you intend to borrow, the name and address of any credit reference agency it used. For a pounds 1 fee, the agency will send a copy of your file; it is obliged to amend any details that are incorrect.

Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to avoid this ugly predicament in the first place. Obviously, if the house you're after is repossessed, it's worth bearing in mind that the previous occupants may have got into difficulties with more than just their mortgage company. If the owners are still in possession, try to ensure that they leave a forwarding address; better still, ask them to get the Post Office to reroute their mail. It all rather depends, however, on whether ultimately they intend to repay, or to make a run for it.

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