Freehold laws make for traps: A new freeholder is building around a leaseholder's flat, depriving her of the right to light. Mary Wilson reports

A NEW law makes it possible for many leaseholders to buy the freehold of their property. This might be an expensive and complicated procedure, but there are cases where an incompetent, absent or useless landlord makes it a tempting proposition.

To enfranchise the property you need to know who the freeholder is. Quite often, especially with freeholders of blocks of flats, ownership changes regularly, sometimes to an offshore company, which makes the process very difficult.

If a new freeholder does not inform his leaseholders of his interest then he is breaking the law, but he can have as long as a year in which to tell them.

Mary Jane Wilkinson, a public relations consultant, has been living in a large one-bedroom flat quite happily - until recently - with a friendly and helpful landlord and good managing agents. But things have changed.

'I have lived in my beautiful flat for 17 years,' Miss Wilkinson said. 'It was converted very well in the 1950s and one thing we love about it is that it is so very light.

'The problems started when a chap bought the lease of the top flat. There are four flats in all and I live in the second floor flat, under the top one. He wanted to build a mansard extension, but couldn't get planning permission. The next thing we knew, he asked the landlord if he could have permission to build across the stairs at the top of the building, which would take in the sky-light at the top of the stairwell. This would take away much of our light.

'I made a stink about it, spoke to the landlord who said he understood. I spoke to the tenant who wanted to do the work and asked him why he wanted to ruin such a lovely building.

'I told him that none of us (the two other tenants are elderly women) were happy with what he was doing and that surely the other tenants should be consulted. But he didn't seem to be interested.'

Eventually the landlord refused to grant the licence.

'Alongside this we had been trying to get the common parts redecorated, for which we had all stumped up pounds 800. The tenant, who has never lived there, says he will just paint the place and let it out. So we got the painters and decorators in for the common parts. At which point he said he was putting in a new kitchen and bathroom. We agreed not to put down the stair-carpet until he had finished, because of all the mess it would make.

'The next thing I knew was that a letter arrived from a surveyor asking to see the plans of my flat. I rang up the managing agents to find out what was going on. They wrote a week later to say that the freehold of the entire property had been sold to an off-shore company, which they thought was owned by the upstairs tenant, Mr Contractor.'

Carles Caplin, the solicitor acting for the original freeholder, Model Textile & Trading Ltd, said :'At one stage I was dealing with Mr Contractor as a would-be purchaser. At the next stage I was dealing with a company, which I presumed was his company.'

A solicitor acting for the new owner, Spenta Ltd, registered in Jersey, said that Mr Contractor did not have a beneficial interest in the property.

Ms Wilkinson said: 'The work started anyway. We were not notified about what was going on, and not immediately informed that the freeholder had changed. The managing agents resigned, so we were totally in limbo.

'We are completely in the power of this new freeholder and have no idea what is going to happen to the building.

'We initially thought that the man at the top now owned the building, but he said he was not the purchaser. Nevertheless he has got the builders in, is gutting the top of the building and doing what he wanted to by taking in the top part of the building to his flat and denying us the light from the skylight.

'We are having to bear the brunt of the work, the mess, the noise, I woke up one morning to see a crack in my ceiling. The builders have been marvellous and as helpful as they could be, but much of the paintwork is going to have to be redone and we have lost our wonderful light.

'I reckon we should have at least been notified as to what was going on, and at least offered the building at the same price,' she added. Miss Wilkinson's worry is that as a tenant with a new freeholder they know nothing about and with no managing agents, she and the other tenants are completely at his or her mercy.

(Photograph omitted)