Property: Freehold rights or a lawyers' charter?

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A DEATH knell should have tolled for bad landlords this week when the Queen signed a law giving flat-dwellers the right to buy their freehold. But the Leasehold Reform Act, which comes into force later this year, could turn out to be merely a lawyers' charter. Complicated rules and a network of loopholes mean residents will have to use professional advisers, says David Marcus of London solicitors Franks Charlesly, who is handling several prospective buyouts. Their legal bills could be minuscule, however, compared with those of the landlord, which they must also pay.

No one knows how many people own flats; even the Government had to guess at between 750,000 and 1 million. But they are all stuck in an antiquated system where landlords can rip them off with high service charges, fraudulent repair costs and dodgy insurance premiums. The Act was meant to provide an escape, but thousands will be excluded, many because they live above shops or offices, because the freeholder lives on the premises, or because they will not be able to muster the required number of neighbours to approve a buyout - now set at half the residents in a block.

Even those who do qualify could be thwarted by the costs. While the Act was going through Parliament, opponents inserted rules banning those who had not lived in a flat for a minimum time from becoming involved in a buyout. Landlords could spend money querying these qualifications just to block buyouts - and then add the cost to legal bills. This will pale, however, beside the compensation freeholders will claim for giving up their deeds. Residents will be charged the market value of their leases, plus a premium for 'marrying' the lease and freehold, plus any potential development profits given up by the landlord.

NEWS that mortgage lending soared in June has brought some relief to fears that the housing recovery had run out of steam. Buyers were given the go-ahead to bid for 57,000 homes, the best monthly figures for almost a year. This shows the market is recovering slowly, says Adrian Coles of the Building Societies Association.

However, nerves had been starting to fray as a surge in sales during the first part of this year has been followed by gradual falls. Deals are still running almost 5 per cent higher than the same month last year, says Peter Constable of the Corporate Estate Agents Property Index, which draws figures from 4,000 offices around the country. These appear even more impressive because the market was artificially boosted in early 1992 by the stamp duty holiday. But he is disappointed that they have been dropping steadily again since March.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) blames this year's holiday season for diverting buyers and predicts a return to growth in the autumn. David Goldsworthy of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) is less sure. With the economy showing signs of cracking, he says a 1 per cent interest rate cut is vital to rescue the recovery. Mr Constable also blames doubts among ordinary buyers about the general economic recovery for the decline in sales.

The picture is just as cloudy over prices. The RICS insists in its poll of surveyors that they have 'stabilised', and advises people to ignore conflicting reports of minor fluctuations. Yet fewer than half the NAEA members questioned last month believe the slide is over. That shows how optimism has weakened since April, when more than 70 per cent thought prices had hit bottom.

BUTTON could clear up this confusion in an instant. He's the perfect sounding board for questions about life, the universe and whether or not house prices will ever recover. Don't expect too much in the way of conversation, however. He is old, lazy, and has a vocabulary limited to the odd purr.

Button is a 15-year-old tabby who comes with a home Chestertons is letting in Highgate, north London. The owners are off to Australia - too far for an old mouser to move in his dotage. But he could be more than just another soft furnishing, according to 200 buyers who poured out their hearts to David Wilson Homes. More than 95 per cent admitted they talk through life's problems with their pets. In fact the vast majority steer their choice of home around suitability for their four-legged friends.