Property: Life in a house of horrors: Anne Spackman details the difficulties facing two groups of leaseholders who are in dispute with one of Britain's largest landlords

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The Independent Online
Sinclair Gardens Investments (Kensington) Limited is one of Britain's largest landlords. It is owned and run by Peter and Anne Cutler, of Craigweil, Bognor Regis. Its net assets in November last year were pounds 6.1m.

Annette Martin lives in a one-bedroom flat in Waldegrave Road, Teddington, south-west London, which she bought three years ago for pounds 73,500. Alison Steinmetz lives in a one-bedroom flat in Dafforne Road, Tooting, south-west London, which is worth pounds 43,500. The two are linked by a David-versus-Goliath struggle with their freeholder, Sinclair Gardens Investments.

In March last year, the landlord wrote to the seven tenants of the Waldegrave Road property, explaining that the building's exterior needed redecorating. In accordance with the law, two estimates were provided: one from a firm called Macbourt and the other from a firm called Campbell-Bluck. Macbourt's tender was pounds 4,851 plus VAT.

The estimate came on notepaper bearing the logo of the Federation of Master Builders. Macbourt has never been a member of the federation and has been formally cautioned by the local authority trading standards department.

The lessees were told in a letter from Sinclair's managing agent, Hurst Managements, that the contract price included 'all scaffoldings, towers, skips, labour and materials found necessary'. As well, Hurst Managements would charge a 12.5 per cent fee for organising and supervising the work.

Hurst Managements is the trading name of First Management Limited, a company owned by Peter and Anne Cutler and their son, Gregory. It is based at Sinclair's address in Bognor Regis.

The lessees submitted an alternative quote from a reputable local builder, A W Stokes & Son, which was slightly lower. However, the managing agent added a 10 per cent contingency fee (which A W Stokes had been unaware was required) to the price, taking it above that of Macbourt. A W Stokes's quote included the very costly item of scaffolding, which the tenants assumed was the reason for Macbourt's quote being so high. According to an independent report by the chartered quantity surveyors Timms, Eida & Associates, scaffolding 'would have been required by the local health and safety officer'.

Last June, two men turned up at Waldegrave Road with their ladders. The lessees were unhappy with the quality of their work, which they felt in no way matched the original specification. They were particularly aggrieved at the lack of scaffolding, which they had thought would account for about pounds 1,600 of the bill.

During conversations with the lessees, the painters said they were self-employed and were receiving pounds 1,300 from Macbourt for the job. They reckoned the materials, provided by Macbourt, cost about pounds 500. 'You can imagine our shock when we realised that we would be expected to pay pounds 5,699.92 (including VAT) for a job which had only cost Macbourt pounds 1,800 to carry out,' Annette Martin says.

A spokesman for Macbourt said the painters were wrong about the cost, but refused to discuss the matter further.

The leaseholders then began a lengthy correspondence with both their landlord and managing agent. They were incensed that the managing agent was charging an additional pounds 647.72 for organising and supervising the job when the site had not been visited while work was carried out.

Following the leaseholders' complaints, the managing agent sent a surveyor to inspect the house, and added his fee to the supervising charge, making a total of pounds 823.97. This was despite the fact that the lessees had been told the charge covered general attendances: this attendance was the first since the work started.

The lessees then arranged for an independent report by Timms, Eida. It stated: 'From our site visit it is already clear (by the presence of flaking paintwork) that inadequate preparation took place and an absence of compliance with the specification. The paintwork on the windows and doors looks very thin and is considered to be of the one-coat variety.'

The surveyors estimated it would have taken 147 man-hours to carry out the work to specification. The lessees reckoned the painters had spent about 74 hours on the job. The surveyors calculated that a realistic bill for the job done, including VAT and adding 40 per cent for overheads and profit, was pounds 1,213.33.

The lessees have paid about 60 per cent of the fees and have tried to negotiate over the outstanding, disputed sums. They have been threatened in a series of lawyers' letters (for which they are charged pounds 25 each), saying they are in breach of their lease and will be taken to court.

The lessees feel trapped. Their own solicitors have warned them that the disputed sum (about pounds 2,000) may end up looking very small compared with the legal costs of fighting their landlord. At least one of the leaseholders is trying to sell his flat, which he cannot do unless the bill is settled.

Over in Tooting, Alison Steinmetz and her fellow leaseholders in Dafforne Road have had a similar experience. They have been on the receiving end of a number of letters threatening them with legal action if they do not pay a disputed bill over external decoration and repairs.

The Dafforne Road tenants had supplied a cheaper quote than that offered by Campbell-Bluck of Bracknell, their managing agents' choice for the job. But before any agreement had been reached, some men turned up to start work, saying they were from Campbell-Bluck.

When the lessees queried this with the managing agent, they were told the firm employed was actually Sapphire, which had subsequently tendered an even lower quote. The lessees say they never saw a quote from Sapphire, which, like Campbell-Bluck, is based in Bracknell.

Campbell-Bluck's original quote was for pounds 2,298.88. The lessees' quote was for pounds 990. Sapphire's cost was pounds 1,400 for redecoration and an additional pounds 1,644.99 for repairs, for which the tenants say no notice was given.

A similar battle has ensued over payment, with Miss Steinmetz receiving legal threats. She has had enough and is paying up and moving out 'to a freehold property in Hertfordshire'.

Peter Cutler said Sinclair Gardens Investments had behaved reasonably in both cases. In the case of Waldegrave Road, he said: 'We have a contractual arrangement with the tenants of that property. We have fulfilled our contract to the letter. They have not fulfilled theirs. If you fail to abide by the law, then you must suffer the consequences.

'We have just gone through four years of the worst recession this country has seen,' he said. (During that four-year period Sinclair Gardens Investments' net assets have risen from pounds 947,000 to more than pounds 6m.) 'We have been successful during that time because we have a rigid regime of enforcing the terms of our leases.'

Some tenants said their solicitors had warned them when they were buying their flats that they might have trouble with Sinclair Gardens Investments. Mr Cutler said his company had got that reputation because it did not suffer fools lightly. 'We don't have many legal actions brought against us,' he said.

This is hardly surprising. In houses divided into a number of one-bedroom flats, the owners are predominantly young, single, working people who stay for a few years and move on. They do not have time to fight landlords and would rather pay a bill of a few hundred pounds, however reluctantly, than be prevented from selling up.

On top of this, the costs of court cases involving landlord and tenant legislation are likely to be huge. If you are an individual with a few thousand pounds of equity, the law is a far more risky business than for a firm with assets of more than pounds 6m. If the Davids are ever to have a chance of taking on the Goliaths, they will need a legal fairy godmother.

(Photograph omitted)