Property: Time for another kind of neighbourhood watch

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The Independent Online
DO YOU know all your neighbours? Do they rent or own their homes? If you live in a block of flats, it may be crucial to find out. A loophole in the 'charter for leaseholders' going through Parliament could end up depriving people of rights, rather than freeing them from their bondage to landlords.

Once two-thirds of leaseholders in a building agree, they can take unilateral action to buy out a freeholder, according to controversial proposals in the Housing and Urban Development Bill. But they do not have to tell the other leaseholders, and once this process is under way, the others cannot demand a share.

The elderly could be particularly vulnerable where they have moved into sheltered flats. A pressure group or speculator could acquire the freehold and then make changes to support services, according to the Association of Retirement Housing Managers.

The association is angry that civil servants have ignored pleas to include mandatory notices of such deals in the Bill. It says that leaseholders should also be allowed a 'cooling-off' period to withdraw from buyouts. This would protect them from making hasty financial decisions.

I HONESTLY don't expect my Saturday musings to provoke sprays of cornflakes. But it must be hard to retain composure when your former dream home jumps off the page as a long- abandoned derelict.

Norman Gregory exploded at the sad sight of Spaniard's Field, a multi- million-pound repossession near London's Hampstead Heath, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. 'We bought it in the mid-Fifties and kept it as a family home before selling in 1969,' he says. 'It is a shame that things have come full circle. They were happy times. The Wendy house we built for the children is still standing on the

island in the lake that we cleared.'

Would he take it back? 'It's a bit too big now the children have left. In any case, I don't know how to get hold of the Sultan of Brunei,' he says, referring to the rumoured new owner.

Even more surprisingly, the Independent has heard from the family that occupied Spaniard's Field before Mr Gregory. Mrs Flower Elias bought the house in 1948 from its original owners, and lived there until 1956. When, 31 years later, her grandson married a granddaughter of her sister, they were given permission by the then owner, Godfrey Bradman, to have the wedding on the lawn at Spaniard's Field. 'As I write this, I smile and sigh, for, in the words of Noel Coward, 'What has been, is past forgetting.' '

Dereliction is not the only sign of passing time. The Gregory family bought the place for pounds 14,000 and made a handsome profit by selling on for pounds 72,000. The mysterious new owner is understood to have coughed up pounds 2m last year.

EVERY silver lining has its cloud. Among reports of a sharp rise in the number of home buyers, a lone voice insists that things are not as wonderful as they seem. Sales in the UK in January plunged 14 per cent below the same month last year, continuing an unbroken six-month slide, say the housing analysts James R Adams.

'We think it is time for facts to be faced, especially in the light of reports that the market has turned up,' Jimmy Adams, the chairman, says.

Now back to the silver lining. The sales drop was due to lack of interest before Christmas, says Peter Constable, who monitors sales for many of the big national agencies. It takes a while for contracts to be exchanged, and the new surge has not yet shown through, he says.

Agreed deals yet to reach this stage are down a mere 2 per cent on last January. Only a few of these are likely to collapse because all have the finance arranged and completed chains.

Only time will tell who is making the right noises. In the meantime, the two experts may like to bet on who is right. The winner takes me out to dinner. The loser pays.