Sam Dunn: 'Can we get rid of our management firm?'

House Doctor
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The Independent Online

Question: The property management company for our block of flats is shambolic – filthy floors, poor maintenance, rip-off charges – and every one of the 15 flats (we're all leasehold owners) wants to do something about it. Can we still apply for what I understand is called "commonhold" status and turf them out? We've found little practical information on it anywhere. RO, Plymouth



Answer: Your anger is sadly shared by a number of other correspondents who have been in touch asking for help with similar predicaments. It's understandably galling, as leaseholders, to shell out hefty fees for a supposed "upkeep" of the communal spaces in your building only to see it repeatedly squandered by an incompetent and uncaring freeholder landlord.

However, don't pin your hopes on commonhold status as an instant salvation, because an even more perilous path could lie ahead. Commonhold is a new kind of freehold ownership, introduced via the Leasehold and Commonhold Reform Act into England and Wales in 2002 in a bid to stamp out the kind of behaviour you're up against.

It sounds simple enough: long-suffering neighbouring leasehold flat owners now have the right to club together and buy out the landlord. They then become an association and newly own the property together like freeholders, becoming jointly responsible for maintenance and cleanliness of the public areas of the building – roof, walls, halls – and can appoint a new, decent operator to do so.

A dispute resolution process is also in place for internal arguments between neighbours, and majority votes can help speed up decision-making, while all fees for the association are naturally shared. Yet, in reality, commonhold is proving to be a dismally complex struggle often doomed to failure as legal complications, and vested property interests delay progress.

"To transfer a block [of flats] from leasehold to commonhold requires the consent of all parties with an interest in the block – the freeholder, all the leaseholders, and all their mortgage lenders," says Nigel Wilkins of the Campaign to Abolish Residential Leasehold. And since the freeholder would be unlikely to agree, even the first step of acquiring that freehold is hard enough to deter many leaseholders."

Few steps have been taken at all. So far, the numbers of UK commonholders is spectacularly low, and estimated to be in the low hundreds rather in the tens of thousands originally anticipated by ministers seven years ago.

Lease, a Government-funded leasehold advisory service for the public, recently admitted that commonhold "take-up [by individuals] appears to remain limited" and that it had received "few enquiries" in 2008. The Ministry of Justice has promised to hold a public consultation later this year, to review the problems afflicting its progress.

For now, your best bet is to wait and look instead to other powers ushered in by the 2002 Act: to challenge rip-off landlord service charges via an independent leasehold valuation tribunal.

For example, you have a right to see a full description of any scheduled building maintenance work – plus a breakdown of all costs – if the property manager bills you for work costing more than £250 per property. And if you believe such work is cheaper elsewhere, you can give the name of a rival contractor to your landlord for a better-value quote.

However, don't expect an easy ride at such tribunals: landlords have been regularly known to stonewall and threaten to sue complaining leaseholders.



For more information, contact the Leasehold Advisory Service: 020-7374 5380; www.lease-advice.org.uk

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