Travel: The mystery of the missing freeholder

Robert Poray and his girlfriend, Lyn Greenwood, planned to sell their London flats and buy a place together. That was two years ago. Ms Greenwood sold her flat, but Mr Poray is stuck with his, in Finchley, north London. It isn't that he has had trouble finding a buyer. In fact, he found two. The trouble is that he cannot find his freeholder.

This may sound like a bonus rather than a problem - no ground rent to pay, no bumped-up bills for repairs. But a solicitor will not recommend a buyer takes on a property where the freehold is in dispute. So in order to sell, Mr Poray needs to find his landlord.

Mr Poray has been searching hard. According to the Land Registry, the freehold of the house has changed hands several times since he bought one of the three flats there in 1989. As a leaseholder, he had a legal right to be informed of this, and to have first refusal on the freehold.

The current freeholder, according to the Land Registry, is a Mr Matthews of Stamford Hill, north London. The registry has tried unsuccessfully to contact him. Even Mr Matthews' solicitor says she cannot reach him by telephone, and her letters go

unanswered.

A number of demands from different property management companies have been sent to the flat over the years. Some are for the ground rent of pounds 75 a year; others are for buildings insurance premiums, although no insurance policy has ever been produced. (Mr Poray has been insuring his flat himself as a precaution.)

Mr Poray's solicitor suggested his client try to buy the freehold of the building. At least two- thirds of leaseholders must be party to any attempt to buy out a freehold, so he needs another flat to join in. But the occupants of the ground-floor flat cannot afford to participate, and the ownership of the second-floor flat is unclear. What is Mr Poray to do?

Last week a couple with a similar problem used the new Leasehold Reform Act to try to get a response from a recalcitrant freeholder. Charles Waitt and Jean Burkin, of Friern Barnet, north London, were the first to take a case before the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal. They are now awaiting the outcome.

Peter Haler, of the Leasehold Enfranchisement Advisory Service, says that under section 11 of the new Act, Mr Poray can issue an information notice which requires the freeholder to disclose details of ownership of the freehold. If the freeholder fails to reply, Mr Poray can go to court for an order requiring him to respond. If that is ignored, the freeholder is in contempt of court and a summons can be issued.

The tactic works as a warning shot and may flush the freeholder out to the satisfaction of prospective buyers of Mr Poray's flat.

If that fails, however, the couple will have to go through the costly and risky procedures of applying for either a lease extension or purchase of the freehold. And no matter how badly their freeholder has behaved in the past, they will still be liable for his costs.

The Leasehold Enfranchisement Advisory Service: 071-493 3116.

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