My leasehold hell: ‘I bought my home 10 years ago and it's pushing me to financial and emotional ruin’

‘It’s hard to convey the emotional and financial agony of being trapped in a situation like this’ (PA Archive)
‘It’s hard to convey the emotional and financial agony of being trapped in a situation like this’ (PA Archive)

In the Kings Speech tomorrow we will finally find out the reforms that the government plans to make to the UK's leasehold system.

It may be too late for me and the estimated 10 million leaseholders living in the UK, who have suffered bank-draining misery at the hands of property management companies.

It’s hard to convey the emotional and financial agony of being trapped in a situation like this; of seeing service charges rise by a third from one bill to the next; any attempt at communication ignored, and objections threatened with repossession of the home I allegedly ‘own’.

After buying my London flat 10 years ago, the fees have become so unaffordable that I can barely keep my head above water. Yet being able to sell — let alone having the funds for something larger than my top-floor shoebox — feels, frankly, laughable.

These dodgy outfits have flourished thanks to a system that has become all too easy to abuse: £7.6bn has been handed over in service charges this year alone, up 51.7 per cent since 2018.

When I bought my place, ignoring warnings from my mum to “never buy a leasehold property” (words that now ring in my ears daily), I was unaware that I was entering a vortex in which the leaseholder always loses.

I am at best a tenant shelling out thousands to a landlord whose profit margins only ever go one way, yet with the weight of a mortgage hanging over my head, too.

Nor am I alone: far, far from it. I recently became aware of a Facebook group for victims of my managing agent — a family who conduct their ‘business’ under multiple guises from their home — and have since been connected with over 1,000 people being pushed to ruin by the exact same people.

Via unnecessary decorating works, random ‘charges’ and a communal area electricity fee 12 times our usage that no number of accurate meter readings can push them to lower, they have sent me almost £7,000 in bills in the last six months.

While I had known that their tactics were dodgy — works done badly requiring being redone, meaning we’re charged twice; finding contractors at double the market rate to make their 15 per cent management fee even juicier — watching these exact same things happening to so many across the capital and beyond is truly chilling.

These agents are the subject of multiple tribunals *every week* and still the law allows them to keep going, knowing that only a tiny fraction of those they cash in from trampling over will ever find the time, money and strength to fight back.

When I recently did convince my fellow leaseholders to take them to a tribunal, the agents pulled out — only after the application had been painstakingly made, and court fees paid — because they had another hearing on the same slated date. Why no penalties are levelled against them for wasting the tribunal’s time is also unclear.

The problem remains that leaseholders like me are all too convenient for the Government to ignore. Those who buy without a share of the freehold are often, as I was, young, London-based, and miles away (literally and figuratively) from the Tory heartland voter.

In the absence of the much-needed new homes the Government has promised to build — a topic shirked at this week’s Conservative Party Conference — leasehold is likely as good as it gets for those without family wealth or otherwise undisclosed megabucks to afford property in a city where the average pad is 13.9 times a London salary.

Michael Gove, who for years has trumpeted his position as the leaseholders’ saviour, has cooled on the idea, with glib musings on the need for reform, rather than concrete policy change, now likely in November’s King’s Speech.

Advice for leaseholders

For now my case remains hopeless. But after bumping into an old colleague last week, who said that he’d been set to buy a leasehold flat but, remembering my situation, pulled out, my cautionary tale can perhaps at least help others.

And that is my first piece of advice to those tempted to buy a leasehold property: don’t do it (at least without a share of the freehold).

My second: band together with your fellow leaseholders. This is a game of luck, depending on their willingness to engage with the problems at hand (and one I have badly lost in my own building). But if you can work quickly together to get on the same page, challenging egregious charges and deciding next steps, the process is so much easier.

Third: scrutinise everything (and, if in doubt, read up on the Lease Advice website, who have information on the very vast majority of queries). If you’ve been billed what seems over the odds for a service, request the requisite invoice. Save what they send you: they only have to make the invoices visible for two months, and they’re highly unlikely to do that a second time if you don’t.

Number four: pay under protest. If the service charges are nonsense and your company won’t row back, this only requires sending an email to your managing agent detailing what you’re protesting but it covers you, should those issues become the subject of a later tribunal.

And finally, take them on. Navigating the tribunal process is undeniably unbearable. It should be made faster and cheaper for people fighting pernicious management companies, rather than putting the time and financial burden on leaseholders who have already lost so much. But they rely on us being cowed into silence, and it is the only way that the worst of this bunch can be given a bloody nose. They have won for long enough.