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13 years ago, I didn’t ask myself “Should I buy a leasehold property?” and there’s a bit of me that regrets that, but you always hear horror stories and think it happens to everyone else and wouldn’t happen to you! My flat was my first home though, and for a long time I loved living there. Whilst I have now moved away, and I have fond memories, I don’t miss it. Whilst I do feel a big part of that is because I had outgrown my one bedroom flat within the M25, and have exchanged it for a 3 bed house in Wiltshire, it is also because of the problems I had with the freeholders and property management agents throughout that entire time.

Leasehold and Property Management

When I purchased the property, the managing agents were called Solitaire Property Management. They are one of the most fraudulent and poor companies I have ever had to liaise with in my life. Their service was poor and they overcharged on everything. We (as the residents of the block) tried to get rid of them a few times, but due to personal commitments the time was never right. Things would never get done on time, visits would be non-existent and then lied about. Our bills went up every 6 months, but for no obvious or legitimate reason.

A few years before I left, a lovely couple moved in and the sister of the lady had been through the Right to Manage process previously and highly recommended the company who helped them. This is a formal, complicated and legally binding process so we agreed to split the costs in order to proceed. In order to go ahead, we needed more than 50% of the owners to be involved, so in a block of 6 flats, we needed 4 onboard! We did this with ease as the other owners were very unhappy with the service too.

We engaged the company recommended to us to go through the process for us. By this time Solitaire had rebranded twice – to Peverel and then First Port which is what they remain as today (they claim it’s a new company but having seen the records we are sure that it is not). First Port fought the case, but with underhand tactics. At one point we thought everything had gone through as we had not heard from them, the newly appointed property managing company even started doing works, before they came back and said they never received the documents, so we were back at square one. As someone who owned the property on my own, I felt overwhelmed and bullied in my own home. They proceeded to query every single document or full stop not 100% in the right place.  Finally, after almost a year (when we only had to give 3 months notice) every box was ticked, i was dotted and t was crossed! We were free! It was such an amazing feeling!

When the time came to sell the flat a few years later, I could put my hand on my heart and say I was very happy with the property managers that we had put in place and I felt I could leave with a good conscience.

I often see properties First Port retirement properties for sale but I would not wish First Port, (under that name, Peverel, or Solitaire Property Management) on my worst enemy, and as seniors are more likely to get scammed with anything and everything, I would implore relatives of people considering buying one of these properties to strongly advise against it. They are nothing short of thieves. They are even now operating this branch of their business under the name Retirement Homesearch, but you can see from the fonts and colours that they are a sister company and on the Retirement Homesearch website (which I will not link to on principle) it refers to First Port Insurance services so I dread to think how many other sister companies and branches these people have.

Clearly I cannot provide a Retirement Homesearch review – but bearing in mind the few reviews I found online – they are no bettter than First Port the main company, and I really would beg and plead you to find a property via other means for your elderly relatives!

The Lease

By the time I was ready to sell, I had lived in the flat for 11 years. When I bought it I was told there was 83 years left on the lease and as soon as 2 years was up, I should start the process to extend it (you usually have to live there for two years before doing it).

I know that once the term of a lease goes under 80 years the price to extend it jumps up because of “marriage value” (no, I’m not sure what that actually means either). When I had lived in the flat for two years I didn’t really have much money and I didn’t think it was particularly important so I didn’t do much about it – I was wrong. DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE I MADE!

In the now

There I was, with a lease of about 72 years left and knowing that I urgently need to lengthen my lease, whether or not I move. My freeholders are known for being unscrupulous and I had a feeling it was not going to be smooth. I had no idea how bad it was going to be though. A neighbour in my block had extended their lease to 125 years, about 2-3 years ago, for a total cost of just under £15,000. I paid the fee that my freeholder charge to produce a valuation and their estimate came back 8 weeks later at (drumroll please) just over £27,000! I knew it was going to go up a bit in the two years since my neighbours had done theirs, but almost doubling the cost, for half the length (I was offered only 99 years) was a joke.

I had now decided to move, and to relocated to another part of the country. If I was ready to move, and had a buyer, I may well have just paid this to get a move on, but as I wasn’t in a rush, I could take my time. I think they are hoping that a lot of people only start the ball rolling when they are ready to move and therefore have to take that first offer. I was fortunate I wasn’t in that position. Firstly my solicitor wrote to the agents, called Estates & Management. They take 15 working days (yes really) to reply to any email and I only had four weeks to submit a counter offer. They basically said I couldn’t compare my lease to that of my neighbours as two years had passed.

Why a surveyor?

I got online and did some research. It became apparent that what I needed was a surveyor. I contacted local estate agents and solicitors and got advice. I finally went with a surveyor who was not only recommended but was able to come almost right away. My entire annual bonus from work was spent on taking his services on, including to negotiate with my freeholder on my behalf. I am sure there are cheaper surveyors out there, but I was very impressed with him from the initial contact, and he had experience of them.

He has kept me updated at every stage, and always kept myself and any possible future buyers of my flat in mind. He has consulted me at every point and discussed and explained all aspects of the lease to me (not that I entirely understand it, but he clearly does and that’s what matters). His report was put together very quickly and it was safely submitted to the freeholders by the deadline. His valuation was not much different to what my neighbours paid a few years ago. 15 working days later I got the news….. not only had they agreed to all the terms that he requested (a lease of 125 years not 99 and a more favourable review of ground rent) but he had already saved me over £7,000!

The total now stands at just under £20,000. Not as low as I originally hoped, but already with a massive saving. As I am not in a rush, he has suggested that we submit a counter offer again. He has worked with my freeholders before and knows what they are like and when they will tell him what is their final offer. I believe that I will easily be able to save an additional amount equal to or greater than what I spent on his fees, thus saving me a minimum of £7,000 in total.

2019 UPDATE

My unscrupulous (fraudulent would probably be a better choice of words) freeholders claimed they didn’t receive some of the emails that went backwards and forwards between them and the surveyor, which we didn’t find out until we chased it three weeks later. As I had gotten to the point where I had a buyer for my flat and didn’t want to risk losing my new home, I ended up having to accept that first counter offer of just under £20,000. I probably could have saved a few thousand more if I was not under pressure but I knew that home was mine and I wasn’t prepared to risk losing it, so sometimes you have to pick your battles, and so I decided to walk away with the originally agreed saving. I would be free and not only could I say to the new owners that there was a good property management company in place, but I had gotten the lease extended under really good terms (my surveyor considered the future buyer when he negotiated the terms).

Solitaire/Peverel/First Port are somehow linked to Estates and Management although they deny this and Estates & Management are adamant they are just “agents” for the freeholder and landlord. My solictor and surveyor had information which contradicts the idea that they are separate and are also sure that they were involved. Whatever the case – avoid either of them like the plague.

I wish I could stress to you the heartache and bullying I put up with at their hands for many many years. If you see a property ‘managed’ by them – RUN, RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION!

Conclusion

Be sure to fully understand any legal issues and technicalities before you agree to purchase or sign anything. If you need a surveyor or solicitor to explain it to you, don’t be embarassed, that is what they are there for and what you are paying them for!

I am sure there are some brilliant freeholders and landlords out there, but unfortunately after 12 years in my flat, I would never buy a leasehold property again. When I was househunting, because of my experience, I deliberately avoided any leasehold properties. Before I saw what is now my home, I saw a lovely new build that wasn’t quite finished but I really liked the idea of a new home. I had put in an offer and it was accepted. Whilst the property was freehold, there was an annual maintenance fee for the communal gardens. I tried to find out more about this from the estate agent. He didn’t seem to know much about it, and as he wasn’t sure when all that would be finalised, and with red lights and sirens going off in my head, just a few days after putting an offer in, I withdrew it! It may well have been ok, but after 12 years, I couldn’t face going down that road again.

Whilst the estate agent was adamant it wouldn’t be much, his lack of knowledge put me off! It all worked out for the best though, as once I saw my now home, I knew 100% that it was meant for me so alls well that ends well!

FAQ

I’ve been contacted and asked several questions about leasehold properties since writing this post. I am not a solicitor or surveyor, so I am not the best person to ask – but for the more basic questions here are the answers:

Getting rid of First Port Property Management – is it even possible?

YES! We did it. We were in a small block of only 6 flats, and as you need more than 50% we only needed a few neighbours on our side. In larger blocks this may be more complicated, but it absolutely can be done! You will however have to go through a formal legal process called Right To Manage.

Do Solitaire Property Management still exist?

According to Companies House, they were dissolved early in 2020.

Is leasehold a scam?

In my opinion, yes it is, however it is still around and until there is change in the law, leasehold properties will continue to be built and sold. For more information about leasehold, I would recommend you visit the National Leasehold Campaign and support them on social media. As things stand, leasehold properties are often the only way people can get on the property ladder in their preferred areas.

How much ground rent will I have to pay?

This will be set out by your freeholder. If you are in the process of buying a leasehold property – check with your solicitor.

How much service charge will I have to pay?

This will depend on the size of your property, the size of the block, and who the managing agents are. If you are in the process of buying a leasehold property – check with the estate agent and your solicitor. Bear in mind that an estate agent is working for the seller though – so get your solicitor to confirm everything you are told, or ask to see paperwork.

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