The bugbear of being a leaseholder

10 July 2015
Before I bought my studio flat in Camden six years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the disadvantages of buying a property leasehold – and in a large early Victorian house divided into five flats, owning the property freehold was not an option.But I hadn’t banked on the problems of having a large organisation – in my case, Camden Council – as the freeholder, and the difficulties I’d face if I wanted any work carried out.The early warning signs were there as before I bought the flat, the surveyor mentioned that there was rising damp in the living area. I contacted Camden straightaway and arranged for a council surveyor to inspect it. Meanwhile, I got two quotes from independent damp treatment companies.Camden has a policy of using its own preferred companies, which have applied by tender for works on its properties, and I was told that it would not use either of the companies that I had recommended, despite the fact that they were considerably cheaper. This was partly due to the fact that Camden’s contractor had quoted for additional work that both companies I had approached didn’t think needed doing. Camden’s contractor said that the damp had spread to the bathroom walls and that the tiles and bath would have to be removed, while I was told that the damp could be treated from the other side of the wall without any damage to the bathroom – a saving of £800. I asked for the council to re-quote and was told that “from a legislative position the Council as the freeholder was under no obligation to seek new costs” and it believed that its contractor’s report was more structured and detailed. It took months of correspondence and another site visit before Camden finally agreed to reduce the quote.Since then, I have had further run-ins with the council. Recently, I spent an hour on the phone trying to find out who was responsible for cutting back the front communal garden, which is overgrown and blocks out the light in my basement flat. I was passed from various departments – Trees, Planning, Leaseholder Services, Parks, and the Housing Management – and was told that, as the garden belonged to a house, rather than an estate, it wasn’t covered by a particular department. But given that I pay more than £500 a year in service charges, I believe that communal gardens should be maintained by the council. The grounds maintenance officer has now emailed me to say that he’s asking the gardener for a quote – so there’s a chance my flat may see the light of day this summer. But probably the strangest problem I’ve encountered is with bed bugs. The council’s workmen sanded the floor of the flat above, which had been poorly maintained, and, within hours, bed bugs started to drop down from the light fitting in my ceiling. I had to arrange to have the flat fumigated – twice – even taking a bed bug in a jam jar to the council’s offices as evidence. Camden denied it was responsible and suggested that a visitor from abroad had brought the bed bugs with them.