When Things Go Wrong
Liz Hodgkinson is an experienced property developer, landlord and journalist. Over the past decade she has bought, renovated and rented out or lived in many flats of all kinds, from new-build to Victorian, from purpose-built 60s and 70s blocks, to conversions and mansion blocks. She contributes a regular landlord and tenant column to the Evening Standard and also writes for the Mail on Sunday, The Lady, Saga, The Independent and Daily Mail.
Whenever you drive or walk past a block of flats, it all looks calm and serene. How nice, you might imagine, to have a flat in this lovely block by the river, or in that gorgeous trendy building with its underground carpark and residents’ swimming pool.
Yet the chances are that if you were to buy a flat in one of those appealing-looking blocks, you would very likely discover you had bought into an ongoing soap opera or dark sitcom, with deadly feuds, splinter groups, and endless lawsuits raging therein.
Problems are endemic to blocks of flats, for two reasons: the first is that because everybody is interdependent, anything going wrong in one flat, such as a leaking tap or pipe, is eventually likely to affect many other flats. The second reason is that blocks of flats contain many disparate people who may have nothing whatsoever in common with each other and, as a result, there may be many personality clashes. Blocks of flats contain people who may not normally choose to live together, actually having to live on top of one another.
And not all the rules and regulations in the world will prevent leaking pipes and personality clashes. Although leases draw up a kind of two-way contract between the leaseholder and the freeholder, with the aim of benefitting both, there is no documentation which determines how the inhabitants should treat each other.
Problems in blocks of flats are mainly caused by:
- Absentee leaseholders not caring.
- Lots of subtenants in a block.
- Lack of professional managing agents.
- Freeholders who can’t be bothered.
- Lack of money for essential maintenance.
- Large numbers of elderly residents who can’t afford or don’t want to enfranchise or pay for repairs.
- Leaseholders falling out among themselves.
THESE ARE THE BEST SOLUTIONS
1. Appoint professional managing agents
Disputes between residents in blocks of flats have escalated mightily since it became possible to collectively enfranchise and secure the RTM. Once they have secured either or both of these rights, residents often imagine it will save money and make life easier if they managed the place themselves. This is almost always a mistake and a false economy. Residents are much less likely to make a fuss and refuse to pay if they receive official-looking demands from a professional company, and can contact the managing agents direct.
The other problem is that self-managers are usually voluntary and, as such, are only prepared to give a certain amount of time to administration. In addition, there may not be anybody in the block who is fully conversant with the ramifications and complexities of leasehold law, who can keep tabs on accounts, and also appease any complainers.
The Citizens Advice Bureau – who are often the first port of call for aggrieved residents – confirms that disputes between leaseholders have increased mightily since more blocks enfranchised.
Residents need explanations and to be kept informed of what is going on. Directors and committee members have not signed the official secrets act, and must make all their doings and deliberations public. It is a good idea either to have a regular newsletter or a website whereby residents can be kept informed of work in progress, make suggestions or air their grievances.
A regular newsletter will establish a sense of community and make everybody feel they have a voice. A website is also an excellent idea, provided that somebody takes responsibility for keeping it up to date – there is nothing more annoying than an out-of-date website. Also make sure your newsletter or website is interactive and does not give the impression of commandments being handed down on tablets of stone from on high.
It is also a good idea to have a big noticeboard in the hall whereby residents can be kept informed. Residents can also pin items of interest up on the board, such as notices of local concerts, talks, services or cuttings from newspapers. This all gives a sense of community to the building.
Be careful, though, that the notice board does not just become a place for free advertisements and cards from contractors, IT consultants and builders.
3.Attend to small jobs instantly
All buildings often develop small problems which, if unattended, can easily turn into major tasks. Whenever you notice a small problem, such as rubbish or builder’s rubble being left out in corridors, or washing hanging out, point it out to the managing agents or caretaker or attend to it yourself, before it gets any worse.
4.Put up pictures in the common parts
If you have leftover pictures, put them up in the halls and corridors. This immediately makes the place seem much more friendly, and less daunting and forbidding. The best kind of picture for this are local landscapes and scenes (prints rather than the real thing) that are intended to be glimpsed at in passing, rather than studied intently. Acres of bare wall are off putting and can give a prison-like atmosphere to a large block.
5. Hold regular meetings
Residents are all paying out what they consider to be large sums of money, and often feel that their money is being spent – or squandered – around them and without due consultation. It is good practice to hold an EGM whenever there are large jobs in the offing.
But do not, as sometimes happens, get into cliques or huddles, and invite some residents, but not others, to ‘informal meetings’. It creates a bad atmosphere and encourages splinter groups which are the last thing you want. Everything should be democratic. Where there is a Board of voluntary Directors, as there will be after enfranchisement, these directors should also meet regularly.
All meetings should be property minuted. The idea is that everything and everybody should be accountable.
Wherever possible, hold meetings in a neutral venue, such as a church or school hall, or nearby hotel if funds will run to it.
Those who do not attend meetings cannot expect to have a voice. If you want your views to be heard, attend the meeting. AGMs and EGMs are notorious for poor attendance; then people moan and complain when their views are not recognised.
6. Hold social events regularly
Parties and events, such as a firework party, carol singing or a summer barbecue can all help to establish a sense of community and friendship. One large block of flats has established a library in the hall, whereby residents exchange books. It is just a simple idea but immediately gives the place a kind of village atmosphere.
It is also a good idea to ‘deck the hall’ at Christmas – put up a Christmas tree and decorations to give a festive feel. But make sure they are always taken down by Twelfth Night at the latest.
I have seen blocks of flats where brown Christmas trees – still with bits of tinsel clinging to them – have lain around in basements until August.
7. Lift a finger to help
Many residents keep complaining that ‘they’ – ie, the managing agents or Residents’ Committee – do nothing. But ask yourself: what can I do? Some people may be interested in gardening, hanging pictures in common parts, doing some interior painting, or polishing up the brass. Instead of waiting for ‘them’ to do the small jobs, do them yourself! Although managing agents will oversee the management of the building, there will always be small day-to-day jobs that need doing, as with any property.
So, why wait for somebody else to do the work?
8. Do not contravene the terms of the lease
Before buying any flat, look carefully at the terms of the lease and once you’ve moved in, make sure you abide by them. For instance, do not hang washing over the balcony if this is expressly forbidden, do not lay laminate flooring where it says carpet, or leave windows dirty for years on end.
If you want the block of flats to be run efficiently, ensure you do your part by obeying the terms of the lease – never mind what others might do. Human beings are notorious copiers, and copy others’ behaviour, whether this is good or bad.
When I first moved to my block, there were no pictures at all in the common parts. I decided to hang some that were surplus to my requirements, and they immediately pulled the place together and made it look at if somebody cared. Now, the common parts are a veritable art gallery – and the presence of the pictures somehow prevents people from leaving bags of rubbish out in the corridors as before.
The motto is: whatever you want doing, set a precedent by doing it yourself.
Somebody else put potted plants outside on the porch. Before long, others had followed suit, so that now we have a welcoming flower display by the entrances. This also has the happy result that people no longer dump rubbish in the porches.
9. Keep some money by
As with any property, there will always be unexpected costs when buying a flat. It is madness to stretch yourself so far when buying that you have nothing left over for repairs, your share of major or minor works to the building or an unexpected hike in service charges.
Almost all the long-term problems that arise in blocks of flats occur because some of the residents cannot pay their share, as they are already mortgaged or indebted up to the hilt. If you really will have nothing left after buying, look for something cheaper, or wait until you have managed to save up for, if not exactly a rainy day, at least the occasional shower. When a building falls into disrepair or loses value, this is almost always because a number of residents have been unable or unwilling to pay their share, and for this reason, essential works have never been carried out. This, as much as leases running down, makes the flats lose value.
Before ever buying a flat, work out all the figures, such as council tax, mortgage repayments and service charges. Then add something on for unexpected costs so that there will always be a reserve fund.
And whereas with a freehold house you have a choice as to whether to carry out works, with a flat you have no such choice because of the intimate interconnection between all the occupants. As a houseowner, you might choose to let your roof fall in; you cannot allow the roof to fall in on other people.
10. If you are an absentee landlord, play your part
Many buy-to-let landlords, wanting to maximise their profits, are unwilling to put their hands in their pockets to pay for repairs and renovations. Be careful that you are not seen to be using the building as a cash cow, or relying on the other residents’ contributions to further your property development. This will not only make you wildly unpopular but could mean your investment goes down in value. Badly-managed blocks soon get a negative reputation with local estate agents, who may be unwilling to take a flat in such a block onto their books.
Also make sure that the managing agents have details of all your tenants; their names, contact numbers and details.
Plus, give your tenant a simplified form of the lease. Subtenants are almost always blamed for problems in blocks of flats; make sure your tenants are not among them.
11. Make sure somebody, either the caretaker or a
neighbour, has a spare key
There are always times when it might be necessary to get into your flat; to investigate a leak, check wiring, cables or pipework. Problems can develop when you are on holiday or otherwise away, so ensure that access can be gained at all times.
12. Establish a policy of zero tolerance
If you have a policy that bikes and pushchairs are not to be left in the hall, put up a notice warning occupants that these objects will, if found, be taken outside. Then carry out the threat. Otherwise, there will soon be ten bikes left in the hall.
But, whenever punitive action is to be taken for misdemeanours, you should first give not only warnings, but reasons for the ban. For instance, you should say that bikes and pushchairs left in the hall constitute a fire hazard and invalidate the block insurance policy. Then you have a valid reason for taking direct action if somebody contravenes the order.
13. Get permission before renovating or altering your flat
Most leases state that permission should be obtained from the freeholder or managing agents before renovations or alterations are carried out to individual units. This is in addition to any permissions you must obtain from the local council.
The best thing is to write to the managing agents, or Residents’ Committee if there are no outside managers, detailing the works you hope to be able to do. You should add that you are at the same time in the process of obtaining permission from Building Control at the council, if relevant.
Then, assuming there is no objection in theory, it is recommended that you circulate a letter to all residents, giving them details of the builder and building works, and stating how long you expect the works to continue. Reassure the residents that there will be no work after 4.30pm, or at weekends, and that you will make sure the site is left clear and clean every night.
All of the above will endear you to your fellow residents and mean they welcome you into the block. Every block of flats welcomes responsible, community-minded occupants.