Our house is a new build on an estate. We own the freehold but pay service charges for maintaining communal areas, such as the roads and verges. The charges were reasonable but the contract for maintenance has been sold, and the new owner has increased them. Can we challenge the higher charges?
Naomi Rennard, head of membership at campaign group HomeOwners Alliance, is familiar with this problem. ‘There’s no legislative redress for freeholders on private estates challenging these service charges. Many freeholders feel under pressure to pay up or face court action for services they feel are overpriced. Leaseholders are in a better position – legislation entitles them to ask for information to back up the figures and they can go to tribunal to dispute the reasonableness of any service charge.’
But changes are afoot, says Naomi: ‘In December 2017 the Government promised to legislate to ensure that freeholders who pay charges for the maintenance of communal areas and facilities on private estates have the same rights as leaseholders to challenge the reasonableness of these charges. The bad news is there is no timeline for this being implemented.’
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Until then, court is the only option. David Smith, policy director of the Residential Landlords Association, says it’s possible to bring a legal case based on a contractual breach or a change that exceeds the reasonable costs of providing the service. If the amount involved is less than £10,000, use the small claims court. In England and Wales you can do this online at gov.uk.
But before you go ahead and make a court claim, first write to the management company to see if they’ll reduce the charges. The court will expect you to have tried to resolve the matter before taking legal action.
More property problems…
We’re trying to downsize and have a 20-week contract with our estate agent. But we’re very disappointed with them – we’ve done all the viewings, and they haven’t passed on offers from potential buyers promptly. Can we end the contract early because of poor service?
The law requires estate agents to pass on all offers promptly, so a failure to do so is a breach of contract. And the Consumer Rights Act expects traders to deliver services with ‘reasonable care and skill’. This doesn’t necessarily mean you can easily end the contract, however. There is no specific legislation protecting sellers who want out, and the onus is on you to prove poor service. ‘Termination without the agreement of both parties could end up as a legal dispute in the courts, which you want to avoid,’ warns Peter Stonely. ‘You would have to show, through the estate agent’s lack of action to offers you have had, that they are not doing their job properly.’ He recommends you meet a senior manager at the estate agent to discuss your concerns.
Sarah Garner, a solicitor with DAS Law, says remedies for breach of contract include the right to ask them to redouble their efforts in selling the house, or for a fee reduction. If you get nowhere, contact The Property Ombudsman (01722 333306), or The Property Redress Scheme (03333 219418).
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