Griffin Press Court
Most flat owners are familiar with paying fees to a property management company - but how does over half a million pounds sound? This is the scenario that faced the flat owners at Griffin Press Court in Pontypool.
With 15 flats in all they were looking at nearly £40,000 each - not the sort of sum you'd have lying around for a rainy day or even any day. Put in perspective, the resale value of the flats is £25-70,000.
Suzanne and Tom Davies from Griffin Press Court
As with most flats, the owners there don't own the property outright, they simply own the leasehold - the right to live there for a specific period. The freehold itself is held by a company - which can charge owners for maintenance and ground rent. In the case of Griffin Press Court the freehold has recently changed hands, with Wellington Investments - a company registered in the Seychelles - the new holders.
I met Suzanne Davies. She bought her flat at Griffin Press Court three years ago. At the time she was single, but now with a husband, young son, and another baby on the way it's all becoming a bit of a squeeze.
Suzanne had actually done all the hard work of upsizing. She'd managed to agree a sale on her flat which is some achievement in the current economic climate - but then the bombshell arrived in the form of letters from Wellington Investments.
Realising they couldn't meet the demands for money, Suzanne and husband, Tom, got together with owners of other flats in the building to discuss their fears. After getting free legal advice from The Leasehold Advisory Service, they've decided to appeal against the charges at the Residential Property Tribunal.
The flat owners are furious at the way Wellington Investments have treated them. They believe some of the work Wellington Investments has tried to make them pay for isn't even needed.
In addition, they are extremely unhappy that the company broke into some flats to carry out surveys and then changed the locks without the owners' permission. It didn't happen to Suzanne and Tom but was witnessed by one of their neighbours Danielle Peploe. I spoke to Danielle. She is really worried about the possibility of her home being repossessed if she can't meet the costs Wellington is asking for.
Also on site to meet me was David Shorthouse. He bought his flat as an investment last year. He says "The repairs could cost more than the original purchase of the flat, so it's absolutely ridiculous."
I asked Martyn Burnett, an expert chartered surveyor, to cast his eye over Griffin Press Court to see if the charges are justified. It would appear the person who conducted the survey to assess the building was struck off by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors earlier this year. He lost his accreditation as a chartered surveyor for "practising as a chartered surveyor, in a personal capacity, without appropriate registration, or professional indemnity insurance."
Martyn says, "Any person can conduct a survey with a bit of knowledge behind them. I think the problem as you say is the credibility of having a surveyor who was struck off and for the reason he was struck off, if you're dealing with a large contract like this, you have to ask yourself why would the firm choose this surveyor when there's so many around here in the local area they could have gone to?"
Martyn's also suspicious of the quotes Wellington Investments has provided. He says, "There are three quotes, apparently from different companies, to carry out the repairs." But according to Martyn, the figures are uncannily similar. "A lot of the pages here which we go through, you'll find there's the same figures on each page, maybe different handwriting. I find it unusual that independent contractors not coming together would pick up the same figures," he says.
According to Martyn, not all the work Wellington Investments says is necessary should be paid for by the owners. He points out, "The company is trying to charge them for new windows, but under the terms of their lease, they can't make the owners pay for something which counts as an improvement rather than a repair. The existing windows, although ten years old, are still serviceable so a repair would be sufficient."
I asked Martyn what he made of the way Wellington Investments have gone about all of this? He says, "The company's based in the Seychelles, so you've no idea who the directors are. It's a mail drop off box in an industrial estate in London where their mail is collected, it's not the normal way you go about managing this type of building."
Tom and Suzanne are frustrated that they haven't been able to speak to anyone at Wellington Investments to discuss their concerns. Suzanne says, "It's easy enough for them to just write and say you owe us money, but where are we going to live?"
We've tried to track the company down. They replied to our first letter saying the property needs substantial maintenance and repair and they're following the legal consultation process with the owners of the flats, but since then they haven't answered any of our questions.
Although they have got in touch with the flat owners, Block Maintenance, one of the companies that quoted for the work, is their own in-house contractor. We've checked and they aren't registered with Trustmark or with the Federation of Master Builders, which means there's no way of checking they are reputable tradespeople.
When it comes to the windows, Wellington Investments have accepted they should not have been included in the list of works, which should reduce the amount they are trying to charge, but the flat owners are determined to fight their corner and they want to take their case the Residential Property Tribunal.
The good news is cases involving half a million pounds are pretty rare. Most flats and some houses in Wales are sold as leasehold properties, so the advice is to make sure you check any agreements before you sign up to buy a leasehold property. If you've got any questions about your lease you can get free legal advice from the Leasehold Advisory Service.
Wellington Investments, which is incorporated in the Seychelles, is unrelated to Wellington Investments Limited which is registered in the UK.