For many Leaseholders getting together with fellow Leaseholders to buy the freehold of the building they occupy is seen as the end of problems with freeholders and controlling their own destiny. Whilst this is of course true before going down this major step leaseholders should consider if and why this is the right route for them.
The motivation for many is to rid themselves of a freeholder who they perceive is not offering good value for money and service and often the fact that all the leaseholders need to act to extend their leases. Undertaking a collective enfranchisement can often be achieved at a similar cost to that of all extending their leases particularly when legal and valuation costs are thrown into the mix. All seems simple and many groups at this stage press on with the purchase.
The issues generally arise sometime down the line when the glow of having purchased has worn off. Simply because you have bought your freehold does not mean that all problems go away. In our experience freehold purchases tend to be driven by a small group of leaseholders who put in enormous amounts of time and effort. Sometimes after the initial euphoria they find that they do not wish to (or can’t) give as much time to the freehold as before. As a freeholder you remain bound by the terms of the leases particularly with regards to service charges and repairs. Whilst often on completion the leaseholders will all have extended their leases (typically to 999 years) the service charge and repairing covenants usually remain the same. The freeholder is still governed by the statutory rules governing residential leases and must comply with all of these obligations including in relation to consultation. This year we have seen a number of LVT decisions reiterating this and making clear that there will be no let off for leaseholder owned companies.
As a result some of the imagined costs savings cannot be achieved as often a managing agent for practicality will still be required as well as having to go through all the processes. Certainly we would always recommend to any group considering enfranchisement that they should look to appoint managing agents to ensure that the day to day running complies fully with all of the legal requirements. We have seen over the past decade the increase in rules and regulations to ensure that individual leaseholders are protected but this has driven up costs as the work involved has increased.
Increasingly we are also being asked to advise both individual leaseholders and freeholds where the parties find themselves in dispute. This can be as simple as someone not having the money to pay the service charge and fellow neighbours having to take Court action to recover monies. The other extreme is in small blocks where the freehold is owned by named individuals and one is looking to sell and one or more of the other Owners will not sign the necessary transfer paperwork causing a sale to fail. Consideration needs to be given as to how you feel you will get on as a collective group and not just with your current leaseholders but potentially with subsequent Owners.
We have seen instances where the repercussions are so great that fresh collective enfranchisement claims have been made. Now with the lower qualifying majority of 50% it is possible that buildings can enfranchise and re-enfranchise again and again. We have seen a situation where the leaseholders of a small block has enfranchised on 3 occasions! The fees spent on such an exercise must be immense for little real gain to the leaseholders individually.
Whilst none of the above should necessarily put anyone off buying their freehold it is important that everyone enters this with their eyes wide open. Under the legislation there are various other routes that can often be adopted such as Right to Manage and undertaking bulk lease extensions either by the statutory route or negotiation. Commercial freeholders are alive to these issues and many will negotiate over items. There can be a benefit in having a completely separate (and we deliberately do not say independent!) freeholder. Whilst for most groups who enfranchise the process is an unqualified success story with many real and perceived benefits as with most transactions there are risks and it is important that all participants understand these.