A group of leaseholders at a property in Chiswick have succeeded in taking their landlords to court for being overcharged service charges. Owners of five flats at Old Timber Court, above McMillan Williams Solicitors in Acton Lane took their management agent Seloc Asset Management, based in Cambridge, to tribunal for overcharging. The London Residential Property, First Tier Tribunal, Property Chamber has instructed Seloc Asset Management to repay £48,000. The company has until 7th August to appeal against the decision.
The leader of the residents group, Tara Doyle, says it took courage to go up against the agents, one of whom, Colum Smith, is the Chief Executive Officer of McMillan Williams Solicitors Limited, whose company owns one of the seven flats above. “There were nights when I spent all night crying” she said. “Fighting this has definitely taken its toll on me.” But she says, anyone who is being ripped off by landlords charging extortionate service charges should take courage because she knew very little about property law before she started this challenge. She just read up on it and contacted the various agencies which exist to help leaseholders. “You just need patience and willpower” she says. She is now willing to help others in a similar situation in Chiswick by sharing what she has learned in the process of taking the managing agents to tribunal.
Tara is Chiswick born and bred. Her parents lived here for 55 years and she bought the flat for her father, who has since passed away, in 2014. She says there are so many flats now in Chiswick, there will be other people reading this who are thinking “this is happening to me.” What won them the case was the lack of detail provided by the managing agents. The tenants pay a management fee. The service charges were made on top of this for the upkeep of the building. £12,960 for example to repaint and reseal the windows. £1,492 for replacing emergency lightbulbs.
The tribunal heard that the tenants asked to see the contractors’ invoices and were not shown them. They were given the management company’s own invoice for work done, sometimes for an ‘overspend’ without itemised details. The tribunal went through each bill over three years, totted them up and Judge Hargreaves sitting with Stephen Mason instructed the agents to repay £48,000. She singled out one item in particular: the commercial tenants’ £540 parking costs in Sainsbury’s to illustrate the ‘casual approach to the management of the building at the expense of the residential tenants’. She said: ‘It is extraordinary that the latter item was ever charged to the service charges’.
Referring to a bill for £2,040 for joinery repairs to the windows, she said: ‘Where the Landlords have no evidence as to what or why such works were done, there is a real doubt as to whether they were carried out.’ With regard to repairs and maintenance: ‘Given the inept nature of record keeping in this case we are far from being able to be satisfied as to whether and if so what work was incurred’… ‘The situation is worse than chaotic’… ‘There was occasionally a sense that Mr Coles (Jonathan Coles, chief executive officer of the managing agent) was making it up as he went along’.
She praised the Leaseholders for taking action: ‘The Leaseholders have finally had enough and in sticking to their guns have revealed the managing agents as casual about their obligations and the Leaseholders money’. She concluded: ‘The Landlords … have shown a persistent disregard for proper standards of management in many areas.’
As part of her research Tara contacted other tenants living in Seloc Asset Management properties, MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who is campaigning for leasehold reform and the Leasehold Advisory Service. Tenants at Candy Wharf in East London is one of several premises which have applied for the right to manage themselves and Tara says if she’d known what she knows now she would have done that at the outset.
If you are having similar problems and would like to get in touch with Tara, you can do so through our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councillor Ranjit Gill commented this is an ‘astounding victory… A very brave move by Tara and her success needs to be celebrated’.