‘Virtual freehold’ has fast become the ubiquitous term that is used to describe a leasehold property with a long lease of, usually, 999 years. You regularly see it used in estate agent’s descriptions, developer’s brochures and auction houses.
The term suggests that you don’t need to be afraid when buying a leasehold property. It implies that this property won’t share the same nightmarish financial consequences that can exists with normal leasehold properties and that there is a good chance that this freeholder is ‘honest’ to grant you such a long lease in the first place.
Buying a ‘virtual freehold’ property can become a real nightmare though with terms so onerous it can seriously affect the future salability of your property and here’s why.
How big is the problem?
An excellent article which appeared in the Guardian, 29 October 2016, entitled ‘The new-builds catching house buyers in a leasehold property trap’ exposed the scandal of Taylor-Wimpey selling leasehold houses. These houses were being sold as ‘virtual freeholds’ with a 999-year lease but with onerous ground rents clauses which doubled regularly making the houses difficult to sell as the ground rent due per year becomes disproportionately high.
This is just the tip of the iceberg though.
For many years we have been aware of this very same tactic being used on tens of thousands of newly built leasehold flats across London.
For example, we helped a group of flat owners buy the freehold of their flats in Islington a couple of years ago at a newly built block. The ground rent clause was £250 a year doubling every 25 years for 999 years. We calculated the ground rent due for the last 25 years of the lease was £160,000,000,000 a year, a bargain!
Why do developers grant 999-year lease with high ground rents?
Developers generally sell the freeholds of their leasehold buildings before building work starts to professional ground rent investors. These investors want to make as much profit as possible from these freeholds so they request certain clauses are included in the leases before they buy. The developer will then also be able to sell the freehold for a much higher fee if they agree to include them.
For example, if a developer builds a block containing 200 flats and includes a standard ground rent clause that states the ground rent will be £100 a year doubling every 25 years, the total combined ground rent of all the flats that would be brought in over the first 100 years would be £7,500,000.
If they included a clause that states the ground rent will be £350 a year doubling every 25 years, the total combined income rises to £26,250,000! It’s easy to see why they do it.
The reason the leases are granted for 999 years though, is a stroke of pure evil genius from toxic unscrupulous freeholders. This is done to totally remove the motivation for the flat owners to ever group together and buy the freehold of their build meaning the freeholder loses their investments and feel sad.
It is done to ensure the freeholders retain permanent ownership of the property and it allows them to make lots of money from their captive leaseholders.
That’s because there are other ways a predatory freeholder can make money from leaseholders who have bought flats with these lease terms and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel for the freeholders.
Other ways freeholders can make money from ‘virtual freeholds’
A knowing freeholder can make even more money from service charges which tend to be high on new builds. Closely managing a building and having a separate company that carries out the work can be a gold mine for them. A cursory search on Google will reveal a depressingly high number of reports and court cases documenting these abuses.
Generally, these leases will also give the rights to insure the building to the freeholder who can then recover these costs from the leaseholders. We regularly see freeholders recommending a poor quality of insurance with high excess fees while they pocket, in our experience, 50% of these costs as ‘finder’s fees’.
Fees for licences and permissions can also bring in a considerable amount of profit to freeholders. We regularly see permissions to sub-let on these properties costing more than a thousand pounds a year. The cost of the permission legally required to sell a property from a freeholder, can often dwarf the total legal fees paid for conveyancing the sale of the property!
Leasehold houses too can see the cost of permissions being ridiculously high, we were speaking to the owner of a leasehold house recently who was being asked to pay the freeholder £15,000 for permission to build a conservatory on his own property!
What can you do about it?
It is assumed that most leaseholders wanting to buy a nice new shiny leasehold house or flat will probably not fully grasp the serious financial implications of owning a ‘virtual freehold’ property with onerous clauses until it’s too late.
Therefore, the only risk for developers in acquiescing to the freeholders demands for onerous ground rents and lease terms, is if the public find out and make a noise about it.
I’m sure Taylor-Wimpey are currently regretting selling leasehold houses with onerous ground rents due to the tsunami of bad press they are currently receiving.
So if you find yourself owning one of these flats or houses with these terms contact the developer and ask them why they did it. Get together and contact the press.
If you bought your flat on or after 1 October 2015 you are covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This Act applies to the terms of a lease and if it is proved that the financial implications of a lease term were not fully explained to you, it would no longer be binding on you. If you group together with your neighbours you can split the cost of the legal fees of proving this.
If you bought your flat prior to 1 October 2015 you are still covered by Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and you could get legal relief from these onerous terms if you can prove they are unfair.
Did your solicitor clearly inform you about the real implications of the terms of this lease when you were purchasing the property? If they didn’t you could have a claim against them for professional negligence and there are many easy to find guides on how to do this available.
Think about buying the freehold of your building and ridding yourself of the freeholder once and for all. Although the ground rent is high so the compensation you would have to pay the freeholder would be higher than normal, there is no reversionary interest to pay nor marriage value meaning it would be much cheaper to buy the freehold if you have a 999-year lease than it would if your lease was just 99 years long.
Write to your MP. The only real way to bring lasting change to the hugely flawed leasehold system is to change the legislation that surrounds it. This change can only come about when there is political appetite for change and sadly, I do not believe that exists right now.
If it did though it would stop this legal money making scam at the expense of leaseholders, once and for all and all of us can collectively add our voices to this demand and make a difference.
©Barcode1966 – 2016