“When Clare Budgen bought her first house in Ellesmere Port in 2009 for £155,000 the last thing on her mind was the lease. Taylor Wimpey, the developer, arranged the lease on a 999-year basis, so what could the then 22-year-old possibly have had to worry about?
But just seven years later, when she looked into buying the freehold (to enable her to sell the home more easily in the future) she was astonished to find that, first, Taylor Wimpey had sold her freehold to another company, E&J Estates, and, second, it wanted £32,000.
Paula Richmond is in a similar boat. In 2015, she bought a four-bed house built by Taylor Wimpey in 2011 for £122,000, thinking she had bagged a bargain. Again, the original lease was for 999 years and with 995 more years to go, it was the least of her concerns. At the time, she understood that buying the freehold would cost no more than £2,000-£3,000. But, like Clare, she has found that her lease has been sold to E&J Estates by Taylor Wimpey and has been told by surveyors that she will have to pay up to £40,000 for the freehold – one-third of the house’s value. Paula can’t afford it and says “the house is almost unsaleable”, with solicitors warning potential buyers to stay away.
Like thousands of others in England and Wales, buyers like Paula and Clare (not their real names) have been trapped by a controversial trend among developers to sell homes as leasehold when they previously would have been freehold. The buyers are given reassuringly long 999-year leases – usually it is leases of less than 60 years on flats that are a worry – but later find that buying the freehold is prohibitively expensive.
One surveyor Guardian Money spoke to in Manchester said a client had just been forced to pay £38,000 to buy the freehold on their recently built home, despite its long lease.
The trap for unsuspecting buyers comes from the escalation in ground rent in the small print of long leases. Initially, it looks affordable. The developer gives the buyer a 999-year lease, with the ground rent set, in Paula’s case, at £295 a year. The contract says the ground rent will double every 10 years. This may look innocuous – after all, most people move every seven to 10 years. But to the company that buys the freehold, the income is valuable….
…Campaigners say issues around leasehold properties will be top of the agenda for an all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold next month. It has attracted 43 MPs and lords, and is chaired by Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick and Tory Sir Peter Bottomley. Members include Sir Keir Starmer, Emma Reynolds and Barry Gardiner.
Sebastian O’Kelly of support group Leasehold Knowledge Partnership says: “It is disgraceful that plc housebuilders are building leasehold houses that ordinarily – and until recently – would have had freehold title. This is an erosion of the wealth of ordinary people at the expense of the rich.
“Young people, after years of paying rent, finally buy a home and then find they are still, in fact, tenants – which is what a leaseholder is – with all the vulnerability that that implies.”
He adds: “The housebuilders are evasive over this issue and it beggars belief that the outrageous ground rent multiples come from household-name builders. There is no attempt to justify the adoption of leasehold tenure for these houses, which are not complex communal sites such as blocks of flats.
MP Justin Madders is calling for a ban on leasehold for estates of houses. “It is clear this system is being abused to drive huge profits at ordinary homeowners’ expense. There is no need for there to be leasehold properties, particularly those on an estate where the properties are mainly detached houses.
“They need to be banned – it may be a convenient way for developers to get extra profit from their building work, but once they get in the hands of these private equity companies the profit motive overrides any considerations that there are real people living in their homes, who are being asked to stump up eye-watering sums.”