Posted by Caroline Preist, Partner
How can I make sure the building containing my flat is maintained properly?
In Property Disputes, we come across a wide range of legal queries relating to landlord and tenant law, and this is a common question raised by residential flat owners.
It can be frustrating – you pay your service charges but the place looks scruffy and unkempt. Once the building and any other communal parts become run-down, this could have an adverse effect on the value of each of the flats. It could also increase the eventual cost of repairs, if for example a longstanding blocked gutter results in damp walls or rotten timbers. If the interior of somebody’s flat is damaged as a result, the owner will want to claim compensation. But who will pay for that?
The lease usually obliges the landlord or a separate management company to keep the building repaired and decorated. In return the tenants (meaning the flat owners) pay a service charge. If the landlord/management company is in breach of its obligations to repair, the tenants have numerous options, and the most powerful of these is to start court proceedings in the county court forcing the landlord to do the repairs, pay compensation and costs.
It is common for the obligation to repair and decorate to lie with a management company. This means the management company will be liable to the tenants if it breaches its obligations. An individual flat owning tenant has a legal right to sue the management company, but this could be counterproductive.
This is because usually the management company is constituted and controlled by the tenants themselves, for the sole purpose of maintaining the building. It will not own any assets that could be sold, and the only money it will hold is what the tenants pay in service charges. The operation of the company can quickly grind to a halt where the tenants cannot agree on what work should be done, or a minority are not paying service charges on time.
Although the tenant who sues the management company might well win at court, this does not mean the work will be done! If the management company is short of money, court proceedings may tip it into insolvency. This could make it harder to organise the repairs, plus the claimant won’t recover any of their legal costs.
The solution has to be for those in control of the management company to put their differences aside and cooperate. They will need to make difficult decisions including pursuing individual tenants for unpaid service charges, through the courts if necessary.
In self-managed blocks, the option of appointing a specialist managing agent should also be considered, as this provides a degree of separation between the roles of management company and tenant, which can become blurred. It will add to the overall costs, but the tenants’ priority should always be to maintain the value of the flats.
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