English Property Law seems to me to be both archaic and anachronistic – not only old fashioned, belonging firmly to another era, but also thoroughly impractical and increasingly out of touch with today’s growing home-owning population. The modern-day concept of leasehold ownership of bits of buildings in multiple occupancy (owning one flat within a block of flats, for example) is a mind-boggling medieval minefield effectively carried forward through the centuries from feudal times.
In the old days, after William the Conqueror claimed the throne of England, peasants were given a plot of land to work in return for services to the landowner – maybe giving him the best of what you grew, or fighting in wars and laying down your life for him. The idea was for the aristocracy to maintain the ownership of the land in one piece, but to make others work it for them. It wasn’t quite as fair a deal to the peasants as it sounds in principle, and there was never any doubt who held all the power in that relationship. The odds were, and still are, always stacked in the landlord’s favour: They could both have their cake, and eat it too.
Roll forward several centuries, and today’s flat owners in England basically have to purchase a very long and expensive lease on a property from the landowner – the freeholder – in exchange for being allowed to live there for the duration of the agreed lease term (usually around a minimum of 100 years) while still paying annual ‘ground rent’ and other charges. This lease ticks down year on year, and when it runs down too far can always be extended (at a price) in negotiation with the freeholder (although often this is easier said than done). The lease (with however many years remaining) can also be inherited or sold on to someone else, and the process continues with the next owner.
Multiple occupants in the same building can always club together to buy the freehold of their own building, effectively becoming their own landlord as a group, but even if all (or at least enough) leasholders in any given building were in agreement to go this far, this branch of the system too can create frustrations and difficulties of its own – a kind of too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth type of situation. Nothing in English Property Law, it seems, is simple and straightforward and easy to understand.
And sometimes the most difficult thing about owning a leasehold property – or to be more accurate, owning the longterm lease to the property – is trying to discuss the intricacies of it with anyone outwith the English Property Law system. They all scoff and sneer at the sheer ridiculousness of it, and sound so self-righteous in stating they would NEVER find themselves in such a situation, they would either buy a property outright or not at all.
However, the point they are all missing is that buying into this convoluted system is NOT optional – if you want to buy a flat in England, you will either have to buy it leasehold or with a share of the freehold. So unless you can afford to buy a whole house standing entirely on its own piece of land – which here in London requires an absolute fortune, and the closer towards central London the more expensive properties become – you will either have to buy a leasehold or share-of-freehold property, or stick to renting.
And I’ve not even started on the whole nightmare of theconveyancing process… what feels like a confusing free-for-all with gazumping and gazundering and all sorts of potential pitfalls and problems that can occur before your contract is signed… but maybe that’s a whole other story for another time… 🙂