Squatting in your own flat!

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Over 6 years ago I moved flats and found I had owned a different flat to the one I had lived in! I have been involved in property for nearly 40 years having started life as an Estate Agent during school holidays while doing A levels. Therefore I should know a thing or two. But what caught me out has now happened to two thirds of the owners of a block of flats in Carlisle.

The problem I am talking about is when you find the flat you bought and have lived in is not the flat registered at Land Registry! Now sitting reading this you are likely to say “how on earth can that happen?” How on earth indeed! Well in reality it is fairly simple to see how it can happen. If there is a new block of flats the individual units will usually be given a plot number that may not be the same as the eventual postal number. Equally the conveyancer for the developer may be preparing leases and agreement for leases for a very large number of units. Either of these two factors can result in a very simple error but one that can cause stress and distress and create a challenge to unpick.

If the wrong flat is identified in the lease plan or the wrong plan used in filing at Land Registry then you can find you live in one flat but legally have registered a different flat. I was lucky because in my case the error turned out to be on just my flat. So we only had to rectify the manifest error at Land Registry on my flat title. However with Willow Court in Carlisle the issue affected ten of the fifteen apartments in the building. The problem comes to light when someone sells their flat.

So how and why does it occur? Well the simple answer would be lazy conveyancing from your lawyer. Although this doesn’t take into account the reality of the transactional process. Now at his point I must make it clear, I am not making excuses for the errors and I am not seeking to excuse the errors. It should never happen and when it does it can create a huge amount of distress and result in loss of a sale of the flat.

Housebuilders and developers rely on the sales of the flats to fund the development of the flats. They conveyancing solicitor may oversee a large number of buildings and flats. The work of putting the leases together will fall to an administrator and depending on work load and time of the year will lead to pressures to produce documents quickly or it can just be simple human error. Now one would hope the solicitor or conveyancer acting for you would pick up the problem. But how would they? Unless they send the paperwork they are going to file at Land Registry to you to check first and you can read a plan then it is possible to create the problem. If your solicitor hasn’t been to the property (and in reality that is extremely unlikely!) they would not necessarily know the right flat. Compounded if the plot numbers and the postal numbers differ. A different example really highlights the need for checking and speaking with the advisors when buying your home.

Years ago a neighbour had a bigger problem which really highlights the challenge of conveyancing and buying your home. They bought a house in a small village. The house was “L” shaped and had a small single storey extension at the corner of the “L”. When we went to build on top of the extension they discovered the extension had been built with no planning permission and the foundations would not support the additional floor on top. He thought either his building surveyor or solicitor had been negligent in not picking up either of these issues. On breaking it down however it became apparent that in reality it was communication that was lacking. The only person who knew the whole picture was my neighbour. He hadn’t told the solicitor of the extension and the conveyancing plan did not show the extension, so the solicitor would not know it existed.

The building surveyor hadn’t seen the conveyancing plan and therefore thought all he saw was in order. The building surveyor hadn’t been told my neighbour wanted to build on top and therefore would not comment on foundations, they were doing the job for the single storey.

So I would always advocate making sure you check the plans, reports on title, all the information you get to be sure it is right. The only person who has a full picture of what you are buying and able to determine the lines are in the right place is you. Therefore dull as it sounds it is worth checking! After all you don’t want to squat in your own home.

Roger Southam

Non Exec Chair Leasehold Advisory Service

14 October 2016

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