A case that The Property Ombudsman was asked to review came from a leaseholder. The agent was instructed by the freeholder to provide a management service in respect of the block in which the property was situated.
Installation of water meters
The leaseholder complained that the agent did not consult her about the installation of communal water meters, saying that the agent did not provide clear responses in a timely manner to her queries about the installation of the meters and the effect this would have on her water bill.
The agent said that the works that included the installation of water meters were undertaken by another company who had been instructed directly by the freeholder, rather than by themselves. They say that this company notified all the leaseholders that water meters would be installed. The agent said that they had responded to queries raised.
In this case, the meter installation company advised all leaseholders about the proposed works, which were carried out two months later. Two months after the meters had been installed, the leaseholder wrote to the agent to ask a number of questions about the installation of the meters, such as who had made the decision to install the meters, when the decision was made, whether leaseholders would be billed individually for their use of water within their properties and how leaseholders could check their own water bills.
The agent responded five weeks later, advising when the meters had been installed, that the installation had been authorised by the Water Company, that water would be paid for through the service charge, that there should be no individual billing and that the meters were located in the plant rooms.
However, the agent did not advise at this point that the installation of the meters had been instigated by the freeholder. Their comment that the Water Company had ‘authorised’ the meters did not make it clear who had instigated the installation. They did not respond to the query as to whether individual leaseholders could check their own bills, only saying that the overall bill would be split according to the lease.
The leaseholder responded, asking again whether leaseholders would be able to monitor their own usage. The agent acknowledged the query but did not respond to it. Some three months later, the leaseholder wrote to the agent to say that she had not received a response to her query and made a complaint.
In response to the complaint, the agent advised that charges for heating and hot water would be billed through the service charge, but due to the installation of meters, would be more accurate, since they would be based on the building’s actual usage.
The Ombudsman considered that it was reasonably clear from the explanation provided that the amount charged would be based on the building’s usage, rather than individual leaseholder’s usage, but considered the agent could have responded directly to the leaseholder’s specific concerns about whether she would be billed for and able to monitor her individual usage by clearly advising her that she would not. The agent did not make this clear until their second complaints response.
The Ombudsman did not criticise the agent if the leaseholder was not consulted about the installation of the meters, since the work was delegated to the installation company directly by the freeholder. It was for the installation company to provide the notice.
Overall, the Ombudsman supported this aspect of the complaint to the extent that the agent could have provided a clearer and more timely explanation. An award of £100 was made for the aggravation caused.
Ground rent and service charge demands
The leaseholder also complained that service charge and ground rent demands incorrectly stated the name of the freeholder on the reverse and that the agent had delayed billing her for ground rent. The agent acknowledged that service charge demands were sent out with the freeholder’s name incorrectly stated, which they say was due to an administrative error. They apologised for this.
The Ombudsman expected the agent to have ensured that service charge demands correctly stated the name of the freeholder. The agent should have issued the ground rent demand promptly prior to or at the start of a charging period.
This element of the complaint was supported. An award of £50 for the aggravation caused to the leaseholder when she had to enquire several times about the freeholder’s name on service charge demands. The Ombudsman could not determine that the demands were invalid though, or that any financial disadvantage was caused, as the leaseholder requested.
The two complaints were supported and an award of £150 was made in full and final settlement of this dispute.
Katrine Sporle, Ombudsman at The Property Ombudsman