The accidental landlord: rainy days are stressful when letting a top-floor flat with a leaky roof

Our accidental landlord faces difficult times when the freeholder does a runner and the ceiling threatens to collapse on her tenant, leaving her with a hefty bill.
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£450 a week: in a smart, modern development in Balham Grove, SW12, John D Wood has a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, third-floor apartment with a roof terrace and car parking available to rent 
Rainy days in London are depressing enough, but when you are letting a top-floor flat in a building with a leaky roof, they are also pretty stressful. Every time it rains I imagine the damp patch on the ceiling getting bigger and bigger and worry that it won't be long before the whole thing collapses, probably on the tenant's head.

Naturally, I'd like to get the roof repaired as soon as possible, but the owner of the freehold — and the only person who can legally force the leaseholder of the flat below to pay towards the cost — has done a runner.

There is now no one looking after the building and there's no sinking fund to carry out repairs.

I'm happy to pay my share of the cost of a new roof, but frustratingly the owner of the ground-floor flat doesn't want to chip in for the repairs. And why would he? While my tenant is catching drips in a bucket, he's nice and dry below.

He says he's not being tight but he hasn't got the cash and I suspect he thinks I can afford to pay for the repairs as I'm earning an income by renting out my flat.

Also, he knows I can't force him to contribute unless I can track down the freeholder, which is unlikely, so I have no choice but to pay for the roof myself. If I don't I'll lose my tenant and the rent.

I'm not looking for sympathy, I bought the flat cheaply several years ago and I knew the freeholder had abandoned the building, but I took a risk and in some ways it has paid off. The rental income is good and the property has gone up in value, even with a dodgy roof.

However, I hope this will serve as a cautionary tale to anyone looking to invest in a buy-to-let. If you're buying a leasehold property it's a good idea to check that the freeholder is taking care of the building and that they have built up a sinking fund to pay for any urgent repairs. If there is no sinking fund, check whether any major repairs are planned in the near future and, if so, how much these are likely to cost, so you don't get any nasty surprises after you've bought the property. Maintenance bills can wipe out any profit you might make on the rent.

If repairs are carried out on an ad hoc basis, remember to set aside some of your rental income every month to build up a reserve fund. A couple of years ago I had a massive bill for lift repairs for another property in a large block of flats, which came as a bit of a shock, especially as I'd never even spotted the lift in the first place.

It's quite common for flats to be sold as leasehold with a share of the freehold, which will give you more control over how the building is managed, but you still need to check with your lease to see if it specifies how repairs will be funded.

A friend has a top-floor flat with a share of the freehold and, bizarrely, her lease says she is responsible for maintaining the roof and gutters while the flat below is responsible only for the drains. This strikes me as unfair. However, it can be difficult — if not impossible — to alter these arrangements, so it is best to check before you buy. And now, I am off to meet a roofer.

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