Thursday, 22 September 2016

Rentcharges – A Toxic Blight on Property

A recent ruling of the Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber) * shows the dangers of ignoring rentcharges.

A rent charge is an annual payment secured on land that’s payable to the rent charge owner.

Commercial property lawyers are accustomed to using an estate rentcharge as a way of setting up a variable service charge in an estate where freehold units are sold off around common parts – it gets around difficulties with enforcing positive covenants against successors in title.

The recent case concerns a different and much older form of rent charge affecting residential properties that still exists in some parts of the country, for example in parts of Bristol and parts of Manchester (in the North West they are called “chief rents”).

Historically, these fixed residential rentcharges were created in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the growing urban population meant a lot of land was needed very quickly.

Land may have been sold at below market value - typically to developers for building - and a rentcharge would be imposed to compensate the seller in return for deferring some of the capital payment, which was passed on to the first and future householders in the form of a perpetual yearly rentcharge.

In areas where rentcharges exist, you will often see properties that are no longer subject to a rentcharge marketed as “freehold and free”.

The Rentcharges Act 1977 prohibited the creation of new rentcharges of this type (it doesn’t affect the variable estate rentcharges used to create service charges), and for the first time set a time limit on the existing rentcharges, as well as creating a mechanism for redeeming a rentcharge.

Those rentcharges already in existence – and there are thousands of them – will continue under the 1977 Act until the later of July 2037 and the date being 60 years after the date on which the rentcharge first became payable.

Most rentcharges of this kind will be unenforceable after July 2037.

The value of the original rentcharges has been eroded over the years by inflation, and typically they now amount to only a few pounds each year.

For this reason, landowners may often think they can ignore them and treat them as historic.

It may also be the case that the rentcharge hasn’t been demanded or collected for many years, and the landowner might not even know who to pay the rent charge to even if it wants to do so.

The problem is that although the sums involved may seem insignificant, the rentcharge owner has very powerful remedies to recover both the amounts due, which may be negligible, and its “administrative expenses”, which might, to put it politely, be creatively assessed.

If the rentcharge has remained unpaid for 40 days, even if it hasn’t been demanded, the rentcharge owner has significant powers under Section 121 of the Law of Property Act 1925.

It can take possession of the property, and use the income from it to clear the arrears; or it can grant a lease of the property to trustees to recover the arrears and associated costs.

Certain businesses have arisen keen to exploit the potential in recovering these rentcharges and costs, as when multiplied over a great many properties they can amount to a considerable sum. They have therefore bought up the rights to receive the rent charges en masse.

In the recent case, the owners of several properties hadn’t paid their rentcharges. The arrears were for nominal sums of between £6 and £15. The rentcharge owners granted leases of the properties to trustees for terms of 99 years and applied to register the leases at the Land Registry.

The case was principally about whether the leases were registrable, and the tribunal ruled that they were, and that the leases gave the tenants (the trustees) the right to exclude the property owners.

This has a devastating impact on the value of the property, because as long as the lease exists the property effectively becomes unsaleable and unmortgageable.

Once created the leases are a permanent device for payment of the rentcharge, and the leases themselves can be sold on to another rentcharge owner.

There’s no provision in the 1977 Act for these leases to come to an end once the rentcharge has been redeemed or the arrears paid.

The owner therefore has to negotiate with the rentcharge owner for the surrender of the lease, and this is where the rentcharge owner can hold the property owner to ransom, demanding not only payment of the arrears but also its “administrative charge”, in this case said to be £650.

Judge Elizabeth Cooke, the Tribunal Judge in the recent case, sympathised with the property owners and described the law in this area as “toxic” and commented:

“The remedy – draconian as it is – is out of all proportion to the wrong”.

However, given everything else the government has on its plate for the foreseeable – or unforeseeable – future, I don’t think I’m being overly cynical in thinking it unlikely the law will be changed between now and 2037.

So what can you do if you find yourself with one of these rentcharges or are thinking of buying a property subject to a rentcharge?

The 1977 Act permits freehold owners to buy out – or redeem – the rentcharge attached to their property.

If you know the rentcharge owner, you can apply to the DCLG to redeem the charge.

Because the mechanism for calculating the redemption figure is based on a gilt that no longer exists, the government has for some time been unable to calculate the redemption figure, which meant you could only redeem the rentcharge by negotiating a price with the rentcharge owner direct.

On this matter however, the law has very recently come to the rescue.

The precise formula for calculating the statutory redemption price has now been revised by the Rentcharges (Redemption Price) (England) Regulations 2016 (SI2016/870) which comes into force on 1 October 2016.

If you don’t know who owns the rentcharge, you may need to do some investigative work to try and find out who does, and if anyone comes forward demanding payment seek evidence of their entitlement and try to redeem to rentcharge right away.

If the rentcharge hasn’t been paid for 6 years, then the rentcharge owner is barred from recovering the arrears or any damages due relating to those arrears. In those circumstances, the safest option for a buyer is to ask the seller to arrange for the rentcharge to be deleted from the title.

If the rentcharge still exists, the buyer should ensure all arrears are dealt with by the seller so that the property is not at risk of enforcement, and these will be matters to be dealt with in the purchase contract.


  1. I have a rentcharge on my property which I paid to begin with (from 1987 for about 6 years) but then the annual invoices stopped and I completely forgot about it. Then in July 2015 I received a letter from a company saying they had bought the Chief Rent from Compton Land Ltd (in liquidation) and demanding 6 years' rent. I don't remember if Compton Land was the company I was originally paying and my deeds name another company who I have found were liquidated in 1983. I don't know who then took over the Chief Rent. Do you know if there is any way I can prove that this new company really are entitled to the Chief Rent? (The missing link is whether Compton Land bought the Chief Rent from Herman Miller Ltd).

  2. Olwen - I cannot comment on the specifics of your case on this blog. You should seek professional advice on whether the rent owner is time barred from recovering arrears. In general terms you might also want to try the government website for help. For example you could try instigating the redemption process described on the government website. As part of that process the government will ask the rentowner to confirm ownership. If the rentowner doesn't confirm ownership, the government will tell you what to do. If they do confirm ownership, then you have the comfort of knowing who is entitled to the rent even if you decide not to redeem the rentcharge (but you should obtain advice on whether they are time barred). This would also help you decide whether or not to redeem, as depending on the cost and your available funds, that might be the sensible thing to do, unless the rent owner is time barred in which case you should apply to the Land Registry to cancel the rentcharge. I don't have any personal experience of doing this or of advising anyone on this and in accordance with the terms of this blog I do not accept any responsibility, but it seems to be the logical thing to try on the basis of government advice. The website is linked in the blogpost and is

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  4. All the so-called "Freehold" house-owners on my recently-built estate must pay a rentcharge (although in our deeds it is referred to as the annual "Estate Charge"). Its purpose is to maintain the common exterior areas of the estate. Our Transfer Documents bind us to this annual payment, levied by the Managing Agent on behalf of the Freehold owner of the common exterior areas.

    This is a most peculiar situation for a Freehold house-owner to be in, and it has become common all over the country. I understand that we have no rights to demand that the owner of the rent-charge, or their Managing Agent, explain and justify their annual "Service Charge" demand, and that we have no legal means of challenging it. So we have no option but to pay or face legal proceedings (bailiffs, eviction, though the matter is not likely to reach those stages).

    Do we so-called "Freehold" house-owners on estates have any right to purchase our rentcharges? If we could do so, then we would become true, genuine Freehold house-owners - free of the tyranny of Managing Agents.