Home buyers warned of top-floor flat repair threat

Police attend the scene in Earl Grey Street, Edinburgh, last month after masonry fell from a tenement. Picture: Toby Williams
Police attend the scene in Earl Grey Street, Edinburgh, last month after masonry fell from a tenement. Picture: Toby Williams
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HOME buyers are being warned to steer clear of top- floor tenement flats amid fears that a lack of repairs has made ageing buildings structurally unsound.

The unprecedented warning has been made by an Edinburgh firm of solicitors following the axing of a compulsory repairs scheme aimed at keeping thousands of stone-built Victorian and Edwardian blocks of flats safe.

And the city’s Conveyancers Forum, which represents 50 solicitors firms, claimed the new system, launched this month, is “woefully inadequate” and will lead to essential work not being carried out. In 2010, outstanding repairs were estimated at more than £1 billion and the property ­experts believe the bill may now be even higher.

The problem of Scotland’s crumbling tenements was highlighted in 2000 when Australian waitress Christine Foster was killed at Ryan’s Bar in Edinburgh’s West End by falling masonry.

It was in the news again in 2010 when a pensioner was knocked over by masonry falling from a rooftop in the city’s Home Street. And last month, police had to close a section of Earl Grey Street in Edinburgh after a section of stonework fell four storeys. No one was hurt.

Under the former compulsory scheme, Edinburgh City Council surveyors hired contractors to ensure building repairs were carried out regardless of objections from homeowners, who were then billed for the work.

Sandy Burnett, a partner at solicitors Murray Beith Murray, said that the decision by city authorities to axe the system last month had “seriously diminished” the ability to detect faults. “This leaves the owners of top-floor flats particularly vulnerable,” Burnett said. “They should not expect potential buyers to rely on the basic report covered under the compulsory Home Report.

“My advice would be don’t buy – unless the vendor can provide positive evidence that the roof is in good condition and show there is a history of stair owners acting together with common repairs.”

Tenement buildings constructed between 1870 and 1910 were built with sandstone with an estimated life-span of 100 years and major repairs have becoming increasingly necessary across Scotland in recent years. Similar properties are also common in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen – where two years ago a tenement had to be evacuated after a partial collapse – and property experts have warned there has been an “endemic and long-term failure” to address faults, particularly in Edinburgh.

There are around 120,000 tenement properties in the city, but the property conservation system administered by Edinburgh City Council was put on hold after widespread allegations of fraud and a police investigation. Officials were accused of allowing projects to soar by up to 20 times in cost. However, the complete suspension of the scheme has caused work to cease on many of the properties which need repairs every year.

There are about 20,000 properties which have been identified as needing work, and thousands more with faults yet to be detected. Now instead of council involvement, it will be up to homeowners to organise repairs.

The Edinburgh Conveyancers Forum, which represented property agents when the new non-compulsory work scheme was being drawn up said its concerns were not taken on board.

“Our starting point is there has been an endemic and long-term failure on behalf of owners to collectively look after the condition of tenements”, said Brian Smith, a partner at solicitors Simpson and Marwick. “Back in the 70s and 80s, ­local government funded up to 90 per cent of common repair schemes to ensure the fabric of these historic buildings remained sound. This money dried up around 1987 and by the early 90s homeowners were expected to look after their own properties. Since then the statutory notice scheme has been introduced and the view of the forum is that the system worked very well. Without it, it is estimated that 95 per cent of the work would not be done and that is the over-arching issue with the new watered-down system.”

The forum suggested that a council-run inspection programme should be set up to ensure faults are detected, but said council chiefs are wary of the costs and liabilities stemming from such provision.

Edinburgh’s finance leader Alasdair Rankin, who is tasked with overseeing the new shared repairs scheme, said there is still a role for the local authority. “It is a balancing act and it’s important to remember these properties are owned by private individuals,” he said.

Twitter: @RoryReynolds