When Carolyn McKeon got the keys to her new flat in Purley, south London, it felt unreal. The flat was light, with views over the nearby woodland and there was a spare room for friends to stay. Best of all, she’d finally got on the property ladder.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to own a property, so it was a complete dream,” says Carolyn, who works in recruitment. “I wanted a home where I could live and have a family in the future.” Carolyn, 36, bought the flat in November 2021 through Help to Buy, the government’s equity loan scheme introduced in 2013. The development, called Realm Court, was completed in 2019. It had passed Help to Buy and London Building Control checks, had a fire risk assessment, a mortgage valuation arranged by her lender and insurance certificates, although she didn’t get her own survey.
“It had been signed off by so many people and I’d got a solicitor to check it, so I thought: what could possibly go wrong?” A lot, it turns out. Soon after moving in, Carolyn began to discover problems. Wires were hanging out of the inoperative lift. Sprinklers hadn’t been fitted. Handles had fallen off the fire exit doors, locking Carolyn into her own floor. The communal areas hadn’t been cleaned. The bins, which had not been correctly signposted, had not been collected, and rubbish was piling up.
Carolyn and her neighbours repeatedly contacted the developer, Realm Housing Ltd. “After time passed and the developer still wasn’t fixing anything, I started to feel like there might be a bigger problem. I began to panic: have they taken shortcuts on how the building is made? Is it fit for purpose? I wanted to know if the building was safe.”
When the fire alarm broke in June 2022, Carolyn contacted the Fire Brigade. An inspector said he was informing the developer that there were problems —like the alarm— that needed to be addressed within 24 hours. Other issues —including installing proper fire exit doors, exit signs and emergency evacuation instructions, for example— were put on a “critical list”, to be rectified within six months. These are yet to be resolved.
The residents decided to have the building surveyed at a cost of £1,250. As well as recommending that it be inspected by a fire safety engineer, it highlighted just under 100 flaws, including drainage problems and shoddy construction of balconies and parts of the roof. This should be “resolved sooner rather than later” to avoid long-term structural damage, the report said. Carolyn and her neighbours were worried – not just because they had put their life savings into their properties, but for their safety.
“When we had that heatwave, we were like: what if there’s a fire? When it rains and the water doesn’t drain properly, we wonder: is the roof going to collapse?… My neighbour, who is pregnant, had a nightmare that she was being burned alive,” says Carolyn. “We can’t just do nothing.”
Now, three months after the survey, the problems remain largely unresolved, and new issues continue to emerge. It is taking a toll on Carolyn, who has spent between 20 and 30 hours a week fighting to have the building repaired. She has rallied her neighbours, contacted London Building Control to ask who signed off the building —and why— written to both her local MP and Michael Gove. She even attempted to deter the sale of the last unsold flat in the building by contacting the listing agent and intercepting property viewings to warn potential buyers. Now, Carolyn is running out of ideas.
“You’re constantly chasing people. Every person says it’s for someone else. It takes so long to realise who the decision maker is. It’s massively overwhelming, and most people have burned all their money saving for a deposit and furnishing their apartments. That’s why these [developers] get away with it – because most people don’t have the money or resources to chase it. Buying this home was the worst mistake of my life.”
Long term, Carolyn’s hope of seeing a financial return on her flat is beginning to dwindle. She plans to try and save during the five-year interest-free period provided with Help To Buy and then sell the property on, even at a loss.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to make money off it; I don’t know how complicated it’s going to be to sell it on…I’m thinking it’s probably a write-off for me at this stage. In my mind, I kind of see it as renting – it’s a roof over my head. It’s not the investment property I’d hoped it was going to be.”
But most of all, Carolyn cannot understand how, post-Grenfell, situations like hers can still happen, and how the systems in place to protect her have seemingly failed.
Of the initial checks, Barclay’s Mortgage Valuation assesses whether the property is a security for a loan, but “is not suitable for any other purpose” and, it specifies, should not be mistaken for a survey. London Building Control, on the other hand, responded to Carolyn saying that Realm Court met minimum standards. Her MP closed the case.
London Building Control declined to comment much further, but a spokesperson stressed their initial check is a third-party assessment, and not a guarantee of compliance to the government-prescribed Building Regulations – much like other building control body and local authority checks.
As part of her purchase, Carolyn should have an National House Building Council 10-year new build warranty, as outlined in her solicitor’s Property Report – although she says that the building does not appear to have been registered for it.
“They make it difficult,” she explains. “Step one is ‘exhaust all means’ – you have to show that you’ve tried everything you could with your current developer, who drags it out forever.”
Likewise, when she tried to make a Latent Defects claim with her insurer, she found that Realm Court’s residents would all need to pay an excess of £1,000. “Why should I pay it when these are their faults to rectify?… If you bought a faulty pair of trainers, you could take them back.”
Mark Sellers, partner at Pennington Manches Cooper law firm, says Carolyn’s legal position is complicated by the fact that many of the defects are to the building’s common parts, which belong to the freeholder and not to her.
Over 300,000 new build properties have been sold to first-time buyers under Help To Buy since 2013, with the scheme set to end this year. Many of these homes were built quickly and not always well. According to Sellers, the regulators are currently under little scrutiny themselves – for now. “Things are changing as a result of Grenfell. There’s a lot of consultation at the moment about leasehold reform; about tying up building safety…In future, things are going to change, but they’re not ready yet.”
For Carolyn, who has invested her savings in her property, this little consolation. If the developer isn’t cooperating and this doesn’t fall under the responsibility of those who originally checked the building – then whose responsibility is it?
“This is so much bigger than me and my apartment. It’s a whole system that doesn’t protect the buyer” she says. “It started off with anger, and then it became about justice. Who ticked those boxes? Who let this go through? Why are these people allowed to get away with it? I don’t understand why there’s a building sitting here that’s not fit for purpose, and we can’t get anyone to fix it.”
“I want everything fixed in line with the Building Code, and I want compensation for my time wasted. I want tighter regulations on these people – I’m seeing so many new developments and wishing people knew what to watch out for.
“You’ve got to be careful, and you’ve got to do your own survey. I want to warn people how bad this is. It’s amazing to get your own place, but you do not want the hassle. This is going to be years and years of a fight.
“To have your own home is a dream. I would never wish this on anyone, because it takes away the joy you have when you do finally buy it.”
Realm Housing Ltd has been contacted for comment.