Walsall football star Zeli Ismail reveals how dream home became hell
For new Walsall signing Zeli Ismail, the trappings of a career in professional football enabled him to buy his first home at the age of just 21.
But the former Wolves midfielder has revealed how his home-owning dream turned into a nightmare due to an unpaid grass cutting bill and an often overlooked property clause called 'rentcharge'.
It led to Ismail receiving a sting of baffling financial demands, potential court action and threats of eviction – despite the fact that he owns his freehold home in Wolverhampton outright.
Ismail, a former England international at youth level, joined Wolves academy aged 10 and made nine first team appearances for the club before a series of loan moves.
He was still on the books at Molineux when he bought his home in May 2015, but last December he received a solicitors letter wrongly describing him as 'a tenant'.
It was the start of a truly horrendous six month ordeal.
After a call the 24-year-old received an amended letter in January entitled 'Outstanding rentcharges and fees'.
It contained an invoice for £836.12 made up of solicitor's fees, backdated charges and interest, along with a warning that if the bill wasn't settled within 21 days, the client 'intends to either re-enter the property or grant a lease in respect of the property'.
Chillingly, it went on to say 'the client' – the managing agent responsible for maintaining the communal parts of the site – could ultimately obtain an 'eviction in respect of the property'.
And the charge? Well, that related to cutting the grass verges. The letter added that if Ismail didn't pay, he could be liable for costs of between £3,000 and £5,000.
He assumed the letter was an error, but it wasn't.
'Rentcharges' actually have nothing to do with renting in the traditional sense.
In years gone by they were a popular way for owners to sell land to developers at a reduced rate, with subsequent freehold owners paying a small annual fee for the duration of the lease.
In 1977 new legislation blocked new charges from being set up and set an expiry date of 2037 on all existing charges.
But for buyers of new-build freehold properties, 'estate rentcharges' are one of the permitted exceptions.
It means that developers can make freeholders pay a 'rentcharge' for the maintenance of communal areas of a private estate.
The person who receives these payments has powerful legal rights to recover sums due – including repossession.
Ismail's partner's mother, Tracey Atkinson, agreed to act as an advocate for him.
“The first communication he had about the charge was a threat of eviction from the solicitors," she said. "This had a huge detrimental effect.
"They were threatening eviction over a bill that was never received and the charges were all added on prior to the invoice dated December 17, 2017.
“I told him to pay the outstanding charges and said I would deal with the legal fees. The solicitors refused to accept a part payment and the rest, as they say, is history.”
In Ismail’s case, Bellway, which built his estate, maintains control over its management company. SDL Property Management collects the 'rentcharge' and then instructs another firm of solicitors to pursue unpaid charges.
Ismail’s charges were £37.50 every six months, but it emerged the bills were addressed to the previous owners and it remains unclear whose responsibility it was to update the managing agent’s records.
A spokesperson for SDL said the request for payment was sent and addressed to the previous owner as they had not been made aware that the property had been sold.
When they discovered it had been sold they sent the invoice to Ismail but received no response, the spokesperson added.
“After sending two further reminders with no response, we followed standard procedure and instructed our solicitors to collect the debt on our behalf.
“Eviction was only mentioned as an absolute last resort and this was made clear in the letter. There was no ‘threat to evict’ – it is our responsibility to tell debtors the consequences of them failing to pay.”
Ismail, who played 16 games on loan at Walsall last season before securing a permanent one year deal, has since paid the charge.
SDL has quashed the solicitor’s fees 'as a gesture of goodwill' and rescinded the court action letter.