Passers-by in the smart North London street Jacquie Hale and Ed Goldswain once called home could be forgiven for wondering why there is a large crater in the centre of an otherwise attractive terrace of houses.
The rubble-strewn hole and steel beams connecting — or, more pertinently, supporting — the walls of the houses on either side suggest there was once a property there.
And indeed there was. Back in November 2012, it was Jacquie and Ed’s home. They lived on the ground floor of a handsome Edwardian property. An upstairs neighbour owned the first floor.
In November 2012, Jacquie Hale and Ed Goldswain (pictured with their two sons) had planned to use their savings to extend their £345,000 ground-floor flat into the basement of their property in Finchley, north London
About to become first-time parents, they had recently installed a beautiful new kitchen and were making other home improvements to prepare for their growing family.
But, seven years ago last week, the whole property suffered a terrifying structural collapse — effectively splitting in half — following a botched basement conversion.
The frightened occupants were forced to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Around three years after this horrifying event, Jacquie and Ed spoke to the Daily Mail, telling how they were mired in a legal and financial nightmare.
With the insurance companies refusing to pay out, they faced debts of about £1million, including a £318,000 demolition bill from Barnet Council, around £500,000 in legal costs, many thousands more in lost goods and other expenses — not to mention a £700 monthly mortgage, payable for the next 22 years, on a property that no longer existed.
Back in November 2012, it was Jacquie and Ed’s home. They lived on the ground floor of a handsome Edwardian property. An upstairs neighbour owned the first floor. About to become first-time parents, they had recently installed a beautiful new kitchen and were making other home improvements to prepare for their growing family
Wealthy inhabitants have constructed everything from swimming pools to bowling alleys under their homes, with seemingly little care for potential structural weakness, even though their craving for more space has meant entire streets being effectively ‘hollowed out’ underground
In this era of endless home improvements, their story must serve as a timely warning to anyone considering an ‘iceberg’ conversion — in other words, giving their property an expansive basement extension.
There has been a rash of such building work across the smartest areas of London, such as Chelsea and Belgravia.
Wealthy inhabitants have constructed everything from swimming pools to bowling alleys under their homes, with seemingly little care for potential structural weakness, even though their craving for more space has meant entire streets being effectively ‘hollowed out’ underground.
And where the rich go, the aspirational middle classes follow, with a glut of ‘don’t move, improve’ property television programmes encouraging ordinary people like Jacquie and Ed to dig down instead of moving on.
But, rather than living in their dream home, today this couple find themselves trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of legal and financial problems. For those tempted by an iceberg conversion, they have one word of advice: beware.
For the Mail can reveal their financial troubles are far from over and, arguably, have worsened. Insurance companies have yet to pay out. ‘I honestly don’t think it will ever end,’ says Jacquie today.
Their old home remains a hole in the ground — albeit one that still requires the £700-a-month mortgage to be paid for the 18 years remaining of the 25-year term — and their debts to Barnet Council and the claim by the leaseholder of the first-floor flat that also disappeared in a cloud of dust remain outstanding, to the tune of around £800,000.
Edward Goldswain and his partner Jacqueline Hale, who was eight months pregnant at the time, were planning to extend their £345,000 ground-floor flat into the basement of this property in Finchley, north London, when disaster struck
Barnet Council declared the house a ‘dangerous’ structure that had to be demolished, along with everything inside, from precious photo albums including their first baby scan to family heirlooms. The stress of the realisation that everything they had worked for was being snatched away was enough to see the heavily pregnant Jacquie admitted to hospital with stress
What’s more, they have also found themselves in an expensive tussle with the property’s freeholder.
Of course, the true cost to Jacquie and Ed can’t be reduced to a set of figures: there is the emotional toll and strain on their relationship, endless sleepless nights and gargantuan stress, while juggling the demands of raising a young family.
That’s not to mention the disappointment of shelved wedding plans. Newly engaged at the time of the house collapse, the couple had hoped for a large, traditional wedding, Now, they have neither the emotional reserves to prepare for it, nor the money to afford it.
Yet, incredibly, they remain stoic, determined to count their blessings, rather than mourn for what-might-have-beens.
Jacquie says: ‘In those first couple of years, it was simply a case of putting one foot in front of the other. Now, even though it is still a nightmare, we are able to keep it at a distance and focus on the fact we have our health and a home.
‘Things could be a lot worse. We’ll never get back what we had, but we’ve reconciled ourselves to that.’
It’s a brave sentiment, even if, to an extent, they have managed to rebuild (if that is the right word) their lives.
Now, Jacquie, 44, and 45-year-old Ed live in a mortgaged property in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, with sons Ernie, six — he came along just a month after the house collapsed — and five-year-old George.
To do so required seeking help from family for a deposit and taking out a second mortgage, which they managed to secure courtesy of Ed’s job in digital marketing.
Being able to have a mortgage and be homeowners is also one reason why the couple haven’t filed for bankruptcy, which would have been a way of forfeiting their myriad financial obligations. ‘It would mean we owned nothing,’ says Jacquie.
Theirs is a calm and orderly home, with noticeably little clutter. ‘We’ve got very little stuff these days,’ says Jacquie. ‘I would say one of the few positives from what happened is that we realised what was important.
‘We don’t spend on possessions any more, and favour experiences over stuff. We value time we spend together as a family and travel as often as time and budget allow.’
In fact, this lifestyle change inspired Jacquie’s new business venture, a family travel blog called Flashpacking Family, with which she aims to inspire other families to travel adventurously, giving helpful tips and advice.
‘Putting my energy into this has helped me feel half-human again after years of wading through legal paperwork,’ she says.
‘Some people think this type of travel is off-limits when you have a family, but we like to show it can be done.’
It is nonetheless a departure from the life they had originally planned: one close to friends and family in North London, where, in November 2011, the newly engaged couple had purchased their first home, a two-bedroom ground-floor flat for £345,000.
As the owners of other properties on the street had done, they planned to use their savings to convert the cellar, creating a roomy two-storey family home.
After getting several builders to quote for the job, they employed Christopher Knott, who then owned AIMS Plumbing & Building Services, which featured on the website of the Federation of Master Builders.
He came armed with references, but the couple did more due diligence, too — Jacquie even scoured Knott’s insurance policy and, after finding he was not covered for foundation work, ensured he took out a new one, which she personally checked with the insurer.
Together with a claim from their now-homeless upstairs neighbours, the pair’s obligations mounted to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Still, that’s what insurance is for — except that nobody wanted to pay out. ‘The contents insurer paid for the majority of our possessions, but six months on, our solicitor told us the freeholder’s buildings insurer was refusing to pay out, as it deemed the building had fallen down of its own accord,’ recalls Jacquie
Work initially went well, until about three months into the project, when Jacquie — eight months pregnant — and Ed woke up one Saturday morning in November to see a crack in the wall that was widening before their very eyes.
Upstairs, their neighbours were observing the same phenomenon.
As the crack turned into an ever-expanding gash, it was clearly too dangerous to remain in the property. All fled with their overnight bags — returning the next day to find their home had effectively cracked in half.
Barnet Council declared the house a ‘dangerous’ structure that had to be demolished, along with everything inside, from precious photo albums including their first baby scan to family heirlooms.
The stress of the realisation that everything they had worked for was being snatched away was enough to see the heavily pregnant Jacquie admitted to hospital with stress. ‘It didn’t seem real,’ she says now.
To top it off, Barnet’s Christmas present to the couple — then in temporary rented accommodation with barely a set of crockery to their name — was a £318,000 bill for its services.
Together with a claim from their now-homeless upstairs neighbours, the pair’s obligations mounted to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Still, that’s what insurance is for — except that nobody wanted to pay out.
‘The contents insurer paid for the majority of our possessions, but six months on, our solicitor told us the freeholder’s buildings insurer was refusing to pay out, as it deemed the building had fallen down of its own accord,’ recalls Jacquie.
Knott’s insurers also refused to part with any cash, citing any number of reasons, among them that the price of the job was more than a certain percentage of his annual turnover.
‘It was a horrific time,’ Jacquie reflects. ‘We had a new baby; we were in temporary accommodation and having to wade through reams of paperwork. We were both pretty distraught and permanently exhausted. Despite being new parents, we couldn’t really feel any joy in anything.’
The couple pinned their hopes on a compensation claim against their builder, though it would take another two years before the case came to court. When it did, it made little difference.
While the judge, who called it a ‘sad case’, ordered Knott to pay the couple £290,000, they haven’t seen a penny from him, as Knott had dissolved his company and set up a new one, Stone Hall Building Services. Astonishingly, this is not against the law, and is a strategy used all too often by builders.
That company has since ceased trading, although, since their story became public, Jacquie and Ed have been contacted by two other people who claim Knott left a trail of destruction in their homes, too.
‘One was left with an estimated £100,000 damage; the other job was done so badly they couldn’t get it signed off by building regulators without a lot more work. They can’t afford to pay any more builders and have been trying to do it themselves around their own full-time job,’ says Jacquie.
‘It seems wrong to us that there appear to have been no consequences for him whatsoever.’ All bad enough, you might think. But there were yet more complications regarding the property’s freeholder, who, under English law, owns the building and the land it stands on outright.
Leaseholders lease their home from the freeholder and usually pay an annual sum in ‘ground rent’.
‘Initially, it was a company called Deeya,’ says Jacquie, ‘but a couple of years after the collapse, it was put up for auction.
‘We asked our lawyers if we should buy it, as we thought it would give us more options, but they advised us not to.
‘A few months later, the company changed its name to Ground Rent Trading 4SA Ltd, and we found ourselves dealing with the new owner and professional freeholder, Laurence Freilich.’
In January 2018, the couple got a letter from lawyers acting for the freeholders, effectively trying to terminate their lease.
‘It said we had to forfeit our lease as we had broken the terms of our leasehold,’ recalls Jacquie. ‘There was an element of: ‘How much more can one family take?’
‘It accused us of breaking just about every part of the lease you could think of, including not looking after the communal areas — which is a bit ridiculous, seeing as there were no communal areas left as there was no house. We had two weeks to respond.’
Ridiculous though it may have been, the couple still had to defend themselves to retain the lease — their one chance of rebuilding their old home and clawing something back from the mess that enveloped them.
With legal expenses mounting into the tens of thousands — not to mention the stress of simultaneous legal action against their former lawyers, who they feel badly advised them — a trial was set for early 2019.
It never happened: earlier this year, Jacquie received an alert from a government website that monitors changes to title deeds, telling them Ground Rent Trading was going into administration.
‘I rang my lawyer in a panic, asking what it meant,’ she says. That remains to be seen. At the moment, Jacquie and Ed are dealing with administrators called in to replace the freeholder.
‘It’s all very fishy. They are trying to get us to go to yet another meeting, at more legal expense, saying if we don’t go the freehold will default to the Crown, which will complicate things further. They are also saying there are now further debts of £400,000 attached to the freehold.’
Are there any lessons that could be learned? Jacquie thinks not. ‘I get asked this a lot, particularly by friends who are embarking on building work,’ she says. ‘They’re desperate to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them.
‘But, much as I wish I could tell people to do things differently, we have been told we did everything by the book. I just think we were very, very unlucky.’