Wherever there are rules, there are people using their creativity to break or at least bend them. This applies to real estate and planning regulations as much as anything else. For some, doing whatever they want on their own property – away from the prying eyes of the authorities – is worth the risk of prosecution. Up until recently, Reeta Herzallah and Hamdi Almasri’s garage had the most amazing hidden feature – until it was discovered by the council.
Reeta Herzallah, 37, and her husband Hamdi Almasri, 39, both work as doctors. The couple live in the small town of Enderby in the county of Leicestershire, central England, U.K. Their home is a large two-story brick house that fronts onto a busy highway in the county district of Blaby. Part of their property is a one-car garage. The small structure would ordinarily not be much to look at. However, Herzallah and Almasri have had some work done on the garage and now it is extraordinary. So much so, that the humble space that used to house their car has gone viral in a huge and unexpected way.
The couple’s house is part of a development that was originally built in 2007. At the time, a planning condition was made with the developers that a specified area of each home’s grounds be set aside for a vehicle to be placed. In addition all properties were to feature a dedicated garage. These measures were a bid to avoid access problems associated with excess on-street parking. However, in October 2015, Blaby District Council received reports that a pair of residents were in breach of those regulations.
On investigation, council officials found that an enterprising Herzallah and Almasri had erected tall fencing which prevented cars from parking in designated areas. More seriously, they had also put in an illegal access road which led directly from their property on to the busy highway. Furthermore was what the couple had put in the tall fences to hide – unbelievably, they had effectively converted their garage into compact living quarters.
But, crucially, said garage formed another requisite parking area. And none of these alterations had been legally approved. Make no mistake, planning permission is taken very seriously in the U.K. No building developments which are seen as damaging to the local neighborhood, or an inconvenience to the public, are allowed. If it is decided an unplanned property is in breach of their permissions, the local council can legally enforce changes. The real-estate owner can appeal, but if they are unsuccessful, they must comply with the authorities or face prosecution.
In July 2016 Herzallah and Almasri made an after-the-fact planning proposal to the district council in a bid to retain the changes to their Enderby property. The couple’s application was refused. The doctors tried again in February 2017, appealing to a higher body, the national Planning Inspectorate for England and Wales, but were knocked back again. Halfway through that same year, Herzallah and Almasri looked like they were going to comply with the law when they took down the illegal fencing.
However, when officials travelled to Enderby for a follow-up inspection, they found a large door leaned up across the front of the garage. Imagine their surprise when they looked behind it to see a smaller door and windows. The small structure was still being used as a tiny home. The council believed an employee of the doctors lived in the converted garage, and in November 2017, they initiated legal procedures against the couple.
Among other things, councillor Sheila Scott is in charge of planning and housing strategy at Blaby District Council. In a press release published in early February 2018, Scott said, “ The message from this case is clear. If you breach planning regulations and ignore us, we will not just go away. Creating an access onto [a] busy [highway] and blocking off valuable off-road parking space was completely unacceptable.”
Indeed, on February 7, 2018, a hearing on the matter was held at the nearby Leicester Magistrates’ Court. Herzallah and Almasri did not attend the proceedings. In the couple’s absence, they were fined the U.K. equivalent of just over $1,000. They were also ordered to pay legal costs of some $1,700 and a victim surcharge of about $107.
Since the report about Herzallah and Almasri converting their garage into a tiny, clandestine cottage came out, the story has gone viral online and has racked up many newspaper column inches. The exposure prompted Herzallah to make a public Facebook post on February 13, 2018, about what she alleges is false information and vilification being spread by old and new media alike.
Sadly, Herzallah detected racial prejudice behind a lot of the press reporting. She wrote, “A simple council dispute over a tiny garage within our property that we converted for personal use was made into the ‘foreign doctors’ that ‘hid a house’ behind a propped-up garage door story!” She continued, “It does not feel random that this was given all this attention when there are thousands of similar council disputes.”
Furthermore, the Facebook post denied that the doctor duo had turned the garage into a separate home for rent by an employee or indeed anyone else. “This was a simple single garage conversion into a small garden annex in the house that we own on the land that we own, and it cannot be called a separate house in any stretch of imagination!” Herzalla claimed. “We had no intention in breaking any laws.”
Moreover, Herzalla went on to say that the contractor the couple had taken on to complete the conversion had advised them that their modifications were permissible. They are now engaged in a dispute with this operator over returning the property to its original condition. The doctor also added that the garage door had only been leaned against the front of the structure to await installation – not to hide their tiny second home.
“What stupid person would hide an annex with a propped-up garage door?” Herzalla asked in her post. “I suggest some respect to the readers’ intelligence at least would have been nice!” She summed up by addressing the haters directly, “I also suggest that before you try to attack a law-abiding, hard-working couple who have been misled by the council and builders, get both sides of the story.”
Looking through the online comments that readers have left on articles about the dispute, it is clear to see that some side with the doctors. “Seriously why can’t peoples homes be their own to [do] with as they please?” asked one commenter underneath the story’s coverage on the website of U.K. tabloid the Metro “Such a shame, I say boo to the neighbors that reported it and boo to the planning.”
On the other hand, of course, not everyone sees it that way. A reader of the online version of tabloid the Daily Mail, wrote, “If it was a separate dwelling, would it have been subjected to council tax, water rates… house insurance, and if so would these have been paid? If it was just an extension, why be deceitful about it?”
But this is not the first time property owners in central England have tried to outsmart the authorities of late. In 2008 Roy and Gail Coles built a concealed cottage on their land in Lichfield, Staffordshire. They rented out the main house on the property and decamped to their secret structure. The hidden two-bedroom house was accessed by a private road, and the exterior was made to look like a barn.
The luxury dwelling, complete with camouflaged roof and shutters to hide doors and windows, stayed hidden for eight years. Twice, in 2008 and 2012, the local authorities inspected the Coles’s grounds. Officers from Lichfield District Council missed the disguised home both times. Finally, the house was uncovered when someone tipped off the council. Sadly for the Coles, they were ordered to demolish the illegal piece of real estate.
However, perhaps the most ambitious plan to hide a house in the U.K. was hatched in the South of England. Amazingly, Robert Fidler of Salfords village in Surrey actually built a four-bedroomed castle on his farmland between 1999 and 2006. He managed to keep the structure hidden from prying eyes beneath bales of hay. Fidler had hoped that after the building had stood for four years without public complaint, it would become legal under a statute of limitations. However, after a lengthy court battle, Fidler was ordered to demolish it in 2015.
As we have seen, Herzallah and Almasri’s venture was modest by comparison. Nevertheless, the doctors have been given until the middle of March 2018 to remedy the situation. Despite their protests they are still required to restore their property to regulation spec. And no doubt representatives of Blaby District Council will call round soon after to confirm that the Enderby garage now houses a car and is not home to a little secret.