“All these owners want is to get out of these timeshare agreements, and a lot are taken in by the salesmen.”
Some pensioners are being forced to pay fees until they die, even if they are too old or ill to use their holiday properties. Some even opt to bequeath them back to the companies in their wills, so their children won’t be lumbered with ongoing fees.
Many timeshares were bought on holiday, in currencies other than sterling, meaning fees have risen as the pound has weakened.
Yvette Grant bought her husband, Michael, a timeshare as a surprise present for his 50th birthday 14 years ago. It gave the couple access to a two-bedroom apartment in Tenerife for one fixed-date week in April every year. They enjoyed several holidays in the resort, even buying an extra week and upgrading to a larger apartment.
They say the trouble started when the timeshare company, Paradise Club, was taken over by a larger firm called Club la Costa and fees started rising.
“The annual maintenance costs soared,” said Mr Grant. “When we initially took out the timeshare, we paid around £200 a year. This rose to £400 after we’d upgraded and took a second week. But after the new company took over, it doubled the maintenance fees, and with the weakened pound we now pay nearly £1,000.”
After going into semi-retirement five years ago, Mr Grant decided he no longer needed a three-bedroom apartment, nor could justify spending so much a year, and he approached Club la Costa to discuss selling.
Club la Costa gave him a list of companies that could sell on his behalf but most asked for upfront fees with no guarantee of results. “After I refused to pay without results, many of the companies lost interest,” he said. Eventually the Grants sold one of their weeks for £800, through a company called Worldwide Timeshare Hypermarket.
“It was much less than we’d paid but all I cared about was reducing the maintenance charges,” said Mr Grant.
Three years later they went back to the same firm to try to sell the second week but found it was not interested.
The couple advertised on timeshare websites but to no avail. Frustrated by the difficulties, Mr Grant offered to give the timeshare back to Club la Costa for free, so he could stop paying the annual charges. “I was told in rather firm tones by Club la Costa that if I stopped paying my maintenance charges they would take legal action for breach of contract.”
However, in a statement a spokesman for Club la Costa said: “We administer many different clubs, each with their own rules. In general, Club la Costa allows surrender on payment of one year’s management fees. The one-year management fee is to compensate the club for the loss of its income while budgets are readjusted. We do not threaten members or hold them hostage in the manner suggested.”
He added that the company administered the clubs on behalf of the members. “The members are represented by an elected committee and all annual fees are approved by that committee.”
He said that health and safety and tourist-licensing rules in the Canary Islands had become more demanding, which had resulted in many facilities and apartments being upgraded, leading to the increase in annual fees.
While the saga continued, Mr Grant returned to Tenerife for what he was determined would be the last time.
“I saw a family being shown around the apartment block by a salesman, enjoying their free week’s holiday while they listened to the hard sell. I waited until later that day and approached them. The company was going to charge the family £10,000, so I offered my week for £1,000. They bought it then and there.”
The Grants’ story is familiar. Of the 1.5 million timeshare owners in Europe, more than a third are from the UK and Ireland. Most resorts are in Spain; three of Club la Costa’s 28 resorts are in Tenerife, while it also has a resort in the Costa del Sol, where holidaymakers must cross a dual carriageway to reach the beach.
Diamond Resorts, the largest UK timeshare supplier, has 18 resorts in Spain and the multinational timeshare companies Disney and Marriott own more than 100 between them.
Elisabetta Sciallis of the Trading Standards Institute said that although the lifetime contracts might seem unfair, the timeshare companies were within their legal rights to demand annual payments.
“Many people were very happy with their timeshares, and continue to be so,” she said. “If, however, you can no longer afford maintenance fees – because you have been made redundant, you have retired or your partner has died – you have legal options that can lead to a discharge of the contract. Unfortunately, those who simply do not want to own the timeshares any more have to find a buyer.”
Timeshare selling tactics were notorious in the Eighties, with companies offering inducements to anyone turning up to their presentations. Resorts also use touts to lure people when they are already abroad with offers of an extra week’s free holiday. Club la Costa’s chairman and founder, Roy Peires, describes his business as “high-powered timeshare-marketing programmes”.
Carole Humphries is all too familiar with these tactics. Mrs Humphries bought a timeshare with her husband, Glyn, while on holiday in the United States in Nineties. She said: “We only meant to pop in for an hour to see what it was about. Before we knew it we’d spent a lot of money. We felt under pressure to sign. That night we lay awake in bed thinking, ‘What have we just done?’ “
Although her family currently use their timeshare, she worries about the future. She said: “I don’t want to have to leave this financial burden to my children. What if they don’t want it?”
Complaints about the hard-sell tactics have led to a change in the law. In February, the EU ruled that any new timeshares or long-term holiday products with contracts of more than a year must be sold with a 14-day cooling-off period giving buyers the right to cancel. The seller cannot ask for any money within the 14 days.