Many homes and gardens will share certain elements of the property with their neighbours. Whether it be a small stretch of fence, an interior wall or the floors of an upper floor flat, there are many situations where you may be responsible for a party wall and have to abide by the laws surrounding it.
Since 1997, the Party Wall Act 1996 has given a legal enforcement to homeowners’ rights and responsibilities in regard to walls and other borders they share with their neighbours. In legal terms, a party wall is defined as one of the following: a wall forming part of one building, but which is on the boundary of another property; a garden wall which sits astride the property’s boundary line; a wall which is common to two properties (such as between two semi detached or terraced houses; floors and ceilings of flats.
The Party Wall Act prohibits either party from undertaking certain types of work without the permission of the other. It does not replace the need for planning permission for certain types of work and neither does planning permission replace the need to get the other party’s permission. Some work can be done without permission of the other party, for instance rewiring, plastering and decorating or putting up shelves.
The type of work that does require permission includes changes to the wall itself, including demolition, rebuilding or changes in height or thickness, excavations within 3m of a neighbouring building, damp proof course work, underpinning and cutting into the party wall to insert load bearing beams. In general, any work which may have an effect on neighbouring properties or on the structure or support function of the party wall must be notified, but if you are unsure then seek advice from a Building Control Officer or an architect.
If it transpires that the work you are planning does fall under the Party wall Act, then you must issue a notice with all the details of the proposed work to all affected neighbours. This notice must give the date you plan to start the work from and you need to await written permission from all affected neighbours at least two months before you plan to start the project. In the event that a neighbour has not responded within 14 days then it will be assumed that there is a dispute, but work must not start until written permission has been obtained from all parties.
If a dispute arises because an agreement cannot be reached with the neighbour, then you will need to appoint a surveyor to make the decision for you. He or she will be able to take a professional and impartial view of the situation and will be able to recommend the work you are planning, or to make amendments to the plans. The surveyor will make an award either in favour of the plans to go ahead, or to reject them.
It is important to remember than once a surveyor has been appointed a under the Party Wall Act, they have a legal duty to behave in an impartial manner. Even if it was you who appointed them, they cannot and will not act in your interests and will only view the situation in terms of what they think is reasonable for the property. Once a surveyor has been appointed they cannot be changed and their decision is final, although an appeal to the County Court can be made within 14 days of the surveyor issuing his award.
Normally it is the person who is seeking the neighbour’s permission for works who pays the fees of the surveyor. Fees can soon mount up, as the average cost for a surveyor in London is in the region of £120 per hour. In some cases the adjoining neighbour may want to appoint his own surveyor, for which London companies charge a flat fee of around £700 – £1300, but which the adjoining neighbour will have to pay himself.
Once the award has been made, the project can commence, but do make sure you have the award in hand as there can be delays, often involving the payment of surveyor’s fees, which can delay the paperwork and put you in breach of the law.
If you are the adjoining neighbour and feel that your neighbour has undertaken some work that is in breach of the Party Wall Act, it is highly recommended that you seek legal advice at the earliest possible stage to ensure you do not incur unnecessary costs during the course of your dispute.