UK: Dealing With Party Walls

Last Updated: 7 April 2017
Article by Rebecca Thomas and Joe Bellhouse

Disputes between neighbouring property owners often arise when one property owner does something to the boundary between the two properties which the adjoining owner objects to. The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 (the "Act") tries to limit these disputes by clearly setting out the rights and responsibilities of both parties, together with a dispute resolution mechanism to help resolve arguments quickly and easily.

DOES THE ACT APPLY TO US?

The Act applies to neighbours who share a boundary: the "building owner" is the person who wants to exercise the rights (and may be a freeholder, a leaseholder or a prospective purchaser or tenant with a purchase contract/agreement for lease in place). The "adjoining owner" is the owner or occupier of the neighbouring property. There may be multiple building and adjoining owners in respect of one party wall.

Whenever you're working on a dividing wall or building a new wall near a boundary there is a good chance that the Act will apply. It applies whenever someone is planning to do work on a relevant party wall or structure or carry out excavation work close to a neighbouring property. Party walls and structures include the following:

  • A wall which is common to and separates the buildings on two neighbouring properties.
  • A wall which forms part of only one building but which is on the boundary line between two properties.
  • A free-standing wall which sits astride the boundary line or butts up against it (note that this does not catch wooden fences).
  • The floors and ceilings horizontally separating flats.

WHEN IS A PARTY WALL AGREEMENT REQUIRED?

The combination of the building owner giving notice and receiving permission from the adjoining owner is known as a "party wall agreement". The underlying principle of the Act is that a party wall agreement is needed for all work which could affect the structural strength or support function of the party wall or structure, or which could cause damage to the neighbouring side of the wall or structure. If you are unsure as to whether this is the case you should seek advice from a surveyor, builder, architect or your local Building Control Office.

The following types of work will all be caught:

  • Carrying out works to an existing party structure, including demolishing or rebuilding it, cutting into it, increasing or decreasing the height or thickness, adding a damp proof course or underpinning beneath it.
  • Building a new wall astride or adjacent to a boundary.
  • Excavations within a specified distance of a neighbouring building, which will go below the bottom of the foundations of the neighbouring building (between 3 and 6 metres depending on the depth of the excavation).

Note that for works to existing walls no notice is required if the owner wishing to carry out the works has obtained the adjoining owners' prior written consent. A notice will always be required for other types of work.

IS THERE ANYTHING WE CAN DO WHICH DOESN'T NEED NOTICE/PERMISSION?

Some types of work generally fall outside the scope of the Act:

  • Putting up shelves or wall units
  • Re-plastering
  • Electrical wiring

However, these remains subject to the underlying principle that notification is needed for all work which could affect the structural strength or support function of the party wall or structure.

WHAT NEEDS TO GO INTO OUR NOTICE AND WHEN DO WE NEED TO SERVE IT?

Where the planned work falls within the Act (and no prior written agreement has been entered into for works to existing walls) a notice must be given to all affected parties. You can download a template notice letter from the DCLG's guidance page.

The notice must include the following information:

  • Names of all owners of the property where work is being undertaken
  • Address of the property where work is being undertaken
  • Names of all owners of the adjoining property
  • Description of the proposed work (for excavation works a drawing showing the position and depth is also required – for other types of works providing plans and drawings is advisable though not required)
  • Proposed start date
  • Statement that the notice is given under the Act

The person proposing to carry out the works must serve written notice on the adjoining owners at least two months before the intended start date for work to an existing structure, or one month before the intended start date for work to a new boundary wall, or for excavation works.

The notice may be sent by email, if this has been agreed with the adjoining owners. Alternatively, it may be sent by post, or hand delivered to the property. If the property is vacant it should be securely attached to the outside of the adjoining property.

WE'VE RECEIVED A NOTICE UNDER THE ACT. DO WE NEED TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT?

If you receive a notice you can do one of the following:

  • Within 14 days, give your written consent to the planned works
  • For works to existing walls only, within one month serve a counter-notice requiring the building owner to incorporate additional works (eg improved foundations or underpinning) – your notice of an intention to serve a counter-notice must be given within 14 days
  • Decline to give consent or fail to respond – in which case a dispute has arisen, save where the proposed works are the construction of wall up to (but not astride) the boundary line, in which case you are deemed to have consented to the work (in addition, if the proposed work is the construction of a wall astride the boundary line then it can instead be constructed wholly on the property of the building owner).

Note that you are not allowed to prevent your neighbour from carrying out works which fall within the Act so you should take advice before deciding not give written consent, otherwise you may find yourself liable for surveyor's fees in the event of a dispute arising. You are, however, able to influence how and when the work is done (save where the work is the construction of a wall wholly on the property of the building owner).

You may also request that security is provided to guard against the risk of the building owner starting the works and then giving up on them at an inconvenient stage. This security should be sufficient to allow you to reinstate to the position that you were in before the works began.

WE'VE SERVED OUR NOTICE. WHEN CAN WE START WORK?

You cannot start work until all adjoining owners have agreed to this in writing, or you have an award from a surveyor as described below. The exception to this is for the construction of walls up to (but not astride) the boundary line, in which case you can start work at the end of the one month notice period, provided that the adjoining owners have not objected to the work.

Once you have a party wall agreement or aware in place you must still wait until the date specified in your notice, unless the adjoining owner agrees in writing to the works starting earlier.

THE ADJOINING OWNERS HAVE OBJECTED TO OUR PROPOSED WORKS – WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?

If the adjoining owners object to the proposed works (or fail to respond within 14 days) or the building owner objects or fails to respond to a counter-notice, a dispute has arisen.

It is advisable to try and resolve the issues by way of a friendly discussion, putting any agreement reached in writing: this will save time and money.

However, if agreement cannot be reached, the building owner and the adjoining owner should try to appoint an agreed joint surveyor who will make a decision ("award") for them. If the owners cannot agree on a single surveyor, they may each appoint their own surveyor (who will appoint a third surveyor by agreement between them); these two surveyors should try to make an award between them but if they can't agree then the third surveyor will make the award.

If one party refuses to appoint a surveyor, the other party can ask their own surveyor to appoint one on behalf of the other party, to enable the procedure to continue.

The Award will deal with issues such as what works will be carried out, when and how they will be completed, any additional works that the adjoining owner requires, details of the condition of the adjoining owner's property before works begin and who will pay for the costs of the works and of the award.

WE DON'T AGREE WITH WHAT OUR APPOINTED SURVEYOR IS DOING – WHAT CAN WE DO?

Once your surveyor has been appointed you cannot rescind this appointment. If you have appointed a single surveyor, there is nothing else that you can do (so take great care when selecting a surveyor). If each party has their own surveyor, you can approach the third surveyor that has been appointed to resolve the matter for you.

OUR SURVEYOR HAS MADE AN AWARD BUT WE DON'T AGREE WITH IT. WHAT CAN WE DO?

The surveyor's award is final and binding but either party may appeal against it to the County Court. They have 14 days in which to do so. An appeal should not be made lightly as an unsuccessful appellant is likely to incur an award of costs against them. We would always recommend that you obtain legal advice before making an appeal.

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE COSTS OF THE WORK AND THE SURVEYOR'S FEES?

The party wall agreement or award should set out who is paying for the works. This will generally be the building owner, but in some circumstances it is appropriate for the adjoining owner to pay part or all of the cost (for example where the work is needed because the adjoining owner failed to carry out repairs that he was responsible for).

The surveyor(s) will decide who pays the fees, but it will usually be the party undertaking the work, save where the adjoining property owner has called on a surveyor unnecessarily.

WE'VE GOT THE NECESSARY WRITTEN PARTY WALL AGREEMENT – WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Once you have a written agreement (or an award) all works carried out must comply with the terms of the agreement.

You will be able to enter the adjoining owner's land to that extent that this is necessary for carrying out the works, and provided that at least 14 days' notice is given (save in cases of emergency). Where you know that access will be necessary this should be included within the party wall agreement or award. If the adjoining property is unoccupied you can enter the property by breaking open a fence or door, but only you have a police officer with you.

You must exercise reasonable care when you are carrying out the works and you must avoid causing unnecessary inconvenience to the adjoining owner. You must compensate the adjoining owner for any damage caused by the works and pay all expenses relating to the works.

Note that you must carry out the works within 12 months of the date of your notice. If you leave it any longer than this then you will need to serve a new notice and start the procedure again.

WE'VE SPOKEN TO THE OWNERS OF THE NEIGHBOURING PROPERTY AND THEY'RE HAPPY FOR US TO GET ON WITH THE WORKS, SO PRESUMABLY WE DON'T NEED TO DO ANYTHING ELSE?

While we would always recommend speaking to your neighbours before serving any notices under the Act, and reaching a friendly agreement in respect of the works to be carried out, having done so doesn't remove the need for a party wall agreement.

If the works are to an existing party wall or structure, you can simply enter into a written agreement with your neighbour. For all other types of work under the Act, you will still need to serve a notice.

WE'VE GOT PLANNING PERMISSION, SO SURELY WE CAN JUST DO WHATEVER THAT SAYS?

Having a Planning Permission or Building Regulation approval does not change the requirements under the Act. You must still follow the procedures and enter into a written party wall agreement.

OUR NEIGHBOUR HAS STARTED WORK TO A PARTY WALL BUT WE'VE NOT RECEIVED A NOTICE – WHAT CAN WE DO?

We would recommend that you let your neighbour know (in writing) about the requirements of the Act. If they continue with their work, the Act does not contain any enforcement procedures but you may seek a court injunction to stop the work. We recommend that you obtain legal advice before doing so.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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