Life without rules would be chaos. Imagine if everybody had the power to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted! Total disorder would ensue.
Thankfully, we can rely on set regulations in all aspects of life, including that little renovation project you’re planning at home (whether it’s adding an extension for your new kitchen, building a swimming pool or painting your entire house’s façade).
But does your little project affect those around you? If you’re planning building work near an adjoining property in England or Wales, you need to observe the Party Wall etc. Act 1996. This was designed in order to help you undertake work (such as gaining access to neighbouring properties) while protecting the interests of both you and your neighbours. Thus, it benefits all.
So, before you phone up a licensed home builder, read on to see what your (and your neighbours’) rights are…
The Act covers shared walls between semi-detached and terraced houses, or structures such as the floors between flats or maisonettes, plus garden boundary walls.
In addition to alterations affecting the structures directly, the effect of any excavations within 3-6 metres of the boundary can be covered by the Act if the foundations are likely to have an impact (based on depth).
The most commonly used rights granted are:
• To cut into a wall in order to take the bearing of a beam (loft conversion), or to insert a damp-proof course or flashings.
• To raise the height of the wall and/or increase the thickness of the party wall.
• To demolish and rebuild the party wall.
• To underpin the entire thickness of the party wall.
Note that very minor work (such as drilling to hang shelves, or chasing out to add new sockets or switches) don’t require notice.
Bad idea. This is not only an offence, but will allow your neighbours to take civil action against you and have an injunction issued to stop further work until a party wall agreement is arranged. Of course this will delay your project and is likely to increase your costs – your builder may demand compensation for the time they cannot work, or may start another job and not return for several months.
In addition, your neighbours may seek compensation if they can prove they have suffered a loss as a result of the work, and it could even require removal of the work. The same applies if you have a party wall agreement with your neighbours but fail to observe the terms agreed.
If building work affects a party structure, you must serve notice at least two months before work begins. In the case of excavations, you must give at least one month’s notice. Work can begin once an agreement has been entered into.
You need to write to all adjoining homeowners, stating your name and address, a full description of the work, the property address and start date, plus a statement that it is a Party Wall Notice under the provisions of the Act.
Before serving notice, chat to your neighbours about your plans and make sure they understand what your intentions are.
To serve notice, write to your neighbour and include your contact information and full details of the works to be carried out, access requirements and the proposed date of commencement. In an urban environment, your project might affect several adjoining neighbours, and you will have to serve notice on each of them. If a property is leasehold, you will need to serve notice on both the tenant and the building’s owner.
Provide your neighbour with details of the Party Wall Act so that they know what they are agreeing to.
Your neighbour has 14 days to respond and give their consent, or require a party wall settlement. If they agree to the works in writing, you will not require a party wall agreement and this can save on the fees, which are typically £700-900 per neighbour. It therefore pays to contact your neighbours first to discuss your proposals and to try to overcome any issues in advance, or at the very least ensure they receive the notice and respond within 14 days.
Should they fail to do so, they are deemed to be in dispute and you will need to instruct a surveyor anyway, whether they consent to the works or not.
It’s always a good idea to discuss proposals in advance of serving notice. If you get your neighbour on board, they may simply consent to the work (but you’ll need this in writing) and you’ll incur no fees.
You will still have to comply with the terms of the Act. For example, avoiding unnecessary inconvenience, providing temporary protection for adjacent buildings and properties where necessary and compensating your neighbour for any loss or damage if it is caused by the work.
If they refuse or fail to respond, you are deemed to be in dispute. You can contact the owner and try to negotiate an agreement. They may write to you and issue a counter-notice, requesting certain alterations to the work, or set conditions such as working hours. If you can reach agreement, put the terms in writing and exchange letters, and work can begin.
Should you fail to reach an agreement, you’ll need to appoint a surveyor to arrange a Party Wall Award that will set out the details of the work. Hopefully, your neighbour will agree to use the same surveyor as you – an ‘agreed surveyor’ which will only incur a single set of fees.
However, your neighbour has the right to appoint their own surveyor at your expense. If each side’s surveyor still cannot agree, then you have to pay for a third surveyor to adjudicate.
If you require an Award, it can cost from £700-£900 per surveyor. If you have several adjoining homeowners, each insisting on using their own surveyor, the fees can be quite significant, which is why reasoned negotiation is always advisable.
If you fail to issue a Party Wall Notice before the relevant work begins, or fail to secure a Party Wall Award, your neighbour can serve an injunction to stop or prevent the work that will affect their property, until the Award is in place.
If you comply with the Act, however, they can’t prevent the work from going ahead, or deny you access to their property to undertake the work.
Part 3 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 places a duty on a local authority to investigate complaints of statutory nuisance from people living within its area. This includes complaints about noise and dust from building work where it unreasonably interferes with the use or enjoyment of their premises or is prejudicial to their health.
The local authority will always encourage adjacent landowners to resolve matters amicably – for instance by scheduling deliveries or works for only certain hours of the day, and restricting work carried out on Sundays and Bank Holidays.
If the local authority decides to take enforcement action, you are advised to comply with this, as contravention can lead to prosecution.
The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 only applies to England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland rely on common law rather than legislation to settle party wall disputes.
Neighbouring owners can negotiate to allow work to proceed – and access can be forced through the courts if necessary.
• A party wall is a wall astride the boundary of land belonging to two (or more) different owners.
• A party fence wall, such as a garden wall, that stands on the boundary line between your home and a neighbour’s (not necessarily adjoining a building).
• A party structure is a wall or floor separating buildings or parts of a building – for example, between flats or maisonettes.
If you are extending a property close to a neighbour, which drastically reduces the light that reaches their plot and passes through their windows, you may be infringing their right to light. This could give them the right to seek an injunction to have your proposed development reduced in size or to seek a payment to compensate for the reduction of light.
If the loss of light is small and can be adequately compensated for financially, the court may award compensation instead of an injunction. However, if you have built without consideration for your neighbour’s right to light, and are found to have infringed their right, the court has the power to have the building altered or removed at your expense.
In England and Wales, a right to light is usually acquired by prescription – in other words, once light has been enjoyed for an uninterrupted period of 20 years through the windows of the building. Once acquired, the right to light extends only to a certain amount of light such as is suitable for the continuous use and enjoyment of the building, and is not a right to all the light that was once enjoyed.
This means the right to light can be reduced by development – there is no assumption that any reduction in light to your neighbour’s property gives grounds for them to prevent your development. Specialist computer software programmes are used to calculate mathematically whether or not a development causes an infringement, and the results are used to determine whether any compensation might be payable and, if so, how much.
Bear in mind that your neighbour’s right to light is not diminished or reduced by the fact that the local authority have granted you planning permission for your project, or because your intended project constitutes permitted development and so does not require planning permission.
To learn more about planning permission (and how it affects your house and/or renovation project), check out: “What do I need to know about planning permission?”.