Walls and boundaries: rights and problems

Article reference: UK-IA-PR05
| 6 min read

The Party Walls Act 1996 aims to help property owners to resolve disputes relating to a common boundary, whether inside or outside their houses. It lays down the legal rights and responsibilities of each adjoining owner.

Disputes arise more often in connection with external rather than internal walls. Possibly it is more difficult to move an internal wall, so there is less room for problems to arise!

Does the act apply to me?

If you intend to carry out any work, which falls under one of the following categories the act will most probably apply to you:

  • Carrying out work on an existing wall or structure shared with another property (section 2 of the Act);

  • Building a free standing wall or a wall of a building up to or striding the boundary with a neighbouring property (section 1 of the act);

  • Making an excavation within 6 metres of a neighbouring building depending on the depth of the excavation or proposed foundations (section 6, of the act).

The legislation describes the requirements that must be given to neighbours when work has to be done to a) build a new wall, b) repair an existing wall, or c) gain access to the other property in order to fulfill points a) and b).

It also covers ways in which you can resolve disputes between property owners in situations arising from the above.

The owner of the property upon which the wall or boundary or fence is situated has main responsibility for maintenance. The owner could be the 'real' owner of the property, or it could be a tenant whose tenancy lasts for more than a year. The act also applies to anyone with control over a premises. Of course adjoining owners or occupiers who are thus affected also have rights under the act.

Details of the act

The law applies to both existing and new walls. The definition of a wall is not clear; however it would cover most boundaries such as brick concrete and stone walls. Other structures such as wooden fences and wire fencing are probably not covered.

Hedges are certainly not walls. Hedges and ditches are covered by a different piece of legislation.

The act defines three types of "wall" defined as

A party wall

  • stands astride the boundary of land belonging to two (or more) different owners

  • is part of one building, or separates two (or more) buildings, or consists of a "party fence wall"

A party fence wall

  • is not part of a building, and stands astride the boundary line between lands of different owners and is used to separate those lands (for example, a garden wall)

  • this does not include such things as wooden fences.

  • stands wholly on one owner's land, but is used by two (or more) owners to separate their buildings.

A party structure

  • this covers a floor partition between flats and maisonettes that are adjoined by separate entrances.

  • the buildings may have been built at different times. One person might have built a wall.

  • the other person might then construct their building against it instead of building a wall of their own.

Consultation process

Quite apart from any planning permission or compliance with other building regulation required, to comply with the act, you must also give any adjoining owners at least two months notice of your proposed work. We advise that you do this in writing.

The act sets out an initial consultation process which must be completed before any work takes place. It also defines a time period of one or two months, dependent on the nature of the work, within which the property owners have to reach an agreement.

The party wall owner must notify all adjoining owners who may be affected. He must provide relevant information such as the effect the work may have on their adjoining property. Appropriate steps must be taken so that no damage is caused to the adjoining owner's property.

It is in the best interests of the adjoining owners to reply to the notification unless the person has no problem with the building of the wall. If a reply is not received within 14 days, each party must appoint an independent party wall surveyor to administer the act.

The surveyor will determine what work can be carried out and impose conditions as necessary. These conditions called an "Award". The Award also records the condition of the neighbouring property before the work begins, deals with arrangements for access, sets out the work to be carried out and the way in which it should be carried out.

The property owners must abide by the Award. If, later, the work agreed within the Award is to be altered in any way, the changes must be assessed and approved by the party wall surveyors.

Commonly asked questions

Who pays the surveyor's fees?

The owner who first planned the work will usually be responsible for costs associated with the Award but the surveyor may decide that they should be apportioned where there are benefits to other parties.

Who pays for the building work?

This is settled by agreement. If there is a dispute, it will be covered by the Award.

What about access?

Access must be provided, under the Act, for party wall works.

Can I build astride the boundary line?

Only by agreement.

What is the notice period for boundary fence walls?

At least one month's notice is required.

What about excavations near to neighbouring buildings?

The Act will apply in certain circumstances to excavations, foundations and underground construction within 6 metres of a neighbouring building.

Can the act be used to resolve a boundary dispute?

No, but in many cases the act will prevent disputes arising in the first place. The act includes many more detailed procedures and provisions beyond the scope of this introductory article.

Points to consider regarding negotiations

  • By far the best way of settling any point of difference is by friendly discussion with your neighbour.

  • Always put an agreement in writing. Memories fade, demands change and new neighbours never knew.

  • If you have an agreement, make sure you tell your solicitor before you try to sell your house. Your formal title may need to be changed at the Land Registry or may be the situation should be declared to prospective buyers to avoid future problems.

  • An agreement with your adjoining owner does not remove the possible need to apply for planning permission or to comply with building regulations.

  • You cannot stop someone from exercising the rights given to them by the act, but you may be able to influence how and at what times the work is done.

  • If it is you who wishes to take action, and then take a pragmatic approach to any work that may have an impact on an adjoining property. Follow the correct procedure and secure in advance an official agreement with all relevant parties. That saves delay in your project if someone complains.

Please note that the information provided on this page:

  • Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
  • Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
  • Does not create a contractual relationship;
  • Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
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