Walls and boundaries: rights and problems

Article reference: UK-IA-PR05
Last updated: August 2022 | 6 min read

If you’re planning to carry out work to a wall, floor or ceiling that is shared between you and the owners of another property, then you may need to seek permission of the other owners.

A law called the Party Wall etc Act 1996 applies if the work you carry out could disrupt or change a neighbouring property. It provides a framework for preventing and resolving disputes by requiring you to notify your neighbours and allowing them to refuse permission to carry out the work unless a surveyor is brought in to reduce the risk of damage.

The Act is separate to obtaining planning permission or building regulations approval.

The law applies to any change to the nature of the party structure shared with the property.

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 (pun intended) for problems to arise!

Keeping neighbours on-side is important, even if the law doesn't require you to obtain their permission. When you come to sell your property, the buyer's conveyancer may ask whether you have had any disputes with neighbours and if so, the conveyancer may seek further information about the reasons and the quality of the work done.

What is a party structure?

Party structures are walls, floors and ceilings that separate two or more properties that are owned by different owners. As examples, two semi-detached houses share the party wall between them, while a ground floor flat shares a ceiling or floor with the flat above.

A party structure is one that:

  • stands on the land or property of two or more owners, either forming part of a building or not (such as a garden wall)
  • stands on land or property owned by one person, and used by other owners to separate their buildings

The wall, floor or ceiling must be structural – wooden garden fences, path rails, and coverings are not considered to be party structures. Temporary structures such as most sheds are excluded.

The definition of a wall is not clear. However, it would cover most boundaries such as brick concrete and stone walls. Hedges are certainly not walls. Hedges and ditches are covered by a different piece of legislation.

The Act applies where you are either changing the nature of the party structure, or where your work is sufficiently close so that the structure may be changed as a result.

As examples, you may be:

  • building a new wall or a new building on or at the boundary of two properties
  • carrying out work to an existing party wall or structure, for example, removing a chimney, or changing the dimensions of the wall
  • carrying out work that affects the use of the structure, such as cutting flashings, or re-routing rain spouts, water pipes, sewer pipes and other water conduits
  • drilling holes in the wall, such as to install strengthening beams or to inject damp proofing
  • knocking down or rebuilding a wall
  • digging below the level of the foundations of a neighbours property

Minor work such as plastering a wall or accessing electrical wiring does not require you to notify your neighbours, although it is often a good idea to inform them if any problem could affect them.

The Party Wall Act obliges you to serve notice of the proposed works on your neighbour so that they may agree to it being carried out or not. After all, your work may damage the integral structure of his or her property. If your neighbour does not agree to work, you must appoint a surveyor to prepare a party wall award.

Types of notice

You are required to give different types of notice for different types of work:

  • a Party Structure Notice should be used when alterations are made directly to the party structure, including when cutting holes, cutting flashings and removing a chimney
  • a Notice of Adjacent Evacuation should be given when you excavate within three or six metres of your neighbours building
  • a Line of Junction notice should be used for the construction of a new wall adjacent or astride to a boundary

Examples of all types of notice can be found for free on Gov.UK.

When to serve notice?

Notice must be served to all neighbours whose properties are adjacent to the work being carried out at least two months before work starts.

Once notice has been given, work can start within a year. If the year elapses, new notice must be given.

If you fail to give proper notice, the owners of the adjacent property can apply to the Court for an injunction to prevent you from carrying out the work.

Once you have given notice, the neighbour may do one of three things: reply positively, reply negatively, or do nothing.

If he or she consents in writing, then you may start the work.

If he or she does not consent, or does not reply within 14 days of serving the notice, then he or she is regarded as not approving of the work. In order to carry out the work, you need to appoint a surveyor to adminster the Act - to propose how risks can be reduced and mitigated so that the work becomes acceptable.

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. It 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.
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