What is a party wall or party structure?
Party walls and party structures either stand astride the legal boundary between properties or separate the accommodation of different owners. So party structures can be horizontal floors (between flats at different levels for instance) or vertical walls between terraced or semidetached houses.
A wall in particular can be party as to parts only as opposed to the whole.
Other structures such as chimneys, and indeed, any assembled or engineered structure (save possibly some drainage systems) can be party. Freestanding or removable items such as sheds are generally not party.
Works involving a party structure of any sort are governed by the provisions of the Party Wall Etc Act 1996. This permits an extensive range of works PROVIDED notice under the Act is first served on the other owner.
The Act covers such things as when a Notice is necessary, on whom it shall be served and the timeframe for notification procedures. It also provides for access rights, dispute resolution, compensation and a clear description of the works. The formal terms as agreed of settled by surveyors for each party is known as an ‘Award’
Where is my boundary for party structure purposes?
This can be straightforward or sometimes more difficult to establish; however, avoid relying on Ordnance Survey or Land Registry title plans, neither of which are of sufficient accuracy for boundary identification purposes.
If you live in a property with a vertical party wall dividing it from the neighbour, the typical assumption is that the wall stands astride the boundary. Here the general rule is that the median line or centre line axis of the wall (mid way between the surfaces facing into respective properties) is where the boundary lies – in theory. Not all party walls are vertically symmetrical and not all follow a straight line front to rear between the properties (there may be doglegs). Also past alterations and extensions may make this general rule inapplicable.
Party structures can also be horizontal (the floor structure between flats for instance) and are treated the same as party walls.
For the purposes of the Party Wall Etc Act 1996, where a party structure separates the properties of different owners, the whole structure is ‘party’ by virtue of function regardless of the position of the legal boundary line in relation to it. Thus all of it is protected under the provisions of the Act so it does not necessarily matter where exactly the boundary line lies for the narrow purposes of the Act. It may however matter for other reasons where a party structure stands wholly on the land of one or other owner as opposed to being astride the boundary line. This is an important distinction.
With vertical walls in particular, it can be the case that parts only are ‘party’ and again this is sometimes important to know before planning works.
If in doubt, check your title documents and/or seek professional advice.
What works require a party wall notice?
Not all works require a notice under the Party Wall Etc Act 1996 but works to a party structure that are beyond the purely superficial or cosmetic, usually require consent pursuant to formal notice. The Act governs those works that are a) immediately abut the line of the boundary; or b) which are greater in extent and involve works that deliberately straddle the line of the boundary or c) which involve intrusive works to a party structure (one that separates the accommodation of different owners) in which case it doesn’t matter where the boundary line is provided the separating function is performed by that structure, because the entire thickness of the structure is party and works to one side of it only may require notice; or d) involve adjacent excavation for construction within certain prescribed proximity of any part of the neighbour’s foundations.
Other works like soft stripping out, structural works which do not involve the party wall or excavations not within the specified proximity or which are de minimis (e.g. painting a surface or chasing out a non structural plaster finish to insert a cable duct in a wall), can be generally be carried out without Notice under the Party Wall Etc Act 1996. However care is needed if the party structure is wholly insubstantial because even modest activities can disturb the fabric. Also such works may nonetheless require Building Regulations approval, planning consent and possibly a licence for alterations from a landlord.
What if my neighbour starts work without serving a notice?
If notice is required (and you need to be satisfied this is so) but the neighbour does not bother to serve one before starting notifiable work, you should consider what response is proportionate and reasonable before springing into action. Usually an initial letter is the first step. The neighbour may simply be ignorant of their duties. Take professional advice on the likely impact on your property and your own amenity. Often this can be done informally by email in the first instance at minimal cost.
Ultimately if the person undertaking works dos not or refuses to regularise the situation, it will be a question of considering legal action to obtain an injunction or a Court Order. Be aware of the risks of cross-undertakings on costs in injunctive proceedings. An Order requiring the regularisation of procedures may be more effective but either way, it may well involve cost in getting the Court to provide redress.
Where a duty exists to use the Party Wall Etc Act 1996 procedures, failure to do so can have harmful effects on the resale prospects of the property being worked on. In pre-contract enquiries, both a failure to disclose the execution of works requiring Notice and the failure to serve such a Notice or have a valid party wall award authorising works, even if not picked up by conveyancers (possibly resulting in a requirement for a warranty or bond), will be actionable by a purchaser if subsequently they suffer loss thereby. In short, truthful and complete responses to pre-contract enquiries are necessary (so not just answering: ‘Not to the knowledge of the seller’) and form part of the contract terms. Sellers who fail to disclose or mislead in this respect can expect to be subject to expensive legal action and sanctions.
My neighbour is renewing his roof; should he serve a party wall notice on me?
Many properties in the old London Metropolitan Area have an external raised parapet between the respective property roofs. This is usually the upper extremity of the party wall. Renewing a roof (e.g. stripping the old and providing a new roof covering in the same position) in ways that neither disturb this parapet nor involve cutting int it or the party wall below, are in general not notifiable. More substantial works to or insertions into the parapet or party wall including raising it to accommodate an attic extension, would be party wall matters.
Where roof coverings are continuous across the party line, at very least there should be a discussion with the neighbour before commencing work. If executing the work requires rights of access over the neighbouring property then invoking the Party Wall Etc Act 1996 is one way of being able to require necessary access at the party line or ‘line of junction’ to complete the work in a safe and competent manner.
Modern roofing techniques are bound by construction regulations which mean the detailing is often different to that of the pre-existing roof. Marrying these up seamlessly along a boundary line can present special.
What is never acceptable is simply to renew a roof covering or other weatherings and fail to make sure the junction between the new work and the neighbour’s original roof is made permanently wind and watertight; this is because neighbours gain certain prescriptive rights of support and protection from the weather from each other’s properties and exposing a neighbour’s structure to the elements or ‘laying open’ is a specific activity mentioned in party wall legislation and requires notice and in the event of disagreement, a party wall award. So if the result of works is that the next door property experiences roof leaks, the person who undertook the works that gave rise to this, may well find themselves liable for the making good plus any loss or damage to the interior caused by water ingress.
My neighbour needs to place scaffolding oversailing or in front of my property for party wall works. What is my position?
Often scaffolding needs to extend beyond the working area as a matter of practicality. Where this is specifically required for the carrying out of notifiable works under the Party Wall Etc Act 1996 it may be that it qualifies as reasonable access and should be conceded. A party wall surveyor can usually advise on the point and incorporate it into a party wall award.
Where it is for other purposes scaffolding should be subject to a specific scaffold licence (see relevant section).
Unless you are never likely to use scaffolding or a crane which will ever encroach on your neighbour’s land, it may be wise to be accommodating; it may be your own scheme that needs neighbour cooperation next time.