Property Development Tips

If you're working on the adjoining wall between two semi's and doing much more than putting up shelves or letting in sockets, then the Party Wall Act 1996 almost certainly applies to your project.

Don't fret, however, the Party Wall Act actually makes things easier, by giving you rights to undertake work, as well as obligations to your neighbours.

A no-jargon guide to the Party Wall Act

When does the Act apply?

The act applies to the wall between two semi-detached houses - even where this is a full two bricks thick. Forget the idea that you own one side and your neighbours the other. In Law, you both own the whole wall.

The Act also applies to a garden wall that stands astride the boundary (though not a fence) and a wall built up to the boundary line (many houses are built up to the boundary like this).

In terms of what work justifies the use of the Act, well that's a matter for interpretation. You can safely assume, the following works wouldn't fall under the intended scope of the Party Wall Act:

Putting up shelves
Letting in wiring
Securing fitted bedroom furniture
Adding / removing skirting coving
Plastering or replastering your side
But, these things definitely would require you to use the Act
Removal or part removal of a chimney
Loft conversion or any extension of the party wall
Installation of a new damp course
Letting in of steels to support new floors or undermined walls (eg through lounge/ diner)
The real test is whether your works could in anyway affect the wall - eg by changing its structure, support or load bearing. If in doubt, serve notice anyway!

What does the Act do?
The Act was largely introduced to keep party wall disputes out of the courts. It creates a process that resolves all but the most serious differences of opinion, without recourse to the judiciary. It gives you rights to work on the wall and have access to both sides of the wall as necessary. It gives your neighbours the right to be informed 2 months prior to work being undertaken and the means to dispute your plans on reasonable grounds.

The most important thing the Act does, is provide a legal process that anyone can follow - there's no need for legal representation! To stay on the right side of the law and retain important rights, such as rights of access, you only need follow the process.

If you are on good terms with your neighbours and/ or the work is comparatively straightforward, you may not even need to employ a surveyor. You may still need to involve your local Council's Building Control department, however, and often this will help reassure adjoining owners that your plans / works are sound.

Where there is a dispute, it's surveyors and not solicitors who decide how and when the work can be carried out and who is going to foot the bill, through a legally-binding decision called an Award.

Party Wall Act Process

Once you've determined the Act applies, the first thing to do is to stop work if you started all ready. Then notify your neighbours as soon as possible, because they have the right to two months notice before you can restart. Don't worry though, because you can AGREE an earlier start day with your neighbours if desired.

Help you neighbours out by writing their reply letter for them. You don't want your case drifting into the dispute, simply because you neighbours didn't get round to writing you a letter back! You should consider yourself 'in dispute' if you don't hear back after 14 days. It's worth checking with your neighbours, to make sure they haven't just forgotten before going to the next stage, however.

If they do respond within 14 days, they may either consent or dissent from your works or inform you of their intent to serve a counter-notice, proposing changes to your building works. They must then serve this notice within a month. And then you must respond within 14 days, setting the process in motion again...

Copies of standard letters for serving and replying to a notice can be found at this resource.

In dispute?

If you do find yourself in dispute - ie cannot reach agreement with your neighbours - then you should attempt to agree to appoint a lone independent surveyor to assess the case, without prejudice to either party and make an Award. This will probably save YOU money, if you are proposing the works. Alternatively, both parties can appoint their own surveyors who will then appoint a third if they cannot jointly agree the Award.

The Party Wall Act Award
The surveyor(s) draw up an award covering:
The work to be carried out
When and how work will be done
Any additional work to be done to prevent damage
Often contains a record of the condition of the properties prior to the building work
Allows access for the surveyor(s) to inspect the work
Who will pay for the work
Who will pay the surveyor's fees for drawing up and administering the Award
The Award is legally-binding and final unless amended by a County Court decision. Appeal to the County Court should only be attempted / successful if the surveyor's decision is fundamentally flawed.

Other rights and recourses
Neighbours don't respond / won't co-operate
The Act allows for the appointment of a surveyor to act on their behalf - even if they won't co-operate. This cannot be a shared 'agreed' surveyor.

Access to the neighbouring property
For some works you'll need to be able to get to both sides of the wall (eg to make good brick work or for surveying purposes). The Party Wall Act provides for this, requiring adjoining owners (or occupiers) to allow you / your builders, etc access. You must give 14 days notice of your intention to exercise these rights.

Adjoining owners rights
Not to suffer unnecessary convenience
To be compensated for loss or damage
The right to appoint their own surveyor
To have reasonable measures taken that are necessary to protect their property from foreseeable damage
To ask for Security of Expenses prior to work starting. This is a deposit to guard against them being left in difficulties should work cease at a premature stage.
Copies of standard letters for serving and replying to a notice can be found at this resource.

Stopping Work
Under the Party Wall Act, adjoining owners cannot prevent someone from exercising their rights given to them by the Act. So, in effect, work that is reasonable and structurally sound, cannot be prevented. Only the timing and how work is done can be influenced to ensure minimum inconvenience and maximum peace of mind.

More info on the Party Wall Act

The Party Wall etc Act 1996: Explanatory Booklet (PDF) - a comprehensive guide, including proforma letters for giving, and responding to, a notice.

Party Wall Guide to Chimney Stack Removal - Cambridge Council's guide for those intending to remove a chimney on a wall shared with a neighbour. Equally applicable to all of England.