Property boundary disputes

Normally, we don't need to know the exact boundaries of our property – having a general idea is enough, but if boundary disputes arise with a neighbour, getting the facts is vital.

12th March 2018

Avoiding boundary disputes

Boundary disputes occur when two people both believe they have the right to a piece of land. They often begin when one person puts up a fence or wall on land which another person thought belonged to them.

The best way to avoid a boundary dispute happening in the first place is to try and firmly establish the boundaries of the land before you change anything. Even work which you do not think will change anything could lead to trouble if you are not cautious.

For example, if you intend to replace a hedge with a fence, you should bear in mind that a fence will set a far more specific boundary than the hedge did, and this could lead to a boundary dispute if your neighbours do not agree with where you have put it. For this reason, you should never change or add a boundary divider without checking with your neighbours first.

Land Registry

In order to properly establish a boundary, you should first gather as much information as possible about your property and the properties bordering it. Consult your title deeds and obtain information from the Land Registry. This should give you some idea of where your property begins and ends.

Taking the time to reach an agreement in this way is a far better approach than facing off in a costly court battle over what may amount to less than a few feet of land.

In many cases, the boundaries of property are only vaguely defined, so existing documentation may not give you exact information. The best way to deal with this situation is to reach an agreement with your neighbours on where the boundary should be. Obtaining help from a solicitor or chartered surveyor is an option at this point if you are concerned about the outcome.

Once you have found an acceptable compromise with your neighbours, have them to sign an agreement stating their acceptance. You should then employ a surveyor to draw up a plan specifying the agreed-upon boundary and submit it to the Land Registry, ensuring that the boundary is clearly established in the records.

Taking the time to reach an agreement in this way is a far better approach than facing off in a costly court battle over what may amount to less than a few feet of land.

Handling a boundary dispute

If you are already involved in a boundary dispute, you will probably need to seek advice over the issue from a chartered land surveyor or a chartered surveyor who specialises in boundary disputes. Proving which parts of the land belong to whom will mean looking over the deeds to the properties involved and consulting the Land Registry’s records.

It may be that the boundary can be established by the surveyor’s report, but often they find that it is not clearly defined, or your neighbour hires a surveyor who disagrees with yours. When no agreement can be reached between you and your neighbour, the case will likely end up going to court, where a judge will rule on the location of the boundary resulting in the extent of each party’s land being clearly defined.

If hedges and trees grow onto your property

One common problem people encounter with boundaries is when a neighbour’s tree or hedge grows onto their property. While it may sound like a minor issue to some, this can cause real problems, particularly if roots or branches begin to cause damage to buildings.

The best approach to take when a tree or hedge begins to grow onto your property is to talk to your neighbour first. They may be unaware that it needed trimming and be happy to do it themselves.

However, if they do not take action, you will usually be within your rights to cut off any parts of the tree or hedge which are on your property, though you must only do this up to the boundary of your land. Any parts you cut off a neighbour’s tree or hedge legally still belong to them, so you should return these. Take care that you do not cause damage to trees or hedges when trimming them back.

Before trimming a tree, you should make sure it is not under subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO). If it is, it may be against the law for you to interfere with it. You should also not trim any trees or hedges which are in a Conservation Area and be mindful that it is illegal to disturb some species of nesting birds.

If you're looking to notify your neighbour that their tree is growing onto your property and that they need to act on it, we offer a template letter about overhanging trees for you to use.

Party walls

A party wall is a wall shared with your neighbours. This can include the side walls of semi-detached or terraced houses, and garden walls which are built on both sides of a boundary.

Under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996, anyone planning to carry out certain work on a party wall is required to obtain the agreement of the other person to whom the wall belongs.

You must obtain  written agreement from your neighbour if you intend to:

  • Knock down and rebuild a party wall.
  • Cut into a party wall so that it can hold up a beam.
  • Increase the height of a party wall, removing anything on it which might prevent this.
  • Strengthen the foundation beneath a party wall or part of one.
  • Place a damp-proof course layer within a party wall.
  • Cutting a flashing into a building adjoining a party wall.

If you wish to carry out any of these types of work on a party wall and you do not have the agreement of your neighbour you must obtain a formal award under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 (known as a party wall award) from a Party Wall Surveyor before commencing the works.

Most ordinary household tasks such as adding shelves or replastering a wall are not affected by the Party Wall Act. It only covers work which could potentially affect the structural integrity of a party wall.

The Act also requires you to get permission for some types of building work not relating to party walls, including:

  • excavating foundations lower than the foundations of a neighbour’s structure within three metres
  • excavating foundations below a 45° line drawn from the bottom of the foundations of any structure within six metres belonging to a neighbour
  • building a new wall straddling the boundary of your property and theirs

Similarly if you are planning to do any of this and do not have your neighbour’s agreement you should obtain a party wall award before commencing the works.

Rental homes

It is important to note that if your neighbour rents their home, you will need to inform their landlord about the work as well. Any work which may affect the structural integrity of a party wall, or similar work on ceilings and floors, will also require you to notify anyone who lives above or below your property.

It may be helpful to discuss the work you are planning with your neighbour before you send them a party wall notice. Once they have received notice, they will need to give you written agreement within 14 days. If they do not do this, the law views them as disagreeing with your plans and further steps can then be taken to obtain a party wall award.

The Award will contain information on the work to be done on the wall, setting out how and when it can be carried out. It also makes careful note of the condition of your neighbour’s property so that any effect on it from the building work can be noted.

If any damage occurs as a result of work being done on the party wall, the surveyor or surveyors will decide on what should be done; usually you will have to pay for the cost of repairs to the neighbouring property.

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