Despite having been in force now for over twelve years The Party Wall Act still often takes homeowners planning alterations by surprise. As the notice periods are between one and two months it makes sense to get the process started early so that works do not have to be delayed.
Even those owners that are aware of the Act do not always realise that its scope runs considerably wider than work on existing party walls. This explains the ‘etc.’ in the name of the Act, it refers to adjacent excavations and under the Act ‘adjacent’ can mean up to six metres depending upon the type of foundations used.
Before we move on to excavations lets just define what a party wall is. The Act recognises two types; the first and most obvious is a wall that is shared by two owners, typically in a pair of semis or a row of terraced houses, with the boundary being somewhere within the wall. The second type of party wall is a wall that is wholly on one side of the boundary but has been enclosed by an Adjoining Owner. If your neighbour has a structure leaning against your wall the enclosed section of that wall will be classed as ‘Party’ and you cannot alter it without your neighbour’s consent.
Work which typically requires an owner to serve notice under this part of the Act includes the insertion of beams for the purposes of converting a loft or the removal of chimney breasts which are attached to a party wall.
As previously mentioned the part of the Act which catches most homeowners out is Section 6, the section covering adjacent excavations. If your plans involve excavating within three metres of any part of your neighbour’s property, and to a depth greater than the base of their existing foundations, the work will come within the scope of the Act. Unless the adjoining property is of modern type your new foundations will invariably be deeper than their existing foundations. If your excavation is going to be deeper than normal, say for piled foundations, the definition of ‘adjacent’ becomes within six metres.
Having established that your proposed works come within the scope of the Act what do you do next? The answer is ‘serve notice’. There are no prescribed forms for this purpose although the notice must contain certain information; your name and address (include all joint owners), the Adjoining Owner’s name and address, a brief description of the works and a proposed start date. Notices relating to adjacent excavations must be accompanied by a drawing showing the position and depth of the proposed excavation. The notice periods are two months for work to a party wall and one month for an adjacent excavation or new wall on the line of junction.
Upon receipt of your notice the Adjoining Owner will have three choices:
To consent to the proposals – consent from the Adjoining Owner means that work can commence immediately and no Award is required.
To dissent and concur in your choice of surveyor as ‘Agreed’
To dissent and appoint a surveyor of their choice
If the Adjoining Owner plans to consent they should do so within 14 days as after that point a ‘dispute’ is deemed to have arisen under the Act and the two owners must appoint a surveyor to resolve that dispute. While speaking to your neighbour is always encouraged, their verbal consent is not sufficient. Notice must be in writing and so must the Adjoining Owner’s consent.
Adjoining Owners are more likely to consent when the works are fairly minor and they have been given sufficient information to put their mind at rest. For more significant work such as loft or basement conversions most Adjoining Owners will want a surveyor to review the proposals and reduce the risk of any damage occurring to their property.
If surveyors are appointed they will prepare a party wall agreement which is referred to as an ‘Award’. The award sets out the rights and responsibilities of the respective owners and will include clauses covering working hours, contractor’s insurance and the procedures to follow in case of damage occurring. The award will also include a record of the condition of the Adjoining Owner’s property to ensure that any damage is properly attributed.
When the Award is complete it is served upon the two owners. There is a fourteen day appeal period during which either owner can appeal the award in the County Court should they feel that it has been improperly drawn up, or that the surveyors have acted beyond their powers although this is rarely done.
Article by Justin Burns MRICS MFPWS of Peter Barry Party Wall Act Consultants