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What is the key to avoiding boundary disputes?By: Angus Taylor

What is the key to avoiding boundary disputes?The television theme tune “everybody needs good neighbours, with a little understanding” sums up perfectly disputes by property owners over boundaries, which happen all too frequently. They then tend to escalate and can become time-consuming and extremely expensive with legal fees and court appearances. 

In the vast majority of cases the rapid deterioration of relationships can be avoided with just a few simple steps. There are those purely cantankerous parties for whom being argumentative or obstructive is second nature, but often it is the result of some other long running issue that bears little connection with the boundary problem.

You cannot always separate these, but a clear methodical and objective approach to the practical issue that needs to be resolved is often the answer to removing some of the heat from the arguments.

The alternative is to become entangled with lengthy and expensive legal proceedings where everybody loses out. In recent years there has been a rise in the legal protection often now applied to household insurance. This has had the effect of dragging into expensive proceedings, disputes that could have been resolved at a far smaller scale by a party whose legal costs are being paid by their insurance. Unfortunately this has resulted in awkward neighbours being less inclined to behave reasonably.

Talking is the key to avoiding a boundary dispute. It is also important to think carefully about any planned works and repairs, such as replacing storm damaged fences and to try and agree a simple way forward with neighbours before actually starting any works. Establish who owns the boundary or has responsibility to repair it from your deeds. If you are planning an extension or building works that need a planning consent, talk to your neighbours first, don’t let them hear about it first from the local planning officer.

Overhanging tree branches, roots or hedges are often the cause of disputes. Keep any on or near the boundary regularly maintained. Always discuss with your neighbour the extent of any pruning. Overhanging branches can be removed and returned to your neighbour, but always ask first before starting any works. Be aware of any Tree Preservation Orders. There are rights to deal with tall hedges blocking out light, and the local authority can become involved but will charge a fee.

The key is preventing a dispute happening in the first place and researching as much as you can from your deeds, land registry or information in the local planning office or their online portal can help with that.

Landowners should record any historical structures such as remnants of previous fences and walls with photographs, and when they are removed keep their position marked with pegs/stakes and suitable wire or string. If possible invite neighbour to be involved with this process so that they can agree with you the boundary line as you remark it. Ask permission to take photographs of their side of the boundary to record the condition before you start.

Make notes of any discussions or agreements for future reference. Don’t antagonise them by carrying out works before you have their agreement, and reinforce this message to any contractors working for you. If you are repairing an existing boundary, agree with your neighbour what repairs are needed and if necessary use an independent surveyor’s opinion or a contractor’s quote to agree the scope and costs if these are to be shared or apportioned between you.

If handled well you won’t need to end up in court. If you need to involve a third party, start with suggesting you both agree on one independent surveyor to be appointed jointly by both parties to try and resolve the dispute. This will keep costs down and also will provide an objective postion you can both agree on. If you can’t agree on an independent surveyor then both appoint your own so that the two surveyors can agree a solution objectively.

If the Party Wall Act applies to your proposed works there is a well practised procedure that many relevent professionals can advise you on, and you will be responsible for paying both surveyors fees. There are also alternative resolutions available through mediation.

It is worth looking at the Government Planning Portal, which outlines the Party Wall Act 1996 – this covers rights to extend, rebuild or excavate. Essentially this legislation applies if you are building on or near a boundary, excavating nearby, cutting into or repairing a shared boundary structure.

It is also important to adhere to the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992, which permits access for repairs and upkeep only, not new buildings or extensions. You should always consult your neighbours first and gain their tacit agreement before starting any works.

Recent cases that have gone to court have awarded significant compensation for harassment, nuisance, trespass, personal injury and repairs in situations where the neighbourly relationship has broken down.

Useful websites for reference on boundary disputes include the Citizens Advice Bureau website section Advice Guide Neighbour Disputes and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). The RICS also has a helpline 024 7686 8555 who can put you in touch with a specialist surveyor for 30 minutes of free advice.

The key is to talk to your neighbours, build up a trusting relationship and constructive dialogue. The alternatives can be very costly and cause long term damage to relationships. Ongoing neighbourly disputes have to be highlighted when you come to sell your home and so could ultimately affect the value of a property. We live on a crowded island in ever intensifying urban environments that amplify the need to love thy neighbour.

About the author

Angus Taylor, Bruton KnowlesAngus Taylor is a Partner at Bruton Knowles and advises financial institutions, landed estates and commercial property occupiers on all aspects of their property.

Features March 2014

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