Image: Courtesy of George Clarke
Property developer, architect and presenter of Channel 4’s The Restoration Man, George Clarke, looks at property boundaries and the problems which can occur with them
When you’re moving house and buying a new home probably the last thing you’ll be thinking about is the exact position of your property boundaries and you’ll be thinking even less about who owns boundary walls, hedges and fences and, more importantly, who is responsible for maintaining them. But, I promise you, it will save you a lot of headache and stress to find out all of this information as soon as possible and take steps to ensure that your new neighbours are aware of it too, in the nicest way possible. No-one ever likes to be told that they are legally responsible for doing anything, particularly when it involves costing them money, so try and be as neighbourly and friendly as possible.
So, before you exchange on the purchase of a property ask your solicitor for an official copy of the Land Registry Title Plan. This is based on a marked up Ordnance Survey Plan and should clearly show lines of ownership. If there are any discrepancies between the Land Registry Plan and what physically exists on site then make your solicitor aware of it before you exchange. There is little point in raising boundary issues after you have exchanged because it immediately becomes your problem rather then the problem of the person selling.
Now that you have defined the line of your boundary it is so important to know who owns any fences or walls on the boundary line and who is responsible for the maintenance of them. As I’ve been involved in so many residential projects over the years I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard homeowners say things like: ‘but that’s my fence and I can do what I want with it’ or ‘that’s his wall not mine so he can pay to rebuild it’. It’s no coincidence when a client wants to do something that benefits them if they own the wall, but when it’s a major maintenance issue costing thousands of pounds it somehow becomes the neighbour’s responsibility…funny that!
Let me try and clarify how it works because it all depends on the exact line of the legal boundary. If a wall used to separate two parcels of land sits entirely on one person’s land then that is knows as a ‘boundary wall’ and is the full responsibility of that owner to maintain it. If the ‘boundary wall’ is your wall then the legal boundary line would be on the outer face of the brickwork on your neighbour’s side. Make sense?
If the boundary line runs right down the centre of a wall construction then this is entirely different and is given the name ‘party fence wall’. This is a shared wall where both landowners equally own the wall and, therefore, any costs associated with the maintenance of that wall would always normally be shared. Clarification of the ownership of walls are often made clear in the legal deeds for the property or on the Land Registry Plan using a T-mark or H-mark on the surrounding walls. A T-mark defines a boundary wall and if the ’T’ is on your side of the wall then the wall is yours and you are responsible for maintaining the wall. An H-mark (basically two T marks mirrored over the boundary wall) defines a party fence wall, which means it is a shared wall with shared maintenance responsibilities. So, that covers ownership. I hope you’re still with me!
Living with boundaries is normally when all disputes happen with neighbours. The golden rule is ‘don’t do any work whatsoever to your boundary line or maintenance work on any wall, fence, or overhanging tree unless you’ve agreed it with your neighbour first’. Even if you know that you are well within your rights to do work to your boundary without any formal or legal ‘permission’ from your neighbour, it is better to be courteous and at the very least keep your neighbour informed. Never erect any sort of boundary structure without your neighbour’s knowledge and definitely don’t do it while they are away on holiday. I’ve seen this before and it isn’t pretty. So, in the spirit of maintaining good neighbourly relations, don’t do any work without your neighbour knowing and being happy about it. It will save you a staggering amount of stress and legal bills!
The maintenance of trees tends to be one that lights the touch paper. If your neighbour’s tree overhangs your boundary line you are well within your rights to cut back any branches of the tree. It doesn’t matter when the tree was planted, when your home was built or which one existed first, they cannot stop you from removing branches that overhang your boundary. Bizarrely, when you do chop off the offending branches it is your duty to return them to your neighbour, as they own them. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how well this kind gesture will be received! With any spreading planting, such as ivy or with tree roots themselves, you have the right to cut them back to avoid any damage to your property or reduced views or rights of light…but only if the offending tree or planting overhang your boundary. Don’t cut back beyond the boundary line as your neighbour may sue you! Also, if a tree has a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) on it then you cannot touch it at all without permission from your local council, irrespective of boundary or neighbour issues.
Unfortunately, boundary disputes are very common, particularly when neighbours don’t get on in the first place. A minor disagreement can very soon become a massive legal dispute, so do everything you can to avoid getting to this stage.
The key to resolving a dispute as quickly as possible is to seek expert advice as soon as a significant problem with your neighbour arises. Contact your conveyancing lawyer first who may have the information to hand on your title deeds and land registry documents, failing that then contact a chartered land surveyor or a chartered surveyor who specialises in boundary disputes. Avoid any comprehensive legal action if you can and going to court should really be the course of last resort as it can be very, very expensive.
Staying good friends with your neighbours can save you a lot of money, but way more important than the financial consequences, staying friends can save you a staggering amount of stress, grief and negativity. You don’t want any of that on your doorstep!
For more tips and advice from George, check out his website at www.georgeclarke.com