Party walls are a fascinating insight into how people can co-operate and make life easy for themselves or not. Like planning, party walls bring out the best and worst in people, occasionally resulting in simmering resentment or outright war.
What is a party wall?
A party wall separates two adjoining buildings. It also includes ceilings between flats and garden boundary walls, essential structures that are shared between two properties. The idea of a ‘shared’ anything can be problematic so there is government legislation, The Party Wall Act, designed to protect and control what can be done to this jointly owned thing.
You have rights to repair or adapt these structures provided it doesn’t damage or impact your neighbour. If it does, then you need to make good for any damage that has occurred due to your work.
What does the Party Wall Act cover?
Minor work like rewiring, repairs, re-plastering, decorating or hanging shelves can be done without agreement. Anything more significant and the Act comes into play and it is essential you either read it, or the detailed summaries you can find online, before you start any work to or near party walls. Before we get into these more invasive actions, it’s important to remember that laws are usually just a formalisation of being a decent and respectful person.
This is how I recommend you approach any work on a party wall. As soon as you are thinking of doing work to your home that may, in a worst-case scenario, damage your party wall then go and see your neighbour. Explain what you want to do and ask them if you can take photos of the current condition of the wall/ceiling to carefully document any cracks, damp, damage to decoration etc. These photos can be shared so there is a clear record before any work begins.
For example re-plastering that may need some existing plaster hacking off by hand is allowed by the Act, while mechanically removing plaster isn’t, as this can result in a few days of banging and crashing. This may cause both a nuisance and some cracking to your neighbour’s side of the wall. If your neighbour is not expecting the work they may get cheesed off, go and inspect their side of the wall noticing cracks that may or may not have been there before. If they are expecting the work and there are photos, all this is avoided.
How do I get agreement for work on party walls?
The same principles apply to the more invasive actions covered by the Act: underpinning or digging adjacent to a party wall, converting a loft, inserting a damp proof course, putting in a new beam or structure but you need to serve a ‘Party Wall Notice’. This is a legal form you both sign accompanied by a Party Wall Conditions Survey. If embarking on anything like this, again I’d recommend to go and talk to your neighbours early. If it’s not major and they are reasonable you can do the conditions survey and serve a Party Wall Notice yourself.
For more serious work where the consequences of things going wrong could be significant, you’ll need a Party Wall Surveyor to help ensure the Act is correctly followed.
Not all people are reasonable, so the Party Wall Act has been conceived to protect from effects from adjoining works but also to allow reasonable changes to the shared structures. However, if your neighbour is difficult, getting permission to do the work is not totally straightforward.
For example, when you appoint a party wall surveyor they have the right to refuse to use your surveyor and demand their own. You, as the person serving the notice pay for both! They can also refuse to sign anything and while the Act has mechanisms to negate this it takes time and money. Open and early communication is by far the most effective way to head off these potential issues.
Building projects are stressful enough without neighbour conflict. If you understand the Party Wall Act and follow its structure carefully you should avoid it getting ugly. If it does, at least you're not the one to blame!
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Charlie Luxton is an architectural designer who juggles his roles as director of Charlie Luxton Design, TV presenter and public speaker. Charlie regularly gives talks and presentations to a wide range of audiences about all aspects of the built environment and sustainability.
Charlie is passionate about the environment and communicating his enthusiasm for sustainable architecture and design. He has combined his design work with writing and presenting television programmes for the last twenty years and fronts Building the Dream and Homes by the Sea for More4, amongst others.
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