Party wall agreements: everything you need to know
Understand why and when you need an agreement – and how to keep your neighbours happy
As fun as they may initially sound, party wall agreements are a serious business. Get the process wrong – or not realise you need one – and you could be thousands of pounds out of pocket. Worse, it could put your dream renovation project in jeopardy.
We’ve asked two experts – architect Juan Ramón Sánchez Pernas, consultant for Hii Guru, and Tim Jordan, partner and director of conveyancing at SAS Daniels – to explain why you might need a party wall agreement. They’ll also take you through the process of obtaining one, and explore any roadblocks you may face.
What is a party wall agreement?
If you live in a house that’s semi-detached or terraced, you will share one or two walls with your neighbouring properties. Any shared wall is called a party wall. And should you wish to carry out any work that will have a major impact on that wall, you will need what’s known as a party wall agreement, as defined in England and Wales by the Party Wall etc Act 1996.
“The idea of a party wall agreement is that it regulates the relationship between neighbours and allows them to reach agreement on work that may affect them both,” says Tim Jordan. “You must give notice if you intend to carry out works on a boundary between two different owners. For example, the wall of a terraced or semi-detached house, or a boundary between two gardens. Or in certain cases, if the works involve excavation within a certain distance between the boundaries.”
“Generally speaking, it’s a piece of legislation that works quite well. It does help to avoid a lot of potential disputes.”
“A party wall agreement is a legal document that will describe the works, inform all parties regarding when these works will happen and the processes involved,” adds Juan Ramón Sánchez Pernas. “It’s purpose is to protect everyone from any potential issues that might arise as the work is carried out.
“For example, if your neighbour wanted to remove a chimney breast, and after a few weeks you start to see some cracks in the walls, or they make a hole in the wall between the two properties, you’re going to say ‘well, someone has to come and fix this’. The party wall agreement is your legal assurance that this will happen.”
I live in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Does the Party Wall Act apply?
The Party Wall etc Act 1996 applies to properties in England and Wales, but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.
“In Scotland and Northern Ireland there is no equivalent to the Party Wall Act,” says Tim Jordan. “They rely on common law, which is essentially evolved case law. It is similar, but doesn’t have the same degree of certainty or statutory backing.”
Why might I need a party wall agreement?
As we’ve explained, the main role of a party wall agreement is to protect both the homeowner that is carrying out the work and the owners of neighbouring houses and land. Not every job requires a party wall agreement. Light drilling into a party wall, for example, to put up a shelf, won’t need sign-off. Nor, usually, will rewiring or plastering work.
Typical projects requiring a party wall would include:
- Loft conversions
- Rear or side extensions
- Chimney breast removal on a shared wall
- Basement excavations
- Erecting garden buildings
- Work to repair or replace a garden wall
- Installing a damp-proof course
I live in a detached property. Can the Act apply to me?
In a word, yes. “If there is any sort of shared boundary, you will still need to give notice,” says Tim Jordan. The Act sets out that you will need a party wall agreement if:
- You are building a freestanding wall or a wall of a building up to or astride the boundary with a neighbouring property
- Building against a party wall or party structure
- Excavating near a neighbouring building. This could apply to foundations for an extension, or a basement excavation.
Detached or not, you will need a party wall agreement if you are “excavating within 3 metres of any part of a neighbouring owner’s building or structure, where any part of that work will go deeper than the neighbour’s foundations”. Or “within 6 metres of any part of a neighbouring owner’s building or structure, where any part of that work will meet a line drawn downwards at 45° in the direction of the excavation from the bottom of the neighbour’s foundations”.
What happens if I don’t get a party wall agreement?
Failing to give your neighbours notice that you are carrying out work on a party wall will leave you in legal hot water. You may be liable to pay the other party for any damage that’s caused to their property, or any inconvenience caused – such as noise pollution. They could even put a stop to your project.
“If the building owner – the one that wants to do the work – doesn’t give notice, the other owner, if they are adversely affected, might be able to apply for a court order to stop the work,” explains Tim Jordan. “Or they might be able to sue the building owner if the work has caused damage to their property.”
When should I start to think about party wall agreements?
By law, a party wall notice should be served at least two months before the planned starting date for work. However, the notice is only valid for a year, so don’t serve it too soon.
If you plan any building work, it’s best to let your neighbours know as early as possible, even if you don’t send them the notice straightaway. For example, you may find that your neighbour is only renting the property, so you’ll need to do some digging to find and consult the freeholder, all of which takes time.
“Don’t forget,” says Tim Jordan, “that as well as a party wall award, you might need building regulation or planning permission sign off from your local authority. They are the things that are likely to potentially take more time. It’s probably easiest to know what you are doing from a local authority point of view before getting involved with your neighbour.
“But then again, if you apply for planning permission, your neighbour will get to know anyway, because they will be notified. It’s a bit chicken and egg.”
How do I go about obtaining a party wall agreement?
Your first step is to serve a party wall notice to the owners of any neighbouring properties that could be impacted by your works.
“Potentially, you could research the format of the letter and write it yourself,” says Tim Jordan. “However, if you are planning building work, a surveyor or architect is already likely to be involved. So I would get them to write the letter, because they’ll know exactly what to include in it.”
Knowing who to inform
You will need to send your party wall notice to the owners of any neighbouring properties affected by your proposed work. However, under the Act, the “owner” could be the person(s), company or other body:
- Holding the freehold title
- Holding a leasehold title for a period exceeding one year
- Under contract to purchase such a freehold or leasehold title
- Entitled to receive rents from the property
That could mean there is more than one “owner” of a single property. If you are unsure, speak to your neighbours or check the Goverment’s Land Registry.
What should be included in my party wall notice?
The Homeowners Alliance has a good example of a draft party wall notice on its website, to give you an idea of what the notice looks like. However, you should expect any notice drawn up by a party wall surveyor to include:
- The names and addresses of you and your neighbours’ properties
- The details of your surveyor
- The date you intend the works to start
- A detailed description of the party wall itself, including measurements
- A detailed description of the works and any excavation to be carried out, including full measurements
You’ve sent your notice. What happens next?
Once the notice has been sent, your neighbours have, by law, 14 days to respond. “The neighbour has various options once they get the written notice from you,” explains Tim Jordan:
- “They can give their consent, which again should be in writing. This is your party wall agreement.”
- “They can refuse consent, which starts a dispute resolution process set out in the Act. This should result in a party wall award.”
- “Lastly, they can issue a counter notice, which says ‘we agree, but we want additional works to be done to protect our own situation’.”
1. Your neighbour gives consent
This is the ideal scenario. Once you have received their written agreement, you can start the work as laid out in the party wall notice.
2. Your neighbour refuses consent
At this point it is essential that you get a party wall surveyor involved, if you haven’t already, and they will send a formal notice to be debated. You will then enter the a dispute resolution process, the aim of which is to draw up a party wall ‘award’.
“Your neighbours can work with your party wall surveyor and agreement, which means there will be one person dealing with both sides,’ says Juan Ramón. “This is easiest because all information goes to one point of contact.”
“The other scenario is that your neighbours appoint their own party wall surveyor or surveyors. In this case it’s important to realise that the fees are payable by you, not your neighbours, because you are the one forcing them to go through the process. You are the one doing the work.”
In either case, the surveyors appointed must consider the interests and rights of both owners and draw up an award impartially.
3. Your neighbour issues a counter-notice
This is a very similar process to the above. Your surveyor will work with their surveyor to resolve any disputes and to reach a party wall ‘award’.
Again, the fees will usually be payable by whoever is carrying out the work. However, if your neighbour raises defects or areas in need of repair on their side of the party wall, the fees may be split.
4. Your neighbour ignores your notice
In this case, a dispute will have deemed to have occured. At this point you can ask your neighbours to appoint their own party wall surveyor. If they fail to do so, you can appoint one to act on their behalf (at your expense). However, by law, they will be unable to ignore you and hope the whole thing goes away.
How long does the party wall process take?
Securing a party wall agreement or award can take weeks, months or even a year, depending on how many neighbouring parties you are dealing with, how amenable they are, and how complex your project is. “A single rear extension and a basement excavation are nothing alike,” says Juan Ramón Sánchez Pernas. “The latter will involve more engineers getting involved, more consultants, whereas a single rear extension is quite straightforward.”
“If you have already received planning permission, have a good relationship with your neighbours, and they either immediately agree or you appoint the same party wall surveyor so the information is coming to one place, it can take two months to sort out an agreement, maybe less,” adds Juan Ramón.
“At the other end of the spectrum, if you have disagreements with your neighbours, you may still be fighting for the party wall award ten or 12 months down the line.”
How much does a party wall agreement cost?
According to Checkatrade, if you need to hire a party wall surveyor, the cost can be anywhere from £90 to £450 per hour. We’ve found surveyors online that will charge a flat fee of as little as £195 + VAT to draw up a party wall notice.
The average cost for getting a party wall award is around £1,000. However, that figure can escalate quickly.
“If you get to the stage where there’s a formal award, and there are two surveyors involved, you’re probably looking at £3,000, I would say, says Tim Jordan. “It could potentially be more depending on the level of complexity of the work, and how many on-site visits are required, etc.”
“In the event that you want to do an extension across a terraced house that will affect the party walls on both sides, and neither neighbour wants to work with your party wall surveyor, you could end up with three surveyors working independently, and three sets of fees,” Juan Ramón points out. “It can also be the case that the party wall to your left goes very well and very quickly, and you come to an agreement sooner than with the neighbours to the right.”
“It’s one of those hidden costs that people don’t always think about when they are considering having work done,” says Tim Jordan. “And sometimes, particularly in the case of detached properties, people don’t realise they need a party wall agreement. It’s only when the neighbour objects that things can get difficult.”
Can my neighbour ultimately stop me having works carried out?
“Not usually, no, unless the structural integrity of your neighbour’s building is threatened,” says Tim Jordan. “As long as your neighbour isn’t adversely affected or you compensate them for any damage or inconvenience that your work may cause, you’ll generally have the right to proceed.”
“If your neighbours refuse to agree, you may end up in a dispute in court, but that rarely happens,” Juan Ramón assures us. “Whether they appoint a party wall surveyor of their own or use yours, you will all need to work within the confines of the law. The Party Wall etc Act 1996 establishes what is possible and what is not, and how work has to be completed. If you have provided everything required and have consented to do the work lawfully, the other party cannot ultimately say no.”
Very rarely, an unhappy neighbour may try to block access to their land. “You can’t trespass on your neighbour’s land without their consent, except in certain situations,” says Tim Jordan.
However, the conditions of the party wall award will give you right of access to your neighbour’s property. Albeit you will need to serve notice – usually 14 days. In an emergency, you should be able to access their building immediately, by law.