Four Legal Issues Every Self Builder Needs to Know About
Boundary Agreements and Disputes
During the conveyancing process, you can save yourself from future headaches by carefully examining the property’s Land Registry title plan. What you’ll find is a very rough diagram of the land’s boundaries, drawn with a thick red line which can leave a lot open to interpretation. This may not be a problem now, but when you try and knock down a wall that the neighbour claims ownership of, you might find yourself in a protracted legal battle.
If there are any grey areas, check with your neighbours to see who claims ownership for any structures along the boundaries, such as hedges, fences and walls. If you can reach a decision amicably, you can write up a boundary agreement which can be added to the deeds or – for a fee – the title plan. If you can’t reach an agreement, you’ll need to hire a chartered surveyor to work on your behalf to clearly define the boundary in detail and represent you in court if it escalates to a full blown legal dispute.
Party Wall Awards
If you plan to alter a wall that is shared by a neighbour, you must first issue them with a Party Wall Award Notice that states in writing exactly what works are going to be carried out. Adjoining owners can agree to works being carried out, or dissent. If they dissent, one or more party wall surveyors are appointed to ensure the works won’t negatively impact either structure.
Building works that fall under the Party Wall Act but don’t have an agreed Party Wall Award can be halted via an injunction, so make sure that you’re aware of any shared walls on your land and that you inform your neighbour of your plans so that you can start the party wall process early – ideally three months in advance of the works starting.
Right to Light
All windows older than 16 years cannot have the amount of natural light passing through them reduced by building works without the owner of the property first being consulted. This is known as the right to light, an old easement in English law that protects a property owner’s enjoyment of natural light.
A neighbour who can demonstrate that their right to light has been affected by your development can demand compensation or, in extreme cases, issue an injunction to halt the works. As this is a common issue in tightly packed London homes, we work with right to light consultants who can determine the best course of action before building commences.
For example, if you’re building a garden extension, you may find that the amount of compensation your neighbour can claim is worth the extra space. On the other hand, if the potential compensation is too high, you can redesign the extension so that it doesn’t block your neighbour’s light. Either way, this needs to be determined in advance so that you’re not hit with a solicitor’s letter after the building has been completed.
Covenants and Easements
Even if you receive planning permission for your development, covenants and easements can restrict what you’re able to build. These contracts attach to the land itself and are passed on to every future owner. Covenants place restrictions on what can or cannot be done on the land while easements state how the land may be used by others, with a common example being a driveway or path that passes through.
Covenants need to be obeyed no matter how old or obscure they might be, unless you apply to have it overturned by the Lands Tribunal or if the beneficiary of the covenant agrees to make an exception – which can be a time consuming and expensive process. Easements, on the other hand, can become obsolete if they’re abandoned or if they can no longer serve their original purpose (such as access to a public road that no longer exists), but if an easement is still in use, you’ll need to seek permission from the beneficiary to change or terminate it.
As covenants and easements can prevent, change or significantly delay developments, it’s essential that you’re aware of any that may be in place before you purchase a property that you intend to alter. Covenants and easements should be revealed during conveyancing but they are sometimes overlooked by sub-par solicitors or during rushed purchases such as auctions.
If you’re worried about legal obstacles that you might face in your build, please feel free to call us on 020 3733 7250 and we’ll be happy to provide our advice or recommend our Feasibility Study – a complete, simulated test-run of your project before you make any investments or sign any contracts.