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Working with ‘vulnerable’ Adjoining Owners in a Party Wall Dispute

Sunday, 3rd May 2020 | by: Justin Burns

Even if the Covid-19 restrictions start to be eased later this month, the 1.5 million people designated as ‘clinically vulnerable’ will have to remain shielded until at least the middle of June and potentially much longer. That poses a particular problem for property owners within this group whose neighbours plan to commence building works during this period.

Contrary to what many believe, the construction industry was never asked to lock down as it falls under the category of work ‘that cannot be undertaken from home’. Government ministers have been encouraging activity to continue and that message is likely to become louder in the coming days.

Works that are likely to affect adjoining properties must be formally notified to the owners of those properties under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996. Upon receipt of a notice the adjoining owner has the option to either consent to the notice or dissent and appoint a surveyor.

It is considered good practice for the appointed surveyors to visit and take a record of the condition of the adjoining owner’s property prior to any works commencing so that damage can be easily identified later. I say ‘good practice’ as schedules of condition are not specifically mentioned in the Act.

It’s obviously not possible to schedule the interior of an owner’s property if they are being shielded. If the proposed works are non-urgent the building owner may choose to postpone as having a detailed schedule of condition on file benefits both owners. However, that will not be an option for many building owners and an adjoining owner cannot insist on works being delayed due to a lack of a schedule of condition as it’s not a mandatory part of the process. We must therefore look at alternatives.

For many types of work, such as rear extensions and loft conversions, having a record of the condition of the exterior of the adjoining owner’s property will be better than having no record at all. This could be recorded from the adjoining owner’s rear garden, if there is a means of access that avoids going through the house, or alternatively it could be recorded from the building owner’s property with the use of binoculars where necessary.

This external schedule of condition could be supplemented by a set of photographs covering the ‘at risk’ internal parts taken by the adjoining owner. Ideally these photos would be emailed to the appointed surveyor(s) prior to the works commencing so that there is no doubt as to when they were taken.

There will be scenarios where an external schedule of condition will not be relevant, such as the cutting away of a chimney breast or internal wall from the party wall and not all adjoining owners will have the facility to take digital photos and email them to the surveyors. In these cases, it will be a matter of judgement for the surveyors as to whether or not damage reported later has been caused by the works. An experienced surveyor can tell if damage is ‘fresh’ and is in an area that’s likely to have been affected by the works.

If you require advice on party wall procedures during the Covid-19 crisis or on any other party wall related matter please do not hesitate to contact us on 020 8546 7211 or via email.