PROPERTY / Building on friendship: Communication is vital if you want neighbours to love you, writes Jonathan Sale

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The Independent Culture
THE BUILDERS are very close to me. Inches from my desk, they walk up and down the scaffolding outside the window. They avert their eyes politely, except when, by mime, they welcome me back from holiday or warn me to batten down the hatches because they are about to do something dusty.

They are everything builders should be. Oddly enough, they are not our builders. They are working next door but their scaffolding reaches out across part of our house. We live at number 36, in a short terrace of tall Georgian houses. The family at number 38 is a great improvement on its predeccessor and so are its builders.

The man who used to own the house was not much of a role-model in good neighbourliness. I did not blame him for replacing a vast area of past-it brickwork on one wall. But when row after row of elderly bricks was prised out and tossed away, much of it landed on our roof. When we asked him to repair a broken tile, he would refer us to the foreman allegedly supervising the work. The supervisor in turn would declare his hands tied by the owner, who in turn . . . And our house gradually became shabbier as next-door became smarter.

We ended up on yelling, not speaking, terms. Another reason for us to shriek was so that we could be heard over the workmen's radio. We live in a middle-class ghetto and the volume control of their ghetto-blasters was jammed on high. And with the dawn chorus came the cacophony of bricks being delivered and skips being trundled away.

By the time the present family moved in, we had persuaded ourselves that no more repairs would be needed on the building. But there was room to build a front extension, which is what the new owners have decided to do.

This time everything is being done by the book. The Good Book, actually: in recompense for any inconvenience suffered, they're going to take us out for dinner, which is my definition of loving thy neighbour. I shall rename our house: Dunfeudin'.

At number 38 now they know that you must give a month's notice if you dig down to put in foundations that are (a) lower than, and (b) within 10ft of, the adjoining property. You must not let the party wall come between you and your neighbours. Technically you must give two months' notice before working on the brickwork - even if it is the brickwork of your second floor and the neighbours' house adjoins only at first-floor level. That's if you live in the capital and so are covered by a legal mouthful known as the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939 - Part VI.

Outside London, you must watch out for the Law of Property Act 1925. This states that, instead of sharing the ownership of the wall, you are in charge of exactly half its thickness and legally can do what you like to your bit - and only your bit - without giving any notice. But it doesn't hurt to give some warning anyway.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has excellent advice for anyone commencing work which impinges on the rest of the street: 'The important part is always to maintain communication.' Communication skills are a speciality of the present inhabitants at number 38. She is high up in further education, he is an actor; when he called round to say how sorry he was about the disturbance to come, his body-language said 'sorry' too.

They showed us their plans. This is very wise: if anyone has a niggling doubt, it is better to hear about it immediately rather than when the application is going before the council's planning committee. Years ago, when working on a new extension of our own, we had avoided arguments with the then owner of number 38 simply by slicing - at the design stage - a few inches off its dimensions.

Today, there will never be any argument about noise. The builders have been instructed that all radios must be silenced. If they have to work late in the evening, they warn us early in the afternoon. If they make an early start during times of acute crisis in our household, such as the children's exams, they tiptoe about.

There should not be any argument about damage. Before work started, their architect photographed every square inch of our house, both inside and outside, which could conceivably be affected. His snaps of parapets and wallpaper will never win any photographic competitions, but they should resolve doubts about deterioration.

'Was that one-inch crack in the plaster there before?' we may wonder. His visual record will show whether or not our repair bill is sent next door. It also prevents us from blaming him for every tear in the wallpaper caused by sticky tape from long-forgotten posters. Not, of course, that we would pull a fast one. We are already grateful to him for repairing some dodgy rendering above our bathroom. This had been ruined by weather and time, not by his workmen, so he's not just making good; he's making better.

Security is another bone of contention. Those who have scaffolding erected can unwittingly help burglars by providing walk-in access to the neighbour's first floor. This won't happen in our case: when we go away, the workmen board up our windows.

In fact, we shall be sorry to say goodbye to the builders. As it happens, we shan't be saying goodbye for quite a while. They start here when they've finished there. Our top floor also has bricks that attract rainwater like sponges, which means that a hefty section of brickwork is to be renewed. Fortunately the scaffolding is already in place. Let's hope the work doesn't annoy the family at number 38.-

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