Property: `Private, keep out' may be good advice

Having your own road may appeal, but it may also be a big headache, says Fiona Brandhorst.

Living in a house on a private road has a certain snob appeal for some people, but it is not always an unmitigated blessing. In fact there are two types of private road. A private street is a privately maintained road to which the public has a right of way. If it falls into disrepair, the local authority has the right under the Highways Act to make it safe and charge residents for the work. And then there's a private road with no public right of way, that must be gated to through traffic once a year to keep its private status.

Private roads are "perceived to have a better cachet," says Nick Thomas, associate director of Hamptons International in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. The nearby Loudwater Private Estate has a number of entries and exits, all gated except the main one. Only the residents have keys. "Private estates tend to be in good areas and you can attribute a premium to a house in a private road setting," says Mr Thomas.

Malcolm Daniel agrees. He lives on the Firs Estate, four private roads of late Twenties properties designated as a conservation area in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. "It's definitely contributed to the value of our properties," says Mr Daniel. The recent addition of white gate posts with "private" signs on the three entrances to the estate and road humps, paid for by the residents, have also made their mark.

Four years ago when the roads on the estate had really begun to deteriorate, Mr Daniel took over as vice chairman and treasurer of the Firs Estate Residents Association. The crunch came when its funds were too low to pay the annual insurance premium providing cover for up to pounds 500,000 if someone claims for an injury caused by the condition of the road (cover is provided by the local authority on public roads).

Now, almost all of the residents from the 85 houses pay an annual subscription of pounds 60 a year and a five-year repair plan is in place. It is assumed that each resident owns half of the road in front of their property. "We can't force people to pay," says Mr Daniel, "but as the profile of residents has become much younger they are able to afford it and actually expect to pay something towards the upkeep."

Last year, the committee appointed a contractor to resurface two of the roads. "It was all very new to us," says Mr Daniel, whose day job is as a film editor with the BBC. "We asked a road surveyor, recommended by the local council, to draw us a map of the areas he considered would need immediate attention. If anyone complains that a pothole outside their house isn't being attended to, at least we can show them the surveyor's report."

Would it not be easier to ask the local authority to take over the estate, since it is a through route? "We looked into it," says Mr Daniel, "but they declined. They wanted to make proper footpaths and kerb edging and we don't want all that."

The Land Registry office in London underlines the importance of asking a solicitor to look very carefully at a property's title deeds to ensure that potential purchasers are happy with rights of access and maintenance obligations. Some private roads may have covenants that restrict redevelopment.

The Firs Estate association is there to maintain the roads, not, Mr Daniel stresses, to sort out neighbourly problems. But for Andre Montaut, director of Almond Construction, sorting out a long-running dispute with a neighbour was vital when he was negotiating to buy a piece of land for redevelopment.

The only access was via its own private unsurfaced road. "The chap living next door to the proposed site had had a dispute with the owner over boundaries," says Mr Montaut. Sensing there was money to be made, the neighbour claimed that part of the road and the hedge running alongside it was his property. To avoid a lengthy and costly court battle, for which Almond Construction believed there were no grounds, they suggested the planting of six semi- mature trees as a screen between the development of three detached houses and the disgruntled neighbour. Eventually, he dropped his claim to the land.

"At least the owners of the new properties won't have any problems over boundaries now," adds Mr Montaut. "And their responsibilities for the private road have been clearly set out within the deeds of their property and were accepted by each of their solicitors." When the site is completed, Almond Construction will hand over the road to its residents.

Russell Copp now knows how important it is to look closely at the deeds when buying a house on a private road. When he bought one of 11 former farmworkers' cottages in Thurrock, Essex, he was pleased with the novelty of living on a private road, even though it was more like a "dirt track". "I thought we'd eventually get together with some of the neighbours and put down chippings to upgrade it," he says.

However, the road was still owned by the builder who had converted the cottages and he had other ideas. Last year, he asked each of the residents for pounds 200 to surface the road. "We had no say in who he chose to do the work," remonstrates Mr Copp. "They were a bunch of cowboys and a year on, the surface is breaking up." The contractor also covered up the mains stop-cock outside Mr Copp's cottage with tarmac.

Unsurprisingly, he has refused to pay his share. "I'd advise anyone considering buying in a private road to find out exactly what responsibilities you have and to work together with your neighbours. If you're not sure, always get legal advice."

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