When next-door neighbours turn into nightmares

Disputes between those living cheek by jowl are on the increase, says Joanne O'Connell

Saturday 05 November 2005 01:00 GMT

More homeowners than ever are prepared to take legal action against their neighbours. The number of them who are in dispute has more than doubled in recent years, according to a new report. It shows that a growing number of people are using the Party Wall Act 1996 to take on neighbours, often when they are only carrying out minor property alterations.

The act was intended to help prevent and resolve disputes but has triggered a huge rise in the number of homeowners willing to challenge their neighbours over boundaries, says the structural-engineer firm Brewster Associates.

"Party-wall disputes come up frequently," warns Guy Osborne, the head of litigation at Osborne solicitors in north London: "If you do any work, such as building an extension, within a certain distance of your neighbours' property, you need a Party Wall Award."

To get it, you first need to serve your neighbours with a written notice of your plans. Your neighbour has a right to appoint a surveyor - at your cost - to see how your proposals will impact upon their home. The surveyor will then meet your surveyor at your property and, hopefully, make an award for you to carry out the work, providing your neighbour is happy. Once the work is complete, their surveyor will return to make sure the work has not been detrimental to your neighbours' property. If it is, you'll have to follow their recommendations to rectify the situation.

"If you don't bother to apply for the award, your neighbour can apply to the courts for an injunction to stop the work," says Osborne. "If they're successful, you'll have to pay their legal expenses."

If the conflict is about where the boundary lies, rather than simply an objection to the building work, a specialist survey may have to be done. Kate Hamilton Ryan, a partner at the Manchester-based solicitors Pannone and Partners says: "In such cases, people need to obtain a copy of the deeds of their property, usually held by their mortgage lender and apply to the Land Registry for a copy of its map of the area." Usually, you will then need to employ a specialist surveyor to produce a digital survey.

Hamilton Ryan says: "If the report shows that boundary is in the 'wrong' place but that it's been there for several years, in some circumstances, it may be argued that that's where the boundary now lies."

This is more likely to be found when a neighbour has left it a long time before making a complaint.

When solicitors are involved, the costs can soar. Specialist surveyors' reports can cost around £3,000 and legal fees for boundary disputes can be as much as £20,000, says Hamilton Ryan. "Although you can take your neighbours to court, in reality, most people settle before they get that far, as the costs are just too high."

In some cases you first have to try mediation. This requirement covers conflicts about evergreen hedges, giving local authorities power to intervene in disputes once a complaint has been made. If you believe your neighbours' hedge is too high, and is affecting the "reasonable enjoyment" of your home, get in touch with your local authority.

Angie Roberts, a spokesperson for Mediation UK, in Bristol, says: "Agreements aren't legally binding but there's a high success rate of there being no further problems."

If mediation fails, the local authority may serve your neighbours with a notice identifying what needs to be done. There may be costs to pay however.

In one high-profile row earlier this year, TV director Paul Weiland, who is behind the comedy series Mr Bean and Alas Smith and Jones, was hit by complaints by his neighbours who claimed he had refuse to chop down a 40ft hedge of leylandii trees.

They took Weiland to the local council in an attempt to force him to reduce the trees in height to 6ft. However, the council demanded a fee of £345 from each complainant even to look into the matter.

Once a notice is served, failure to comply may result in a £1,000 fine. It's only if the problems continue that your local authority may take legal action but it has to pursue the case.

The local authority also gets involved in cases of noisy neighbours, or where one party is being abusive. Robert Wassall, a partner at the law firm Clarke Willmott in Southampton says: "Often people get rebuffed when they go to complain about loud parties, for example, so they contact the local authority. Sometimes it's very unpleasant. We had one case involving a gang of young people shouting racist abuse at neighbours and smashing windows."

It's worth remembering that, if you're a tenant and a fellow tenant is causing the racket, you can first ask the landlord to demand they stop. Environmental Health can be called into monitor the noise and the report it produces can form part of your evidence. In some cases it is also able to confiscate stereos.

Before you tackle your neighbours over any issue, think carefully, warns Osborne: "If you are planning to sell your home in the near future, you will be under obligation to disclose disputes." When the new Home Information Packs come into force in January 2007, this information will be included, so prospective buyers will know your troubles before making an offer.

Osborne says: "If you've complained to the local authority, or even just written to your neighbours, you're on record. If you then lie about it, the sale goes through and your buyer finds out, they could claim you misrepresented the property and sue you."

Drumming up a problem for mediation

Musician John Warburton, 55, was contacted by his local authority when a neighbour complained about the noise of his drums. John, who lives in Manchester and works as a printer, says: "I play the drums in a band and, from time to time, I practise at home. I had a letter from the council saying that the woman who lives in the house which backs onto mine was distressed about the level of noise."

John says he apologised immediately and the problem went away for about 12 months. But the same neighbour complained again, and the council asked John if a mediator could come to discuss the situation.

"I was happy to meet them," he says. "In the end, we agreed that I'd get sound-proofing for my drum-kit and that I'd let my neighbour know whenever I was going to practise."

Trouble on the home front

One in three people are worried by the extent of antisocial behaviour, according to a recent report by Neighbourhood Watch. It also says that 4 per cent of people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a stranger and a neighbour at their door.

Research from Lloyds TSB Insurance reveals that only 7 per cent of people feel they can trust their neighbours. Of these, 14 per cent say testy neighbourhood relations are the result of respondents having suffered a bad experience with those next-door.

When it comes to keys, 69 per cent of people would rather hand them over to a friend or family member than a neighbour, according to Barclays Insurance Services.

Nearly half of men and women aged between 45-54 age say that they socialise with their neighbours, compared with less than a third of those aged between 25 and 34, according to a survey released by Halifax Home Insurance.

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