Although planning a loft conversion is exciting, there’s one issue which can quickly put a damper on proceedings if not handled properly – that of party walls.
Party walls are those walls which neighbouring properties share: your home on your side, your neighbour’s on the other. So, if you’re semi-detached or are creating space with a terraced house loft conversion, then party walls will certainly be involved. Structural work which affects these party walls requires specific permissions from the owners of your neighbouring properties and if the adjoining property is divided into flats, then party wall agreement may need to be reached with all owners affected.
Where party walls are involved, party wall agreements will be required, as well as the usual planning permissions and / or building regulation approvals which apply to your conversion. Where agreements apply, these often additionally request building regulation approval of the works, as a safeguard for the affected neighbours.
A party wall agreement is needed if you intend to carry out any of the works listed below.
- To cut into a wall to take bearing of a beam (for example a loft conversion), or to insert a damp proof course all the way through the wall
- To raise the height of the wall and/or increase the thickness of the party wall and, if necessary, cut off any projections which prevent you from doing so.
- To demolish and re-build the party wall
- To underpin the whole thickness of a party wall
- To protect two adjoining walls by putting a flashing from the higher over the lower, even where this requires cutting into an Adjoining Owners independent building
Basically, if your loft conversion requires a party wall to be cut into, or the fabric of it changed in any way, then the Party Wall Act 1996 will apply. This act relates to home improvements such as extensions and loft conversions which commonly affect party walls and provides a framework for preventing and resolving disputes in relation to party walls. Neighbouring homeowners should be notified of the work through Party Structure Notices, as specified under Section 3 of the Party Wall Act and should:
- Be served at least two months before the intended start of the works.
- Be served to the legal owners of the neighbouring property – not necessarily the same person who is living there.
- Give the owners the right to instruct their own surveyor.
- Give the owners the right, and informed opportunity, to safeguard their own home as the loft conversion takes place.
- Give the owners the opportunity to consent to the work or raise objections to it, known as dissent.
- Include all relevant information from the Party Wall Act and full details of the works.
Of course, none of this is a substitute for also talking to your neighbours about the intended works. However, Party Structure Notices are a statutory requirement and formal process, so will definitely need to be served, even if you’ve had that chat. The process does of course also protect your own interests, in the event that any problems with the neighbour’s property are identified prior to (or during) the works. While the Act contains no enforcement procedures for failure to serve a notice if you start work without having first given notice in the proper way adjoining owners may seek to stop your work through a court injunction.
The planning for your loft conversion will need to account for party walls and your loft conversion specialist will be able to advise on how and why a party wall agreement is needed for your own conversion.
Although the notice periods set down in the Party Wall Act are stringent, and require you to allow neighbouring owners 14 days to respond once they’ve received their notices, if your neighbours consent in writing, then work can begin from that date.
If the legal owner(s) of any affected property fail to respond to your notice then after the 14 days it is assumed that they have dissented – not agreed to the works. In this case, the loft conversion planning process will then involve an additional surveyor being appointed to safeguard the neighbours’ interests.
How a party wall can affect a loft conversion
Most loft conversions within a semi-detached or terraced house will require party wall agreements because the work almost always involves the insertion of supporting beams into a party wall. Party walls are often also involved when the loft conversion requires:
- Steelwork to support the floor and dormer, which usually runs from party wall to party wall. Party walls involved will require cutting to allow a steel beam and padstone to be set into it.
- Creating a dormer on the boundary line.
- Increasing the height of party walls to accommodate a specific dormer design or size.
Another area affected by the party wall act is that of work on the boundary line, so if your surveyors need to check your foundations by digging down within a stipulated distance of the neighbouring property, then a party wall notice may also be required.
Where your loft conversion offers you plenty of scope for choice, it’s worth speaking to your loft conversion specialist as options such as a chocolate-box type dormer, set centrally into the roof space, may present an alternative which does not require party wall agreements.
Where party wall agreements are involved, you will almost certainly need to budget for this. Even if neighbouring owners readily agree to everything, there will be the additional costs of the Party Structure Notices, around £100 per notice.
If the neighbours dissent, or request the protection of a surveyor, then you will be responsible for paying, so these costs should be factored in when budgeting for your loft conversion.
Where the work significantly affects party walls, the Party Wall Act also allows for compensation payments to be made to affected neighbours. In all cases, the amount will vary depending on the actual construction, but will be decided by the surveyors involved.
Getting the party started
If the neighbours agree from the outset in writing, or once a surveyor has satisfied and safeguarded the interests of neighbouring owners, then the legal go-ahead in the form of a Party Wall Award is offered. This award includes details which have been agreed by any and all of the surveyors involved, outlines the schedule of works, and covers all aspects which safeguard the neighbours, such as, access rights and remedial works.
To achieve success, serving notice correctly is crucial. If this has been correctly done then there is an accepted process which the surveyors and your loft conversion specialists will follow. In the event of problems, such as unexpected damage to your neighbour’s property, then this will be dealt with by the surveyors. If notices were not served correctly initially, then instead of the surveyors sorting it you could be taken to court, where costs of far more than £100 a notice, are likely to be found against you!
All parties on board
Party wall issues sound complicated, but don’t have to be. If notices are correctly served and neighbouring owners have put in writing that they are happy for work to proceed, then work can start promptly. There are also several ways to help smooth things along and keep all concerned parties happy:
- Speak to neighbouring owners early on and explain the process, so it won’t be a sudden shock when legal-speak notices come through the door.
- Show drawings or sketches as soon as you have these available and highlight the walls involved.
- Acknowledge promptly any neighbouring owners’ concerns and reiterate that the costs of surveyors will be your own responsibility, not theirs. It may be possible for one surveyor to act for both yourself and neighbouring owner(s) and this can save money. However, remember your neighbour has the right to an independent surveyor.
- Keep a dialogue going throughout the works.
For additional information, the Government’s Party Wall explanatory booklet can be a useful guide, whilst the loft conversion specialists at Abbey Lofts are also happy to help.