How do I check the neighbour's rights before I make an offer?

Neighbours' may have legal rights over adjoining properties - Find out if the property you're buying is affected. What should you look out for?

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Terraced houses

Neighbours usually have rights over neighbouring properties

Even in rural areas, your neighbours will usually have certain rights over your property. Some rights can impose onerous conditions on a homeowner. Furthermore, your new neighbour could stifle your plans to alter or extend your new home.

Before you commit to buying a property, it is worth considering what specific rights your new neighbours could have. This article also considers how those rights could affect you and your new home.

There is a range of potential rights your neighbours may have. These rights may be especially relevant if you are planning to extend or otherwise develop your new home.

Rights that the neighbours may have include:

Right of support

Access rights

Right of light

Water rights

Rights to check before the viewing

Compared to investigating a potential flood risk, for example, there is not a great deal you can do before a viewing. The best preparation is to familiarise yourself with the risks and potential solutions to neighbours' rights.

You can check boundary-related issues with HM Land Registry or search the central planning permission database at the Planning Portal. However, you will usually only be aware of potential issues after viewing the property.

At the viewing

Right of Support

If you want to make alterations to your property, unless you are moving into a detached house surrounded by a garden, you will need to consider how the works could affect the structure of adjoining buildings. In most cases, a Party Wall Agreement will be necessary.

A party wall (or supporting wall) is an internal or external wall between two properties. Party walls are covered by the Party Wall etc. Act 1996.

The party wall definition includes shared walls between semi-detached and terraced houses, structures such as the floors between flats or maisonettes and garden boundary walls.

Could the proposed work undermine the structure of your neighbour's property?

You will need to check whether our proposed works could affect the structure of your neighbour's property - particularly if you plan to demolish walls or part of a structure. You should also check whether any underpinning or support will be necessary and what it will cost.

What does the Party Wall Act cover?

The Act covers the effect of excavations within several metres of the property boundary as follows:

  • 3 metres - Where the new foundations of the proposed construction extend below a horizontal line drawn from the bottom of the foundations of the neighbour's adjoining property.
  • 6 metres - Where the new foundations of the proposed construction extend below an imaginary line drawn at a forty-five-degree angle from the bottom of the foundations of the neighbour's adjoining property.

The above applies even if you are not demolishing the walls themselves, but excavating the ground for foundations for an extension.

The Act exists to protect neighbouring ground or walls collapsing into the excavation. You can still build within 3 or 6 metres of the party wall, but you must observe the correct procedure. This process may include instructing a party wall surveyor to assess the impact of the works.

At the viewing, look for evidence of an extension or other recent work on a neighbour's property. If there is evidence, ask the seller or estate agent if there is a Party Wall Agreement in place. If you do make an offer, you should mention the work you intend to carry out to your solicitor so they can investigate any historic party wall issues.

Right of access for repairs

If you are buying a property with plans to renovate (or even just replace the gutters), you will need to consider your right of access and how this might impact your neighbour's rights.

If either party needs to carry out property repairs, the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992 gives the legal right for neighbours to access each other's land, where necessary, to access their own property.

The Act only makes provision for carrying out basic preservation works, which include:

  • Maintenance, repair or renewal of a building;
  • Clearance, repair or renewal of a drain, sewer, pipe or cable;
  • Filling in or clearing a ditch;
  • Felling, removal or replacement of a tree, hedge or other plant that is dead, diseased, insecurely rooted or which is likely to be dangerous.

Although you do not need permission from your neighbour to access their land for the reasons above, you should consider asking as early as possible before you start the work.

When you discuss your plans for maintenance and development with neighbours (or potential neighbours if you have not yet bought the property) you should identify any serious objections early on.

Refusing right of access

If a neighbour refuses to let you onto their property you may need to apply for a right of access. A court is not obliged to grant a right of access if it believes doing so would cause unreasonable disturbance or interference to your neighbour.

Be aware that the court may also award compensation based on a measure of the inconvenience and damage to the neighbouring property, even if they grant a right of access.

Right to light

The term "right to light" refers to the level of illumination a property enjoys from natural daylight. Properties do not usually have an automatic right to light. However, if residents have enjoyed daylight through the windows of a property for a period of 20 years or more, a court may grant a "prescriptive easement".

A prescriptive easement will require a neighbour to ensure that enough light is preserved for the owner's continuous use and enjoyment of the affected property. The easement does not grant a right to all the light that was once enjoyed, however. This means that a neighbour's planned development work could reduce the level of light.

The local planning department's guidelines can assess the impact of any proposed development. As a rule of thumb, the guidelines use an imaginary line drawn at 45 degrees from the mid-point of the nearest window. No part of the development should cross this line. This right may mean that your planned extension won't get planning permission.

The impact of your plans on neighbours' homes is worth investigating before you commit to the purchase.

Right to a view

The view might well be the main reason you have chosen a particular property. Unfortunately, you have no specific right to maintaining that view.

If the neighbouring landowner obtains planning permission to build houses that spoil or block your view, generally speaking, they have the right to do so. It is worth checking whether there are any historic or current planning applications registered with the local council. Neighbouring land may also have been designated by the council for housing development.

Be cautious, though. Even if the current owner has not made a formal application, you cannot guarantee that the land will never be built on by a neighbour or sold to a developer.

Water rights

You may be considering purchasing a property where you will source water from a spring or watercourse. If that source is located on neighbouring land, you will need to check the water rights. If you are buying a property that includes a water source used by neighbours, you will also need to confirm what rights the neighbours have over your property.

For example, other neighbours who rely on the water supply may be adversely affected if any work you undertake diminishes the water flow, or if you increase the amount of water you draw. You may need to consult a water engineer to investigate your rights surrounding the water supply.

Green rights

You may be planning to purchase a house with a green, sustainable energy source such as a wind turbine or solar panels. Be aware that, subject to planning, your neighbour will usually have the right to build on their property.

The development may obstruct the passage of air to your wind turbine or prevent sunlight from reaching your solar panels.

Homeowners do not have any automatic right to air or sunshine. It may therefore be difficult to safeguard your green energy source against a neighbour's plans. You could discuss alterations with your neighbour to preserve the functionality of your panels or turbine.

Be aware that you are unlikely to be able to enforce these rights legally if the neighbour refuses. If you have specific concerns regarding this issue of 'green rights', discuss these with your conveyancing solicitor as soon as possible.

Other points to consider

If you do decide to make an offer, you should consider the following points.

Your solicitor will not usually visit the property, even if they live and work in the area.

Your solicitor may not be able to identify all possible rights issues from deeds and other documents alone. Many issues will be obvious to anyone who actually visits the property. A solicitor who relies on the paperwork alone, however, might miss these issues.

If you spot anything of concern during a viewing, mention this to your solicitor. Potential rights of access, right of light or other rights issues can be hard for a solicitor to identify otherwise.

Should you ask the agent?

It may be useful to discuss any concerns with the estate agent. Bear in mind that the agent works for the seller. They will likely put a positive spin on any potential concerns.

You should also raise with your solicitor any plans you may have to alter or extend the property. Your lawyer can then fully consider the impact of any potential rights issues and advise accordingly.

Your next step

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Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher