What should I check about property boundaries before making an offer?

Shared fences, driveway boundaries and party wall repairs can all create disputes with neighbours. Here's how to check for potential issues before buying.

Neighbours fence

Boundary disputes are costly to resolve

Property boundaries are sometimes the cause of heated disputes between neighbours, either because they cannot agree who is responsible for maintaining the dividing fence or wall, or because one neighbour believes the other has encroached on their land.

Boundary issues can be a source of great frustration and may be costly to resolve.

Boundaries cannot be amended easily, although the HM Land Registry may amend title plans in some cases. It is far better to understand where the boundaries are - before purchasing a property - rather than assuming they can be agreed after ownership has been transferred.

It is the buyer's responsibility to check the boundaries of his prospective new home match his expectations and to find out which boundaries he is responsible for maintaining, before purchase.

What constitutes a boundary?

Boundaries are usually defined by a feature that separates one property from another, such as a hedge, wall, fence or ditch, or even a piece of wire. Sometimes it is just the edge of a driveway.

Some boundaries have no physical feature so it may be tricky to determine exactly where they are. However, even where a physical feature exists it does not mean that it is the legal boundary. A fence may have been moved, or a new hedge planted in the wrong place.

How can I check the property's boundary?

Most land in England and Wales is registered with the HM Land Registry, which creates a title plan showing the general boundaries of the property by a red line.

You can obtain a copy of the title plan from HM Land Registry (and of any of the neighbouring property's title plans) for a small fee (£7 for individuals) before you make an offer and start the conveyancing process.

Check this plan against the actual property. You may need to make another visit to compare the property against the plan on paper.

Also, check the plan against the estate agent's description. For example:

  • Does that large garden really belong to the property?
  • Is the fence in the right place?
  • Should that dividing wall be further to the other side?

There is nothing on the title plan - other than a red boundary line

A large proportion of HM Land Registry title plans reveal nothing more than an outline of the property's extent. Because of mapping tolerances (a distance on the ground may not be exactly the same as indicated by a scale plan) and the depth of physical boundaries (a thick wall for example), they do not give a precise determination of a boundary, nor indicate who has responsibility for which boundary.

However, some title plan drawings use 'T and H marks' to indicate ownership of a boundary. A 'T mark' extending into a property indicates that property has responsibility

If there are 2 'T marks' (making an H shape), this means that the boundary is a party wall or fence i.e. under joint ownership/responsibility.

If there is nothing to indicate who owns the boundary you will need to make further checks.

Ask who is responsible for the boundary

Many homeowners make assumptions about a boundary, for example:

  • The seller may believe he is responsible for either the right or left-hand boundary of the property.
  • That fence posts are placed on the owner's side, therefore that person is responsible for maintaining the fence
  • The neighbour built the boundary wall entirely on his own land so the boundary falls on the farthest side from the property.

However, without a formal agreement on the title plan, there may be no legal basis for these assumptions.

Ask the seller if there is a boundary agreement in place.

If you are lucky, a boundary agreement may already be in place. This should be in writing and signed by the seller and their neighbours.

Working out an exact boundary line is trickier and means obtaining as much information as possible from the title plans, registry documents and any other documentation that may be available. A surveyor may be appointed to draw up a detailed plan.

Both the boundary agreement and the determined boundary line can be added to the title plan of all participating properties by applying to HM Land Registry and paying the appropriate fee before the property is sold.

Your next step

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Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Author:
Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher