We all – well, nearly all – want to get on with our neighbours. Whilst we all might want to get along, disputes over boundaries can be a wonderful shortcut from sharing cups of tea to sharing cold stares.
However, by following this guide, you should avoid any serious fallings out, and save yourself the expense of maintaining a boundary that is not your responsibility.
The piece of advice you should take most to heart – above any legal technicalities – is that talking about a problem is far better than arguing about it, or, in the worst case scenario, going to court. If you have any worries about your boundaries, or would just like to know who owns a fence between houses, then the earlier and more honestly you can talk to your neighbours, the smoother the process is likely to be.
Who owns which boundary?
The easiest part of the process, in most fence or boundary disputes, is uncovering the ownership of said boundaries.
Forget any stuff you’ve been told about “left-hand” or “right-hand” rules. There are no such rules – although if this is a mutually-acceptable solution for maintaining fences with your neighbours, then there’s no problem using it, and even getting it officially agreed.
The ownership of boundaries should be recorded on the title deed plans of your property – these are the plans that are registered with the Land Registry in order to sort out just such disputes. You may have a copy yourself, and the solicitor who did your conveyancing probably will too.
It’s worth nothing that making enquiries to the Land Registry costs a fee – it might be the least of your expenses should any boundary dispute escalate, but it’s worth remembering that a chat with a neighbour might even cut out this cost.
The ownership is indicated by a “T” marked on the plans on one side of a boundary. The person on whose side that “T” is written is the owner of that boundary and is responsible for maintaining it.
Some boundaries are the joint responsibility of both parties to the border. These are shown on title plans with a pair of joined “T’s that look like a letter “H”.
If this is the case, you’ll definitely have to speak to your neighbour, and perhaps work out a rota for doing works on the walls or fences between your properties. You can, of course – if you must have control of your boundaries – buy out your neighbour, but you must go through a proper, legally recorded sale process to make this stick.
What if there are no plans?
Unfortunately, there is no legal standard dictating that title plans must show property boundaries on them.
In fact, even when they do, it is not an exact legal definition of boundaries; it’s the closest you’re going to get, but it’s actually based on Ordnance Survey maps.
If, even worse, there are no plans at all, then you can rely on some custom-and-practice methods of determining ownership; please remember that custom-and-practice is just that, and is by no means a legal definition.
Fence posts are traditionally found on the side belonging to the owner of the fence. Walls and fences are presumed to have been built on the land that belongs to the boundary’s owner – with signs of construction and decoration generally on that side – with the further edge of the wall marking the actual boundary.
What if there is no evidence of boundaries?
Existing boundaries are probably the best evidence of legal boundaries. However, if you think there’s a problem with the boundaries of your property – or you’re unhappy with the uncertainty – then you can define them by striking a “boundary agreement” with your neighbour(s).
This will put everything down on paper, and can officially be recorded as an ongoing legal document – saving future owners the hassle of a fencing dispute! It is wise to consult a legal expert and check the extent of the agreement’s powers.
You can get started yourself, though.
A boundary agreement must include the full names and addresses of both parties; it must be dated; and it must define the boundary that it establishes – e.g., “boundary between 10 and 11 Downing Street, London SW1” – and don’t forget to record the numbers shown on your Land Registry Titles.
You can use maps or plans (you can use copied OS maps as your basis) to draw your lines, or you can describe the measurements of the boundary.
You should sign and date your agreement, and get it witnessed. This agreement is a great start if you just want to put down on paper who should be creosoting the back fence.
What if your neighbour moves?
You can make things more official by getting your agreement registered with the Land Registry. You will need to pay a fee and fill in a form to send to Land Registry HQ, but, in return, you’ll get your boundary properly recorded in the Land Register.
Who can help?
If you need legal advice, then contact the Law Society (or the Law Society of Scotland or the Law Society of Northern Ireland).
There’s also a lot of good advice to be had from RICS (the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors), who can offer advice if contact.
If you don’t own your property, then your landlord or housing association should be your first port of call. If your property borders public land, then you may need to contact your local council, charity or government department. The Land Registry can also tell you who owns what land.