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How Using a Cheap Party Wall Surveyor Can Substantially Add to Your Costs

Thursday, 23rd February 2012 | by: Peter Barry

I recently received an email from an owner who wanted me to look at a party wall award he’d recently received from his appointed surveyor and tell him what my fee would be for producing an identical document.

Now, assuming that he was not enquiring about photocopying services the request made no sense but being the curious type I dug a bit deeper.

A few emails later it transpired that he’d recently had some building work done and was about to be taken to court by his neighbour’s party wall surveyor over an unpaid invoice.

Worryingly, he seemed to be totally unaware of the process by which the adjoining owner’s surveyor’s fee is agreed. I explained to him that the surveyor in question would have kept a record of the time spent agreeing the award and when everything else was finalised totted up those hours (including some time for any further inspections that were necessary) and applied his normal rate. The final figure would have been put forward to his own appointed surveyor as a ‘reasonable fee’. It would then have been up to his surveyor to either agree the amount and confirm it in the award or ask some further questions. If subsequent discussions proved fruitless the matter should’ve been referred to a previously selected third surveyor. The process is often referred to as a practical tribunal.

The response came back that the fee had not been agreed and was not in the award (it later became clear that it had and it was) and he was concerned about the disparity between what the two surveyors had charged:

“The AO surveyor has invoiced me for £2148.00 and I’ve paid my own surveyor £450.00 so total cost for me is £2598.00”

That is indeed a massive difference and it’s easy to see why he was disgruntled but as a surveyor dealing with party wall matters every day both fees looked off the mark (in different directions) for what I knew by now was a residential loft conversion and a conservatory.

Building owners typically shop around for a fixed fee from their surveyor before committing so the temptation is to go with the lowest quote and that appears to be what happens here. The problem is that anybody can set themselves up as a party wall surveyor, there are no qualifications required and it is not necessary to be a member of an appropriate professional body. There are many surveyors with no qualifications whatsoever marketing themselves as ‘specialist’ party wall surveyors; an entirely meaningless description. I would be suspicious of any surveyor offering to agree an award covering work of this scope for £450.

As we were now on our eighth or ninth email I offered to give the adjoining owner’s surveyor a call and enquire why his fee was higher than average. He explained that the quality of the draft paperwork he’d been sent was so poor that after several attempts to bring it up to standard it was decided that he would re-write and produce the final documents himself. It also became clear that the building owner’s surveyor had raised no concerns about his fee and was happy to sign the award confirming it.

I found out during the course of the conversation that the building owner’s surveyor was chap I’d worked with in the past and could diplomatically be described as less than thorough.

The biggest factor in determining the level of the adjoining owner’s surveyor’s fee is the quality of the information supplied by his counterpart so it was not surprising that it was considerably higher than average.

I explained to the building owner that if a fee is confirmed in an award and that award is not appealed within 14 days of it being served it becomes set in stone and cannot be challenged by any court. My advice to the building owner was to pay the invoice as soon as possible to avoid the additional costs of recovery proceedings and to take the matter up with the surveyor who’d really failed him in this sorry tale; the one he’d appointed himself.

When questioned the building owner’s surveyor explained that he’s thought it better not to query the fee because there’d been a long delay in agreeing the award (caused by him) and he didn’t want to delay matters further by arguing over the fee. This reasoning ignores the fact that a referral to the third surveyor need not delay the commencement of works as the point can be reserved in the award to be decided later by any two of the three surveyors.

I would urge any owner planning to undertake works covered by the Act to ask plenty of questions when phoning around for fee quotations as going for the cheapest can turn out to be a very expensive decision.