Completing the party wall awards is often the last part of the jigsaw required to allow work to commence on site and the process which leads up to that point can be delayed for any number of reasons; from technical queries relating to the proposed works to the appointed surveyors’ holiday arrangements. It’s therefore advisable to get started as soon as possible but when is the perfect time to start the process by serving notice?
The Act stipulates fixed notice periods depending upon the nature of the proposed work; 1 month for adjacent excavation or new walls built at the boundary and 2 months for work that directly affects a party structure. Notice periods are rarely a significant factor as an adjoining owner will generally be happy for works to commence once they have consented or the appointed surveyors have resolved all issues and served their award. Indeed, most template awards make such an assumption. There are one or two exceptions where adjoining owners have a specific reason for wanting to delay the works such as a garden event or exam revision so it’s still worth checking. The surveyors cannot waive notice periods unless they are specifically authorised to do so.
It is however still important that notice is served as early as is practically possible as the likely length of the process cannot be predicted until the adjoining owners respond. So how early in the planning process can that be?
Only 1 of the 3 types of party wall notice must be accompanied by drawings so unless the proposed work includes excavation that is notifiable under the Act notice could be served as soon as the decision is made to build.
Take a typical loft conversion, in almost all cases it will be necessary to cut beams into the party wall to support the new floor and take the weight of the rear dormer. Notices must include ‘the nature and particulars of the proposed works’ but do not have to include precise details so it would be possible to draft a Party Structure Notice on the day that you decide to proceed with the works using the following description:
Cut pockets in the party wall to allow for the insertion of beams for the purposes of converting the roof space to accommodation.
The start date would be stated as ‘2 months after the date of this notice or earlier by agreement’.
If your neighbours are easy going you could have their consent confirmed and the statutory notice period waived before your architect has even put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). Even if the proposals include excavation, the only drawings required are ‘plans and sections’ of the proposed excavation so you could sketch out a simple floor plan with the foundations marked as a dashed line together with a typical foundation section (we keep various foundation sections on file for this purpose).
The problem we find with this approach is the adjoining owners tend to be more comfortable with consenting to a notice when they have the full details of what is proposed and that generally means detailed drawings.
I would therefore suggest the best combination is an informal approach to your neighbours as early as possible (Ideally before the planning application goes in if that is required) with the notice to follow when detailed drawings are available. This also overcomes one of the things that most annoy adjoining owners; finding out that their neighbours are planning building works by letter even though they live next door.
During that initial chat all you need do is describe what is proposed (your neighbours’ property will often be the same as yours so they should be able to picture it) or show them the initial sketches from your architect. Take the opportunity to explain that the works fall within the scope of the Party Wall Act and that they will receive formal notice(s) later. This is also a good opportunity to explain that the planning and party wall processes are entirely separate as this is something that confuses adjoining owners.
A couple of points to finish, where your neighbour’s building sits close to or at the boundary it is sometimes necessary to uncover a section of foundation by digging a trial pit (a small area of excavation for exploratory purpose). It is generally accepted that trial pits can be dug prior to notice being served as the information they provide is often required to draft the notice.
Although anyone can draft and serve party wall notices, and there are plenty of templates online that can be used as a starting point, they must include specific information to be valid. If you plan to do this yourself it’s worth spending a while on researching the topic as an invalid notice can cause significant delays. Most surveyors specialising in party wall matters will prepare notices on your behalf for a nominal fee in the hope that they will be appointed should the need arise so it may not be as expensive as you think to use a professional.