One of the more uncomfortable aspects of helping to man the RICS’s Party Wall Helpline is the calls I receive from irate neighbours. I regularly hear stories of falling debris that ‘literally could have killed someone’, builders working such long hours that they should be on the property’s electoral roll and one memorable call from a lady who was convinced that the builders were breaking in to her house and rearranging her shoes. They generally finish by asking me what can be done? Sometimes I’ll pause for a moment and say in my most soothing voice “let it go … just let it go”. That tends to make them even more angry.
Disputes between neighbours over relatively trivial matters can escalate quickly and have serious consequences. I was talking to a party wall surveyor only last week who was convinced that the stress caused by living next to a proposed basement in Fulham had contributed to the death of his (former) appointing owner. With stress being linked to the 6 leading causes of death, owners have to ask themselves whether they would rather it was them or their neighbours going underground?
In many cases the source of the dispute is relatively trivial. A lady called me in the summer to report that it was now 5.37pm and the builders were still working on her neighbour’s extension despite the 5.30pm deadline. She helpfully held the phone up so that I could hear the noise from digger. As I couldn’t hear anything she moved closer and when I still couldn’t hear I was seriously worried that she might fall in to the trench.
Aggrieved neighbours are always disappointed to be told that us party wall surveyors have no powers of enforcement; I’m sure they expect us to be on site standing in front of the digger at 5.30pm like a student in Tiananmen Square. When I explain that they’ll need to speak to a solicitor about enforcing the terms of the party wall award they quickly dismiss that option on account of the potential costs and bend my ear for another half an hour.
Projecting scaffolding is another one that really sets adjoining owners off i.e. scaffolding that is on one owner’s land but with bars that extend over a neighbour’s land. If the poles are blocking a window or compromising security something obviously needs to be done but otherwise I’d put it in the ‘not worth getting stressed out over’ category. Unfortunately, not all owners would agree – one chap called me in a distressed state to explain that his neighbour’s scaffold poles were ‘at least 6 inches over the boundary’. When he started talking about reacting to “this violation of his air space in the strongest possible terms” I was seriously concerned that the scaffolder was about to get shot down!
A good builder or project manager can really help prevent neighbours from falling out. I had a project in St Johns Wood where the neighbours happily put up with an 18-month basement dig because the neighbour’s builder kept them informed and bought them gifts at Christmas and Easter – builder: “Here’s some flowers (that I just bought for 20 quid)”, neighbour: “you’re so nice (that I can’t possibly complain for the next 18 months)!”.
Some neighbours take a more inventive approach to gaining their revenge; every so often we’ll take a call from an owner that has received a party wall notice and is looking to appoint ‘the most expensive surveyor they can find’ (at their neighbour’s expense of course). We’ll generally turn those ones down.
Then there was the owner I visited whose neighbour had called his WiFi network “Dogs bark, get over it” as a pre-emptive strike.