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Boundary Disputes – what you need to know (or whose line is it anyway?)

Title Deeds

When people are buying a property, one of the things they are sometimes very keen to know is ‘which is my boundary’ – they want to know which one they have to look after. Sometimes when they’re asking they’ll come out with some comment like ‘I know it’s the one on the right normally but I want to make sure’. I then have to explain that there’s not really any ‘normal’ when it comes to boundaries – it could be that you’re meant to maintain the one on the right, or the left, or all of them, or none of them.

This information becomes even more important when we get a boundary dispute – two neighbours arguing over who maintains a boundary, or where the boundary actually is.

So I thought I’d do a small blog setting out what the legal position is, and what to do if you find yourself with a dispute with your neighbours over the boundary.

Start with the Title Deeds
If you want to find out who is meant to maintain a particular boundary then the best place to start is the title deeds. There may well be a clause in one of the deeds that states that you must maintain a particular boundary. When the deeds talk about this they usually identify the boundary you need to maintain by marking it (or them) with an inwards “T” on the plan in the deeds, like on this example below.

For most people their deeds will now be registered at the Land Registry which means you can obtain a copy of them quickly and cheaply online. (You can usually also get a copy from your mortgage company but they will charge for this – more than you will pay the land registry. Also the solicitor who acted when you purchased may well have a spare copy on their file – you should be able to get this from them for free – but there may be a slight delay if they have to dig it out of their archive)

To get a copy of the title deeds go to the Land Registry. At the time of writing it will cost you £4 for a copy of the main parts of the deeds, and another £4 for a copy of the filed plan

What am I looking for?
It’s really hard to explain what’s in deeds as they do vary quite a bit – as I’m writing this I have no idea if you live in a brand new property that was registered last year, or a 400-year old property that was registered 80 years ago. However there are certain rules as to how deeds are registered so I’ll deal with those. The registered title deeds are contained in up to 3 parts:-
1. Firstly you’ve got the main part of the deeds (which contains the property register – description of the property, the proprietorship register – who owns it, and the charges register – who’s got a mortgage on it). There may be something in the charges register about the boundaries – something along the lines of “the buyer covenants to maintain the boundaries marked with an inward “T” on the attached plan”.
2. Secondly you’ve got the ‘filed plan’ – there is a filed plan for every registered property and it shows the whole property. This plan is drawn up by the Land Registry when they first register the title deeds.
3. Thirdly you may or may not have ‘other documents’ – more often than not this is a copy of the transfer deed from when the property was first sold – for example the builder selling to the first buyer. This deed is usually attached because it contains quite a few conditions (builder like to put conditions on the properties they are selling), and it’s easier for the Land registry to attach a copy to the title deeds rather than copy out the long deed and decide which bits need to be included. The bad news is that your information on boundaries is often contained within these attached deeds. I say bad news because you also have to pay the land registry for a copy of this other document. At the time of writing this will usually cost another £4.
If you have got this extra deed then look through it – it may well be pretty confusing. There will usually be some sort of plan contained within it – this plan will have been drawn up by whoever drew up the deed itself – often the original builder’s solicitors. What you’re looking for is something like “the buyer covenants to maintain the boundaries marked with an inward “T” on the attached plan”. Looking at the attached plan should hopefully show you which boundaries you are meant to maintain.

What if there’s no mention of maintaining boundaries in my deeds?
To be absolutely certain you’d need to check your neighbours deeds as well – it may not say anything in yours but your neighbours might have a clause saying they have to maintain certain boundaries that divide you and them.
If it says nothing in any of the deeds then the standard position is that the boundary should be maintained jointly by both neighbours.

I’ve found the T marks! I have the answer!
Not so fast! This is a good starting point, but we still have a way to go before being able to say you have the definite answer. It would still be wise to check your neighbours deeds as well – they might also have a T Mark – which again would imply you should maintain it jointly (or it may mean that the first person to have the condition imposed was right, and the second time it was a mistake – that’s too complex a position to discuss here, but see below where I talk about the real world).

The more likely problem is the actual location of a boundary. Say for example you want to replace a fence – but the boundary is stated to belong to your neighbour. It’s blown down and your neighbour has disappeared (no connection between the two!). If you put your new fence just a centimetre on your own land then it’s your fence as it’s entirely on your own land. You’ve effectively given up about a centimetre of land but if you actually have a life then that shouldn’t really matter (should it?). The problem comes 10 years down the line when two new people are living either side of the fence. The people on the ‘neighbour’ side can see in their deeds it’s down to them to maintain it. The people on ‘your’ side know from you that the fence has been moved and it’s on their land. Here we’ve got the makings of a boundary dispute

Boundary Disputes – what you need to know
Boundary dispute are horrible. They have the capacity to ruin your life and can drive some people to desperate measures. My unequivocal advice is that they should be avoided at all costs. I know that sounds a bit daft coming from a lawyer but it really is the best advice you’ll get.

Why are they so bad? Well unless you live on a large country estate the chances are that you’ll come into regular contact with your neighbours – you will depend on each other for certain niceties – where you park your car, collecting balls off each others land, consideration for each other concerning noisy kids, loud music etc.

If you have a boundary dispute then all too often I’ve seen each of these areas become a battle ground, with each side using every available opportunity to wind up the other party. Your home should be a haven for you – somewhere you can relax. If someone is causing hassle that close to you then it can really get under your skin.

So my advice is that if you can feel a dispute brewing, then you need to STOP! Speak to the neighbours fairly and nicely – find out what their concerns are and tell them what your concerns are. If you can do this socially then all the better. You don’t have to fall in love with them but if at all possible you really do want to get along with them.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with an example

My fence has blown down – what shall I do?
This is a classic example of how and why people are concerned about boundaries. People have different attitudes to blown down fences. Some people can’t wait to put it back up again – it annoys them that their garden look so messy with the fence blown down; other people view it as a real pain in the backside – another boring job they’ll have to do when they’d rather be out playing football/walking the dog.

You need to speak to your neighbour, but it’s this first approach that can make or break the relationship.

Some examples that should hopefully work:-
“I’m not certain whose boundary it actually is but I’d be happy to sort it out – is that alright with you. If I do sort it out I’ll need to come round onto your land – is that OK?”

If you’d rather be playing football “I’m not sure whose boundary it is but I’m planning on putting it back up – I just can’t do it until next week – is that alright?”

Hopefully either of these approaches will start a dialogue where your neighbour offers to help, contribute towards the cost, or is just grateful that someone is sorting the problem out.

Contrast that with this:-

“Your fence has blown down – I know it’s your responsibility and I’d like to know when you’re going to repair it”

“The fence has blown down – it’s joint responsibility and I want half of the cost from you now – it’s going to cost £250 and I want £125”

“The fence has blown down – it’s joint responsibility… I reckon you should be able to do it for £20 so here’s a tenner – let me know when you’ve done it.”

“The fence has blown down – it belongs to me and I shall be coming onto your land to enforce my right to maintain it”

“The fence has blown down – it’s my boundary and it’s sat on your land – I demand you give it back”

“The fence has blown down – I know it’s your fault as I’ve seen you breathing out heavily in your back garden. I demand you repair it instantly. I’ve never liked you and your wife is fat.”

Each of these responses will usually get a defensive or even aggressive response from the neighbour – it may lead to them checking their own deeds, and could eventually lead to a needless dispute. The neighbour may actually have been pleased that you were going to sort out the fence, but because you’ve got his back up he’s now going to try and take legal action to let him sort it himself!

Usually at this stage the phrase “I know my rights” is uttered by someone which is usually a sure sign that it’s all going pear-shaped.

It may seem stupid for a lawyer to be arguing against litigation, but to be honest these are not the sort of cases you generally want – both parties end up spending a lot in legal fees but generally won’t feel they’ve gained anything from the experience – they’ve not got value for money. It’s very rare that either one comes out of it as a happy client. We have had some clients who are insistent from the outset that they are going to take it as far as they can, and then later they turn on us and say that we should have told them at the start not to be so stupid!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that neighbour disputes need to be declared when you come to sell your property, and failure to do so is potentially misrepresentation (for which you could be sued). There is a risk that revealing the neighbour dispute could at the very least hold up your conveyancing, and potentially could lose you a buyer. It’s far better to avoid the dispute in the first place.

So to summarise:-
1. You can check yourself who is meant to maintain which boundary
2. Even though you may find this information it’s not necessarily 100% accurate – things can change over the years (boundaries being moved slightly), and in any event the plans that are used aren’t generally fantastically accurate themselves
3. Regardless of the legal position, you need to find a workable solution with your neighbours – speak to them nicely and get them involved.

If you’ve followed all the above advice and still have a problem then email our litigation department or leave a comment below

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