Managing expectations: Why is the Party Wall process often so disappointing?
The Party Wall process is often a big disappointment to all involved, and this comes down to the poor management of expectations. The Building Owner and the Adjoining Owner will have different expectations, and this article will look at how each these expectations are best managed.
The Building Owner
The Building Owner can be anyone from a homeowner to a property developer, but either way, the aim will tend to be to navigate the Party Wall process as cheaply and quickly as possible. Most Building Owner’s are perfectly happy to look after their neighbours, and can see a dissent to a notice and the materialising of a dispute as a let-down. Others take a dissent pretty well, but can become disappointed with the costs and the time it takes to get an Award.
When competing for business, a Party Wall Surveyor can choose to compete on price. This often isn’t enough, and many Surveyors promise to deliver an Award in a matter of days, when in reality, the process can take months.
The truth is, once a Notice is served, the outcome is often unpredictable. If an Adjoining Owner dissents and appoints the Building Owner’s Surveyor, the turnaround can be very quick indeed, and the promise to deliver an Award in a matter if days can come true. This requires good information, and the Surveyor should really know how to administer the Act effectively and decisively.
A neighbour can dissent and appoint his own Surveyor. In this case, the Agreed Surveyor option can be explored, where the Building Owner proceed with the neighbour’s chosen Surveyor. However, in doing this, the Building Owner will now be dealing with a Surveyor who is more expensive (not always) and slower (again not always). This is in part because the Surveyor does not need to compete on price. If the Building Owner doesn’t like it, he can get his own Surveyor which would cost more anyway. The prospective Agreed Surveyor is well aware of this. Additionally, the new Surveyor wouldn’t need to worry about the quick turnaround promised to the Building Owner. The fact that the Building Owner hasn’t allowed sufficient time for the party wall process to play out can be considered ‘tough luck’. All of this applies for not only the Agreed Surveyor, but the two-Surveyor set-up, where the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor does not need to compete on price or worry too much about dealing with the job quickly. The Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor will often be more concerned with ensuring the Act is administered correctly, and due consideration is given to the Adjoining Owner’s rights and interests.
In terms of managing expectations, the Building Owner should be made aware of:
1. The process to obtain an Award can take a long time – certainly longer than often suggested by a Surveyor competing for business.
2. The process can be expensive and the cost is often not known until the end.
3. The Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor will often charge more than the Building Owner’s.
4. The process often involves requests for information, such as additional drawings and method statements.
5. The Party Wall Act does not override other commitments to planning, building control and rights to light etc. There are may other things to make a Building Owner aware of, such as security for expenses, though Surveyors should be careful not to overload their appointing owners. The right information at the right time is key. The Adjoining Owner For an Adjoining Owner the Act can be a safety net that gives reassurance through what can be an intrusive process. Some Adjoining Owners are disappointed to learn that the Act cannot frustrate their neighbours in the way they would like, whilst others are completely unaware of the costs incurred by their choice to dissent to a notice. Whatever the motivation, the decision to dissent is actually quite a big one that can impact on neighbourly relations, either by maintaining them during a difficult period, or by damaging them through an expensive and traumatic party wall process. Adjoining Owners can often be surprised to learn:
1. The works are going to go ahead, and they have very little say or input into the process.
2. Access rights often exist, meaning the Building Owner can access their land to facilitate their build.
3. There are intrusive rights such as cutting into the Adjoining Owner’s wall even if it is wholly on their own land and is their wall (see section 2(2)(j)).
4. The Party Wall Act is extremely specific, and does not deal with the project as a whole, but only very specific actions within a build. An example could be a loft build where the only notifiable work is the insertion of steel beams. This means that apart from the steel beams, there is absolutely no remit for a Surveyor to deal with other issues such as scaffolding or noise.
5. The Party Wall Act cannot be used to tackle rights to light, or planning and building control concerns.
6. The Adjoining Owner can be liable for fees. A Surveyor should take the time to listen to the Adjoining Owner’s concerns, and from the outset explain what the Act can and can’t do. A Surveyor should not make false promises or give false reassurances. Frankness is important, but if the dismissal of concerns that are not subject to the Act is required, the Surveyor should consider how this ‘let down’ is done in a sensitive yet clear manner. Good knowledge of the law and the ability to explain it using non-technical terms can help to ensure the Adjoining Owner understands the process and expectations are managed.
Picking the right Surveyor is essential, whether you are a Building Owner or an Adjoining Owner. It isn’t easy to pick the right one, but for Building Owners in particular, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It is rare to find an excellent Surveyor at rock bottom prices who can navigate the Act quickly to meet tight deadlines. No matter how good the Surveyor, many things can be beyond his control. He can exercise influence, act sharply and effectively, but in the end, if an Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor makes reasonable requests, the Building Owner’s Surveyor will be reliant on the Building Owner’s team to deliver meaningful responses, for example well-thought construction details and method statements that aren’t generic and that show due consideration to the unique nature of each scheme. Duplication is perfectly acceptable, but laziness is not. The Party Wall Act does not have the best reputation, nor do those who administer it. It can be a difficult process to navigate, even for the most seasoned of Surveyors. False perceptions are created by those who administer the Act, so they really only have themselves to blame. Honesty and the realistic management of expectations could really help to ensure the public have confidence that matters are being handled competently.