Thursday, 4 April 2013

A license to print money (otherwise know as a Party Wall Agreement).

As I may have mentioned before, the structure of our second project - the little house in W8 - is not great.

It's an end of terrace that would like to see itself become a much posher detached property, and is moving rapidly away from its neighbours.

There are cracks all over the place. Serious ones in places. And these are affecting not just our house, but next door too.

Our structural engineer has recommended some fairly simple but still vital remedial work that involves tying the terrace back together using concrete 'whatsits' at various points round the walls on two floors.

At the same time as we do this it makes sense to remove the chimney breasts that take up a huge amount of space in all the rooms.

It's clear that this work could affect 'The Party Wall'. So we need to discuss it with the neighbour -  a titled widow of very advanced years.

Having been told by the estate agents opposite (who sold us the property) that Lady X next door was desperately keen to meet her new neighbours, my ex-public school project manager and I thought we'd pop round and discuss the works with her at the same time as introducing ourselves.

Ushered in to a comfortable, if very small, upper middle class sitting room of a certain generation (the only thing it lacked was the drinks trolley) we put on our most obsequious manners and had a charming if somewhat confusing half hour conversation.

Things got off to a good start when it turned out that each of her (now deceased) two or three husbands had shared my christian name. This bizarre coincidence seemed to delight her, and in terms of obtaining her permission to do work that might affect the Party Wall my confidence soared.

I should say at this point that we had/have no intention of doing anything underhand, or without ensuring that our neighbour is protected at all times.

However I have an aversion to paying fees for pointless things like Party Wall Surveyors.

What kind of person grows up and decides to be one of these? It's a bit like deciding to be a posh traffic warden.

My guess is that people who choose to specialise in this area have failed at anything interesting. Or have a pathological obsession with meaningless pieces of paper.

As far as I can tell, a Party Wall agreement is very, very simple. Until, that is, you get two Party Wall Surveyors involved, at which point it gets expensive, slow and complicated.

If in the process of any works on my house there is any damage to my neighbours property, it's obviously my responsibility to put that damage right.

So how come it costs several thousand pounds and requires two bloody surveyors (one each), a virtually indecipherable legal document and many wasted weeks to agree this.

This link below to a web forum illustrates the immense frustrations created by this absurdly stupid system.

Did you know that no special qualifications are required to be come a Party Wall Surveyor? (Just the ability to endlessly obfuscate, churn out paper slowly and not laugh when presenting a large and unjustifiable bill.)

Anyway, back to my little story.

Lady X happily agreed that we should produce a Condition Report covering her house, and on the basis of this sign a letter agreeing our responsibilities. She seemed happy. We were happy - and feeling very protective of this lovely little old lady. It was all very simple, amenable and encouraging.

Oh foolish us.

A few days later Lady X's daughter calls saying "mother was a bit confused" by what we'd said. Ha ha, very funny. This is a perfectly lucid Miss Marple like lady. A bit deaf maybe. That's all. Otherwise sharp as a button (what a silly phrase that is).

It turns out that one of Lady X's sons (brother to my caller) is a local architect and will now represent her regarding a Party Wall Agreement. I have a sinking feeling, knowing that this call comes with a ludicrous bill attached as well as delays.

Sure enough, I then receive a rather pompous email from the son demanding a formal Party Wall Notice. No conversation, discussion or variation would apparently be permitted.

What was very peculiar was that he referred to his mother only as his client....never admitting that it was in fact his mother. Bizarre.

This isn't going to end well, I fear. Which is a shame.

I am an honest and, hopefully, considerate neighbour. I genuinely cared about Lady X, before the email from her son.

Now I shall be forced to become as pedantic myself and consider insisting that they repair a badly cracked garden wall that is in danger of collapsing into my property, revisit the legality of their right to rear access via my garden now that I own the freehold as well as the leasehold, and possibly withdraw my plans to remove a large tree that shades their house all summer.

It could all have been so much simpler, nicer, friendlier and much, much cheaper.

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