Q. I have just completed on my new house and the fence on one side is old and falling down, so needs replacing. I am having conflicting views from friends as to which side of the fence I am responsible for, can you help?
A. There seems to be a great deal of confusion out there about who actually owns and has the responsibility for the maintenance of a garden boundary wall or fence. It is a surprisingly grey area, which seems to provoke an unhealthy number of neighbourly disputes. One of the most common misconceptions is that the fence on the left hand side (when looking at the property from the road) is your responsibility. Unfortunately, there are far too many exceptions to this to make it a usable rule of thumb and even if it were the case, where exactly does that leave the fence at the bottom of your garden? The main source of information on ownership rights are the title deeds of a property. You normally get a copy of the boundary plan from your solicitor when you buy a property. Having just completed on the property you should have this to hand but if you can’t find it, you can always order one from the Land Registry. When you get the plans, if the barrier is clearly on your land, it’s probably yours. However, you should be aware that the boundaries, marked in red, are only a general guide and might not show the exact line of division between adjoining properties. Measurements scaled from them often don’t match measurements on the ground. They are normally based on the location of physical attributes near a border, such as a wall or a building and where no such markers exist, things can get really complicated. If you are lucky, these plans are also marked with a red T on the boundaries. If they are placed on your side of the dividing barrier, then it belongs to you. If there is a T on both sides, it’s a party wall. Sometimes there is a written description of the boundary within the deeds and sometimes they contain a covenant that outlines any maintenance responsibilities. All too often, none of this information is anything like definitive and that is where disputes, if they become legal, can get really, really expensive. After all the usual legal documents have failed to provide any clear answers, there are a couple of additional ways of determining who is responsible for maintenance and ownership. It is presumed that if the supporting posts are on your side of the fence, then you are the owner. If the fence was built by an occupier (past or present) of your household it is presumed to be yours and that the boundary is located on the far side of it. Clearly, all this is completely useless if the posts are between panels, rather than on either side or no-one can remember who actually built it. There is one more issue to deal with – even if you do manage to establish who really owns the fence, there is probably no legal requirement for them to maintain it. Normally you are only required to do so if there is a special clause in the lease or title deed. However, if the barrier poses a danger to the public or is causing damage to someone else’s property then you can be taken to court for compensation. The next question is what happens when the wind blows the fence over, no-one knows who owns it and you are trying to sell a house whose garden now looks a mess? The answer, even from most legal experts, is surprisingly simple – go and talk to your neighbour and if you can’t come to an amicable agreement over who will pay for the repairs, just split the bill or, if that’s not possible, just pay for the replacement of the panels yourself. The cost of a couple of fence panels will be nothing when compared to even the most straightforward legal advice or proceedings. Be aware though, if the fence is clearly on your neighbour’s property, get permission first or you could be accused of trespassing.