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Get Off My Land! – Boundary Ownership and Disputes

by Sarah Halloran

It’s quite common these days to see boundary disputes reach the local and sometimes national headlines.  Arguments about trees and hedges have caused neighbours to fall out forever and in some cases for tempers to erupt into violence and harassment.

So, do you know where your boundary is or who owns it?  Surprisingly, lots of homeowners are unsure.  Usually the only time we see where our boundaries are is when we receive our title deeds when buying a new house.  The title deeds will show you a scale plan of your property with the boundaries clearly highlighted.  You can also obtain a copy of your boundary plans from HM Land Registry for a fee.  The price for boundary plans differs, but paying a small fee could put your mind and any dispute to rest if you are experiencing real problems.

How to Avoid Disputes

Of course, it’s always best to try to avoid disputes with your neighbours.  If, before you move into your new house, you think a dispute may arise at some point then it’s prudent to take some photographs of your boundaries when you move in.  The previous owners may have tipped you off about problems or potential problems so it’s a good idea to at least be vigilant.  That doesn’t mean installing CCTV and keeping a diary on your neighbours.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt first!  Tact is important to avoid upsetting anybody.

As with most things prevention is often better than cure.  If you are planning to erect a new wall, move a fence, or plant a new tree or hedge, you should speak to your neighbour first.  Best to do that than start taking out a fence whilst your neighbour is at work or putting in a conifer that blocks their natural light.

If you are going to erect a fence, custom dictates that posts sit on your land whilst the face of the fence points to your neighbours.  It’s definitely worth sacrificing a couple of inches of land in order to avoid your fence encroaching on your neighbour’s land.  You should also ensure your new fence complies with Planning Regulations and you can usually check this with a quick phone call to your local office.

If you’re planting a new hedge try to position it at least 1.2 metres within your boundary.  That way once it starts to grow it’s less likely to cause a problem for your neighbours.  You should also try to keep your hedge trimmed to no more than 3 metres in height.

What to Do When a Dispute Arises

If you have a problem with an overhanging tree or your neighbour is planning to build a new fence a little too close to your boundary or over it, it’s always a good idea to raise any points politely and clearly.  If you have a good relationship with your neighbours, that’s great. Most problems never make it to a full on dispute and are solved with a handshake over the garden fence.

If a dispute has arisen and you’re at the end of your tether with your neighbours or they have a dispute with you it could be time to study the title deeds in detail.  You can obtain your title deeds and those of your neighbours if they are not forthcoming with theirs.

The problem with most disputes is that they are born out of more than a disagreement about fences or trees.  Deep rooted (pardon the pun) feelings from the past and presumptions about your neighbours can often make a dispute lose its real meaning and cause tempers to flair.  Sometimes mediation is what is required.

Paul Crosland is a mediator with Bristol Mediation: “Mediate, don’t litigate,” he says. Neighbourly disputes, he says, “are usually about what people think about each other, with layers of presumption to be removed.”

A community mediation service can assist in finding a way to a seemingly impossible solution. “We’re looking for a win-win scenario,” he says.

Local authorities hold lists of mediation services or you can find them online.  You’ll be paid a visit by a mediator to discuss the situation and a letter will be send to your neighbour to arrange a face to face meeting to talk about the situation in order to hopefully reach a satisfactory conclusion.

“We look at what’s really behind the dispute, and once that’s resolved the rest usually follows,” says Mr Crosland.  If a written or verbal agreement can be reached the mediator will then back off and check back to make sure the agreement still stands.

The next step is the courts if you can’t come to an agreement and that is going to be a costly long journey that could cause a fallout with your neighbours for good.  A much better idea is to solve any boundary problem quickly, smoothly and with as little distress as possible.

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