Paul Hannent is a Building Surveyor, Designer and Property Consultant. Paul formerly worked in Building Control for Richmond and Kingston Councils then as a Design Manager for a major contractor. He lectured in Building Control and Design at the University of Kingston. He now runs a client consultancy in Richmond and Kingston.
I’m buying a house which dates from the early 18th century. My friend is an historian, who works in conservation, and has given me some really good advice. The bank talked to me into getting a Homebuyer survey report which has come back with many red issues that need further investigation. My friend tells me that this is the wrong report and that the person does not understand the building, which I think is true but there are many areas where the surveyor says the building is not safe. What do I do?
There are many parts to your question. Essentially, I do agree that you need a proper survey report following a thorough inspection of the property by someone competent in that type of building. It does sound to me that you have been sold the wrong product and I would take that up with whoever it was, in the first instance. I don’t like to comment on advice that was given, nor their competence (and you don’t give me any detail about your friend), but I certainly think it is worth getting an experienced Chartered Building Surveyor or conservation architect with particular experience and knowledge of the building type to advise you, especially as they will have the necessary insurance and comeback. It is not necessarily about covering yourself but about preserving your relationship with your friend. I am not saying there is a problem now, but there could be a number of challenges with this property and you may not want to hold your friend responsible if an issue arises.
I don’t believe a Homebuyer report is always a useful product and certainly not for this type of property. I would raise this with the Surveyor in question and ask them for more detail about the specifics.
In short, buying an old property is a great thing to do but brings with it a lot of responsibility. There is no way it will meet modern standards and should not be thought to. However, it still needs to be usable and safe. Research and technology has moved on considerably in recent years and there are some excellent subtle features you can put in to address fire safety, heating, cooling and ventilation so your building can be beautiful, interesting and usable for a modern lifestyle.
Do I need planning permission for my garden outbuilding?
As with loft conversions and extensions, there are “Permitted Development” rules that apply to most houses and so long as you abide by them, you should have no problem. However, it is important to check these closely as they are very black and white. The good news is that if your proposal fits within these limits, then you’ll avoid some of the bureaucracy, such as neighbour consultations and objections. Sadly, there is still paperwork and time involved if you want a ‘Lawful Development Certificate’. This is optional, but many Solicitors ask for it when conveyancing of property. Whether you make an application or not, Planning Authority ears will prick up if the building could be considered a separate dwelling. There are issues as some people try to let or sell the building separately. I have worked on a number of these, even turning double storey garages into separate annexes, and it can work well.
There are basic rules to follow, including not exceeding 50% of the total area of land around the original house, a maximum eaves height of 2.5 metres and overall maximum height of 4 metres with a dual pitched roof of 3 meters in other cases. Most of us within the RiverTribe area will be building closer to the boundary and if you are within 2 metres, then the height limit is 2.5 metres. Decking height is also an important consideration as planners are very hot on “overlooking” issues these days.
I’ve tried to sack my Party Wall Surveyor, who has been slow to reply and hasn’t taken on board what I asked him to do. He also seems to be spending a disproportionate amount of time which is costing me dearly. He has said that I can’t terminate his appointment. I was shocked but this seems to be correct. Is there really nothing I can do?
I am sorry to hear that you’re having a bad experience with Party Wall matters. They often don’t run smoothly and are hard to predict. It can seem like a long journey but hopefully it will be resolved soon. Most Party Wall disputes involve a lot of intensity and effort, which suddenly seems to drop off and I hope yours is one such case. Sometimes the issues can be quite complicated, especially in the RiverTribe area, with tight spaces to develop.
It is correct, and for good reason, that parties cannot change surveyors unless he or she deems themselves incapable of acting. In this case, they actually need to be “incapable” and not just fed up of their warring owners! The law helpfully lets the appointment change when a surveyor dies - but that rarely happens! Seriously, I would take it up with the surveyor in the first instance and it sounds like you have done this, especially if you’ve asked to rescind their appointment. There is of course redress for any professionally qualified person but it may be that you could engage with them again and ask what the issues are exactly. Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately for you, Party Wall appointments do benefit from this protection. The only advice I can give is retrospective, but you’ll certainly be able to give advice to others on the importance of selecting someone carefully.
I have bought a hundred-year-old house, which was previously converted into two flats. It’s beautiful and full of character - I can see through the alterations. It could be a stunning house once more. My budget is limited and I’m disappointed that, having got through the planning process, I am told there are some very stringent Building Regulation standards that apply, forcing me to insulate it like a new house even though I’m only returning it to its original condition. I also have to get an energy consultant involved and it seems to be getting out of hand.
I can understand how it seems strange that the regulations don’t recognise what the house once was, just its immediate past condition. Whilst it might not be much consolation, these improvements can be done in a way that adds value, both making it attractive upon resale and in terms of energy use. Of course, the standards from a hundred years ago don’t really suit modern life and you’ll certainly feel the benefit, although I appreciate your more immediate concern is the capital outlay.
There are things you can do to design the modifications in a way that is more cost effective and gives value for money. As with any design decision it is worth getting the correct professional advice. Certainly, Building Control can’t ask you to make improvements which will not achieve a return on investment, or those that are not functional. For example, if the cost of the insulation exceeds the reasonable payback in terms of energy you would not have to do it and could seek a cheaper solution which is better for you. Or if by lining the walls you were to make the rooms too small to be acceptable under planning, there could be another way forward. I would certainly recommend you contact someone who has experience dealing with Building Control.
Do I need Building Control Approval for a garden room?
In a nutshell, the building itself is exempt if it is under 15m2. If it's between 15 and 30m2, it is still exempt if it is made of fire resisting construction (not a timber shed for example!) within a metre of the boundary. This is something that not all suppliers tell you and I have seen quite a few "unlawful" ones built, on the advice of some slick looking companies. You may put some services, such as electricity or drainage, that are controlled, so you'd need to check. Electricians should self-certify but drainage needs notification.
Bear in mind that Building Control is no bad thing - the standards are there to protect you and make the most of your investment. You don't want to skimp on foundations only to find it subsides prematurely, or not heat and insulate it properly for it to become damp and mouldy. A good garden room can be an excellent way to make the most of your property and so it's worth spending a bit to ensure you don't end up with something that ages prematurely and that you would not actually want to spend time in.
I am in the process of purchasing a property but I am told it has been extended without Building Control or Planning Permission. What are the implications?
It's hard to say without seeing it, of course, but here is some general guidance from the Government's Planning Portal website, in relation to Town Planning:
"The Planning and Compensation Act 1991 introduced rolling time limits within which local planning authorities can take planning enforcement action against breaches of planning control.
The time limits are:
• four years for building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, without planning permission This development becomes immune from enforcement action four years after the operations are substantially completed.
• four years for the change of use of a building, or part of a building, to use as a single dwelling house. Enforcement action can no longer be taken once the unauthorized use has continued for four years without any enforcement action being taken
• 10 years for all other development. The 10-year period runs from the date the breach of planning control was committed
Once these time limits have passed, the development becomes lawful, in terms of planning."
. Obviously each case is different but in normal circumstances (ie not in a Conservation Area or the property being listed) this is a useful guide. In most cases, after 4 years it becomes lawful and enjoys the same rights as if it were in the first place. Under Building Control, this never becomes lawful or approved.
However, enforcement action is very limited after 12 months, unless there is a serious life safety threat, when the Local Authority might decide to serve an injunction. This is obviously quite expensive, making it very rare indeed. As a Building Control Surveyor, I'm always going to recommend it's looked into properly, with a Regularization Application to the Council. However, many are taking the view that, if they don't buy the place, then others are quite keen to buy it and run the risk and, with the shortage of property on the market, one can see why. I would say that, if you do and don't get it sorted, then you risk someone else having this conversation with their Solicitor when you want to sell!
I’d like to convert my loft space into an en suite bedroom. My house was built in the 1920’s and I’ve seen plenty like this around where I live. One architect I have spoken to said it would be more difficult because I live in a Conservation Area. Why is this the case, when others nearby have been able to do it?
Generally, loft conversions are much bigger when designed using the ‘Permitted Development’ (PD) rules, which are prescriptive national standard allowing for certain increase in volume subject to some quite exacting but normally achievable restrictions. Most loft conversions are designed in this way. Certain properties, especially those in conservation areas or new properties, don’t have PD rights and this does vary, even within different areas of a local authority, so it’s better to check with your local council.
If your loft can’t be developed in this way, i.e. according to these rules, then you’d need to make a householder planning application. Your local council should have online guidance (look for SPDs - Supplementary Planning Documents) or something similar, for example Kingston Council householder design guidance. This will give you a good idea, but you should also consult a signed architect, building surveyor or planning consultant who is experienced in the sort of work in your area and knows what happens ‘on the ground’.
It is often true that loft conversions outside of the PD rules can be smaller and, depending on the type of property you have, will give you less useable space and headroom. However, that’s not to say they don’t still add value, though of course one needs to look at this on a case by case basis.
My neighbour wants to build an extension. They’ve discussed it with me and asked me to sign something they’ve downloaded from the internet which they say is a Party Wall agreement. Meanwhile, I’ve received loads of letters from party wall surveyors asking me to appoint them to do this. Their tone makes it sound like there is something to be worried about. What should I do?
Firstly, it sounds like your neighbour has done the right thing in trying to engage with you at the start and talk to you about the process. No amount of bureaucracy and legal paperwork can reassure you more than someone who obviously wants to do the right thing. However, I would suggest that downloading something from the internet is not the way to go about it. Party wall paperwork is not without its flaws but does provide some very useful mechanisms for resolving problems later on. I have seen neighbours who are best friends for years fall out over a small amount of pipe protruding or because construction on one side later hampered the neighbours opportunity to do the same. The right advice at the right time i.e. as early as possible can save you time, money and headaches later on.
There are many firms who write to neighbours to try and secure work and I think the practice speaks for itself. What I would say is that many of these approaches leave the impression that you should always get a party wall award with one or two surveyors. This is not always necessary. Bear in mind that the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 was written for the Shard as well as for your building as a one size fits all. Personally, I really feel you need two surveyors on a residential project, but of course this depends on the quality of surveyor that your neighbour appoints. Sadly, there are many that seem to want to make as much money as possible rather than look at what is actually needed.
The essential things you need in place are:
1.) Valid notices served by your neighbour. It is always worth getting these done by a professional, as if the notice is missing something or not quite right then it is invalid and neither party has any protection.
2.) Schedule of Condition of your property. This is really important, and should be done by an independent person, nobody can remember the size and location of cracks in their property. Even if you could, you can’t rely on that later on when alleging damage. It is essential to get this aspect right.
3.) A surveyor should review your proposals. There may be opportunities to work together with next door in terms of a design, and certainly you don’t want to restrict them from doing the same in later years. Surveyors see these challenges frequently and so can give you the best advice about what to do.
It’s always best to choose a qualified and regulated professional e.g. a Chartered Surveyor. Also, look at the Pyramus and Thisbe Club which has a register of members.
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©RiverTribe Magazine 2017