How can I find out who owns a boundary fence?
The majority of land in England and Wales is registered at HM Land Registry. Land Registry documents reveal the boundaries showing the extent of the land. These include a ‘Title Plan’ of a property which shows either the general boundaries of the property, or the exact boundaries if the Land Registry has that information. It also holds ‘Office Copies’ of the legal title to property which gives information about the property and its ownership.
If you are unsure who owns a boundary fence you can look at any copies of title deeds you have in your possession, or ask the Land Registry for Office Copies and a Title Plan. This plan will show the boundaries to your land as officially registered at the Land Registry. The Land Registry may also have the historical title deeds relating to your property and, if necessary, these may help you to identify who is responsible for which boundary. The Land Registry will charge a small fee for providing documentation.
You could also consider obtaining Office Copies and a Title Plan relating to your neighbour’s property to provide a fuller picture.
The Office Copies (and any title deeds) often contain covenants setting out who is responsible for maintaining a boundary feature such as a fence. These should also be checked to see if they will assist.
It is important to note that the Office Copies and Title Plan are not conclusive as to ownership of boundary features.
Maintenance of a fence
The Title Plan’s may reveal a ‘T’ mark on all or some of the boundaries, indicating who is responsible for maintaining that boundary. If there is a ‘T’ mark on either side of the boundary, it is a party boundary and both you and your neighbour are jointly responsible. If, however, there is no ‘T’ mark, it may be unclear who is responsible for the maintenance of that boundary.
The question then is: has anyone assumed responsibility for that boundary, such as placing the fence there or maintaining it? If you or your neighbour has assumed responsibility for the fence, they remain legally responsible for it. If it has been jointly maintained by you and your neighbour (or not as the case may be) it may be regarded as a party fence and you will both be responsible for it.
If you are considering buying a property, it is important to establish as early as possible which boundary fences and walls you will be responsible for. The Land Registry documentation and the information contained in the Seller’s Property Information Form will assist.
Can responsibility for maintaining a fence change to a neighbouring property owner?
Even where the Office Copies (or title deeds) show who is legally responsible for a boundary fence, if the adjoining property owner has assumed responsibility for it, that property owner may then be legally responsible for it.
It is a common misconception that the manner in which a fence is constructed indicates who owns it. For example, it is commonly believed that if fence posts are located in one person’s garden – they own the fence. However, whilst it is customary to construct a fence in such manner the position of the fence posts do not dictate who is legally responsible for the fence.
It is also a common misconception that a property owner owns the boundary on the left hand side of their property (as you look at it from the street). Again, this is not necessarily the case.
Do I have any rights in relation to my neighbour’s fence?
If your neighbour is legally responsible for a boundary fence, you should not paint your side of the fence, attach nails to it, and so on, unless you have permission. If you do not have their permission, doing so could amount to criminal damage.
If you are unsure as to who owns the fence, it is always advisable to discuss matters of maintenance and repair with your neighbour. In such cases, it is common to agree who will maintain or replace the fence, and to share the cost of doing so. You could also enter into a Boundary Agreement, signed by both you and your neighbour, setting out who is responsible for a boundary.
If you are unsure as to who owns the fence you should discuss matters of maintenance and the like with your neighbour before carrying out any such work yourself.
Can I force my neighbour to maintain their fence?
Some title deeds contain a provision (known as a ‘covenant’) requiring the owner of the boundary to maintain it – although this is fairly uncommon, and it may not be enforceable. If no such provision is contained in the deeds, there is no legal responsibility on the owner of that boundary to keep it in good repair. However, the owner of the boundary feature may be liable for any damage resulting from a boundary feature that falls into disrepair.