Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows you to claim land which you do not hold legal title to through length of occupancy – effectively squatting! You could have occupied land that is unregistered and the owner is unknown, but it’s being occupied as part of your property.
In more contentious situations, these can become very heated disputes and often lead to disproportionately expensive legal costs over potentially insignificant parcels of land. For example, a recent news article reported how a couple are being sued by their neighbours over an alleged ‘3ft land grab’ between their adjoining back gardens.
The couple in question have been accused of removing a fence to incorporate a narrow strip of land, situated between the neighbours’ brick wall and the fence, and paving it as part of their garden. The removed fence had followed the same line as the neighbouring properties’ boundaries.
Now countersuing, the couple are arguing that they were only reclaiming what was previously theirs until it was temporarily fenced off by builders and that the neighbours’ boundary line was their brick wall, not the fence.
1 in 11 Neighbour Boundary Disputes Go to Court
According to reports, around 6 million homeowners in Great Britain have been caught up in boundary disputes with neighbours. Usually, these disputes take up most of a property lawyers time, particularly residential v residential matters where it’s harder to reach practical agreements.
The most common issue with residential property involves garden boundaries and the placement of fences, walls, hedges or just any boundary structure. In many cases, with inaccurate or hand drawn plans, it can be difficult to establish the true owner unless they have clear, measured dimensioned boundaries within the title deeds.
Land Registry title plan boundaries are prepared according to the ‘General Boundaries Rule’, therefore do not reflect the exact position of the boundary and only go so far as indicating the general position. This means that often, the disputed land in question can equate to just a few square foot. With land at a premium and people sensitive to what they believe is rightfully theirs (ultimately it becomes a matter of principle rather than the land holding monetary value), it’s no wonder that these issues result in nasty disputes.
When you consider that 1 in 11 boundary disputes end up in the courtroom, it’s hard to see who the winner is when costs associated with the dispute can significantly outweigh the value of the land being disputed.
Protection for Property Owners
Title insurance is an option to protect property owners against the true or superior title owner coming forward and challenging occupation and use of land. This is true even if a claim is unfounded or lacks any real evidence.
It’s also an alternative to rectifying the matter with the true owner (if known) or registering with the Land Registry. The latter may not always be advisable if unable to meet the necessary criteria in successfully obtaining possessory title or to avoid the Land Registry notifying a potential owner. It can often make obtaining insurance more complicated and sometimes impossible.
However, at Thomas Carroll, we work with underwriters who are willing to consider allowing formalisation of the position at the Land Registry subject to the merits of the risks.
How Title Insurance Protects a Purchaser and Lender
As standard, a title insurance indemnity policy would typically provide cover for a purchaser and their lender for the following:
- Costs in defending and/or remedying a claim (no matter how spurious), including any settlements or compensation.
- Legal and professional fees.
- Any difference in market value suffered, i.e. value of the property with the land and value without, including demolition and alteration costs if any physical building is on the land.
- Other costs that have already been incurred or contracted to incur, such as architects and surveyor fees, planning and option costs.
- Interest due under the terms of a mortgage and/or potential loss of a favourable rate.
It’s not just gardens at the crux of property disputes. We see many issues arising where part of a building falls out, with the registered title on both residential and commercial properties. It’s also an issue which can affect development sites, but also lead to a number of other title issues, such as if the land is also subject to unknown restrictive covenants or rights which are unknown (if the title to the land is unavailable).
Can We Help?
It’s always advisable to understand the potential for loss and make sure you are protected, but also consider how the issue can affect transactional deadlines (vs trying to formalise) or any intentions you may have with the property.