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Boundary disputes

If you're not sure where the boundaries of your house or garden are, or if you've been having arguments with your neighbour about who owns what, this page can help.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries separate your house (and garden if you have one) from your neighbour's. Boundaries aren't always clear and can take many different forms. For example, you may have a fence or hedge separating your house from your neighbour's or there may be a path between you.

You might be unsure where your boundaries are or you may think that your boundary is in one place whereas your neighbour thinks it's somewhere else. You might even have equal rights with your neighbour over some areas without realising it. Just because you think you have a right to something, it doesn't mean that you actually do.

Boundaries can be defined in different ways as well and this can cause further confusion. Our section on 'physical and legal boundaries' further down this page explains more.

Things to think about

If you have been arguing with your neighbour about the boundaries of your house, try to follow these simple tips to avoid making matters worse:

  • Stay calm and try not to get angry.
  • Be reasonable. Listen to what your neighbour has to say and take it into account.
  • Compromise. You have to live next to each other so it's best to try and find a solution that suits both of you.
  • Don't do anything hasty. It's easy to get angry when something is niggling you every day and it's on your doorstep. However, doing things to spite or get back at your neighbour will only make matters worse and they'll be less likely to listen to you if you've upset them.

How can I find out what the boundaries are?

If you are a home owner

If you own your home, you should check your title deeds first of all because they should tell you where the general boundaries of your property are. For example, they will tell you if you own any garden ground and they will usually give you measurements of the area you own.

If you have older title deeds that are recorded in the General Register of Sasines, the boundaries may be described in words or by referring to a plan in an older deed (this is called a 'description by reference'). Sometimes the words can be difficult to read or in technical legal language that is difficult to understand.

If you bought your house quite recently, or if it is a new property, it's more likely that it will be registered in the Land Register. This means that there will be a Land Certificate showing your property. All Land Certificates incorporate plans and should show the boundaries to your property clearly. If there are any joint or shared boundaries, these may also be shown on the plan and described clearly in the accompanying certificate.

If you don't know which system your deeds are registered under, you can contact Registers of Scotland who should be able to point you in the right direction.

If you have copies of your deeds but are still not sure what your boundaries are, take them to a solicitor who will be able to tell you what's what. Remember that solicitors are entitled to charge for their services so ask for an estimate of costs before any work is done on your behalf.

If you're a tenant

If you are a tenant and you have a written tenancy agreement, it may state where the boundaries of the property you're renting lie. Your boundaries may be described in words, including any other building you are allowed to use, such as a garage or shed (for example, 'ground floor flat with garden ground to the rear').

If you are renting your home and a separate plot of land (such as an allotment or a shed or garage), the tenancy agreement should clearly state this.

Some tenancy agreements will have a plan attached to them as well and boundaries should be marked on any plans.

If you don't have a written tenancy agreement, or if it doesn't give details of the boundaries of your tenancy, ask your landlord. If your landlord can't help, or if you are still unsure, get further advice.

Boundaries of flats

If you live in a flat, you may share some walls, the roof and probably some of your garden, with your neighbours. In addition, you might have rights to some garden ground, storage cupboards, the cellar or the attic in your block. You might have these rights exclusively or along with other people living in your block. Your boundaries should be stated in your title deeds or tenancy agreement, although it can be quite difficult to work out what the legal documents mean where flats are involved.

There are specific legal rules about flats. These rules say who has rights to which parts of the block of flats and who is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of areas such as the roof and walls. You can find out more about these rules in the section on repairs in common areas.

You should make sure you know what the boundaries are and what you are responsible for before you buy or agree to rent a flat.

Physical and legal boundaries

The physical and legal boundaries of your home are sometimes different from each other and this can cause confusion.

A physical boundary is what's actually on the ground and what you can see. For example, a physical boundary could be a fence, hedge or maybe a road or pathway.

A legal boundary is what is described in your title deeds or tenancy agreement. A legal boundary could be marked, or described, on the legal documents for your house. Legal boundaries will probably be based on measurements taken from the Ordnance Survey map. Legal boundaries tell you how much land you own or what your tenancy covers (this is called the 'extent' of your property) but they don't always match the physical boundaries and this can cause a lot of confusion. It often isn't clear whether the legal boundary of your property is in the middle, or at either side of, the physical boundary.

Physical and legal boundaries can be different for several reasons, including:

  • if you, your neighbour, or your landlord builds an extension onto the existing house and this goes over the existing boundary and onto the other person's land
  • if you, your neighbour, or your landlord sells, or rents, a piece of land attached to the home to someone else (provided the person selling/renting is legally entitled to do this)
  • if you, your neighbour, or your landlord builds a fence, or grows a hedge beside, or on top of, the legal boundary.

It's important to realise that boundaries (especially physical boundaries) can change and they may not be the same now as they were when you moved in.

Hedges, fences and trees

Lots of people end up arguing with their neighbours over boundaries to their gardens. This can happen when people start planting trees or building fences near, on or over the boundaries they had before.

You may want to grow a hedge, or erect a fence, to have more privacy in your own garden but remember that your neighbour might not be so keen.

Hedges and fences

Before you go ahead and do anything, consider the following things:

  • How high will your hedge/fence be? Will block your neighbour's light or view?
  • If you want to put a fence up, does it blend in with the rest of yours, and your neighbours', gardens?
  • If you plan to grow a hedge, what kind of plant is it? How high/wide will it grow?
  • Who will be responsible for trimming the hedge or painting the fence?
  • Who will pay for the maintenance of the hedge or fence?

To avoid any problems, it's a good idea to speak to your neighbour before you do anything. That way, you might be able to reach a compromise and avoid any arguments.

Trees

If you plan to plant a tree in your garden, think about how big it could become over time. If it's likely to block out your neighbours' light at any time in the future, you should think about planting it somewhere else in your garden, or planting a different type of tree.

You must also remember that the roots of the tree could affect your neighbours' garden. If it's going to be a large tree, be considerate and plant it a reasonable distance away from your boundary so the roots don't disturb any fences that are already there.

If you decide to plant a tree, hedge, or any other large plant in your garden, make sure you trim it regularly and keep its size under control.

Extending your home

If you own your own home, and are planning to extend it, remember that you will probably need to get planning permission and a building warrant before any work starts. If you are a tenant and your landlord is planning an extension to your home, they will have to get the necessary permissions first.

The title deeds to your home may say that your neighbours must agree to any alterations you intend to make. Don't assume that your neighbours will agree. Make sure you ask them. The title deeds may say that you can't make the alterations unless your neighbours agree and you should consult your solicitor about this.

It's also important to make sure that your extension will be built within the boundaries of your property. It might sound obvious but, if your extension goes over the boundary into your neighbours' land, this could cause you all sorts of difficulties, not just with your neighbour, but also if you decide to sell your house in the future. As a worst case scenario, you might have to demolish and rebuild your extension within your own boundaries, so it's really important to make sure everything is okay before you start building.

If your extension has already been built over your boundary and you want to sell your house, you will probably have to pay for special insurance (called 'title indemnity insurance') before you can sell it to anyone. In some cases, you might be able to argue that you have established a right to the piece of land on which your extension is built (see 'using the land') but this might not be possible in every case so you shouldn't rely on it.

If you have bought a house that has already been extended over your neighbours' boundary, your solicitor should have told you about this before you agreed to finalise the purchase. Your solicitor should have checked all the legal paperwork for the house before you bought it, including where the boundaries are. Depending on the circumstances, there might be title indemnity insurance covering the area of ground on which the extension is built. If you weren't told about this before you agreed to buy the house, or if you have any queries, you should speak to your solicitor first of all. If you don't get a satisfactory answer, you can contact the Law Society of Scotland.

What is title indemnity insurance?

Title indemnity insurance is a special type of insurance that is available if the legal boundaries of a property don't match the physical boundaries or if there is a legal problem with the ownership of your property.

Title indemnity insurance usually covers you if you own your house but there is a problem with the title deeds and your neighbour, or anyone else, comes along and claims that they actually own the land (or have a right to it) and that you have no right to use or build on it.

Shop around to find the best indemnity insurance product for you. A solicitor will be able to give you further information if necessary and point you in the direction of a company that provides appropriate insurance for your situation.

Using the land

If you have been using a certain area of ground or land (whether it is attached to your house, or near it) for a long time, provided your title deeds can be interpreted as including it you might be able to argue that you have ownership of it. This legal right is called 'prescription'. However, because the Land Registration system is in force throughout Scotland, this is often hard to prove.

It's not enough that you've used the ground a couple of times (for example, for a barbeque or hanging your washing out). You must be able to show that there has been continued use of the area for a specific purpose. For example, if you always use a specific pathway to get to your house and you can't get to your front door any other way, you might be able to argue that you have a prescriptive right of access. There are complicated legal issues relating to rights arising by prescription and you should take legal advice on it.

What if the boundaries aren't clear?

If you can't find a solution, or you can't come to an agreement with your neighbour, you could try mediation to help you sort out your differences. Mediation aims to help people work out their differences peacefully. Visit the Scottish Mediation Network website to find out more.

If you still can't reach a solution, you might consider instructing a solicitor to take further action on your behalf. Your solicitor might suggest getting a surveyor to clarify the boundaries. However, these professionals are entitled to charge fees for their expertise and advice. This could be very expensive so remember to ask for a quote before getting any work done. Don't assume that your neighbour will pay for any of the costs involved - find out if they are willing to contribute before you get any work done.

Scotland map Housing laws differ between Scotland and England.
This content applies to Scotland only.
Get advice if you're England

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