House & Home

If you're buying a property you want to alter or extend and this is dependent on getting permission, you could be in for a nasty surprise, says Julia
If you're buying a property you want to alter or extend and this is dependent on getting permission, you could be in for a nasty surprise, says Julia

If you’re buying a property you want to alter or extend and this is dependent on getting permission, you could be in for a nasty surprise

Last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government changed the law (for three years) to make it easier to build extensions.

Permitted development rights (where planning permission isn’t required) for single-storey rear extensions have increased from 3m to 6m for attached houses and from 4m to 8m for detached ones (some houses are exempt).

Sounds good? Well, yes and no. Because unlike normal permitted development, the neighbour on either side, and at the back, is given the chance to object.

If they do, the local council will decide if work can go ahead, but, it seems, councils aren’t necessarily as keen on new extensions as the Government.

We recently applied to do a 4.5m extension under these rules.

A few weeks ago, our local authority wrote to confirm that no-one had objected so we could proceed.

But then the next week they decided that our adjoining neighbour had, in fact, objected and they were upholding his objection, so permission was suddenly refused.

As our adjoining neighbour has a road on the other side of him, his unextended house can’t be trapped in a dark ‘tunnel’ between two extensions.

And as our gardens are more than 20m long, a 4.5m extension wouldn’t affect much of his garden.

However, the council says we can only extend by 3m because he doesn’t have an extension, with perhaps 4m on the other side, where that neighbour has extended by 4m.

A decision like this can throw your plans into disarray and saddle you with a compromised layout.

We bought this house after being forced out of our previous home, a flat, by neighbours from hell.

One of the reasons we bought the flat was to convert the large cellar, as others in the street have done.

After we’d secured planning permission (second time around) and were several months into the project, the owners of the other flat in the building, Janice and Ken (not their real names), decided to stop us.

Their party wall surveyor – who we had to pay for – claimed that Janice and Ken, who own the freehold to the house jointly with us, also own half the soil under it and wouldn’t allow us to dig down to increase the cellar’s height.

Janice and Ken later told us that they wouldn’t accept any sum of money for their 30cm or so of soil – they only wanted to stop us adding value to our home in case we sold it.

Not wanting a court battle, we abandoned the cellar conversion in favour of just rejigging the flat’s layout, but Janice and Ken have been fighting us over this for almost a year.

Although the law is firmly on our side, these poisonous people and their slippery solicitor – who, again, we have to pay for – have got away with flouting it.

Ownership of the soil under the house was a grey area, although it usually belongs to the freeholder/s.

Often you can get space you don’t own valued by a surveyor and then pay the freeholder/s for it.

This commonly happens with lofts – the owner of the (leasehold) top-floor flat may want to convert the loft but finds that it’s owned by the freeholder.

Altering our flat’s layout is different, as we’re not increasing the size of it.

Because our flat is leasehold, we need the permission of the freeholder – us, Janice and Ken – to alter it, because this is what the lease says.

The lease also says, as most do, that permission can’t be unreasonably withheld. T

he issue of what’s reasonable is crucial. Normally, agreeing a licence to alter (a legal document granting permission) would take a month or two – the courts view more than about five months as unreasonable.

However, Janice and Ken took months just to get a solicitor, who then played stalling games for them.

I’ve heard of freeholders refusing leaseholders permission to make alterations, or asking money to grant permission, but not co-freeholders.

I’ve also made offers on flats for sale on condition that the freeholder approves my planned alterations. When the freeholder proved difficult, I had to pull out.

If you’re buying a leasehold property, you’re unlikely to come across people as unreasonable and spiteful as Janice and Ken, but if there are two flats in the building and the freehold is split jointly between them, I’d avoid it like the plague!

Next week: more about getting permission.