Know the Law when Making Home Improvements.jpg

Exactly what the law represents tends to be a matter of perspective. Some see it as a set of clear cut rules for everyone to follow, while others view it more as an inconvenience; surely, as long as nobody is really getting hurt, it must be safe to bend the law every now and then, right?

What you might not realise is that when it comes to property law, there are regulations in place for pretty much everything. If a property is changing hands, if a homeowner is organising a major home improvement project or if a trade professional wants to take on the work of a specialist, there are strictly defined rules that will need to be followed to the letter.

Naturally there will always be people who try to get around the law, either by exploiting loopholes or by hoping that their schemes will fly under the radar. Once the courts catch up with them, however, their excuses and savvy reasoning count for nothing, and in some cases the consequences were nothing less than dire!

The farmer who thought he could camouflage a castle

As anyone who has ever tried to build their own property will tell you, it can be a nightmare to get around planning laws. Robert Fidler, a farmer from Surrey, wanted to build his dream house without having to worry about any red tape. This would be nigh impossible, especially considering the fact that the land he owned was on a protected green belt.

His solution was to take advantage of a law which says that if no objections are made to a property for four years, no enforcement action can be taken against it. How did he avoid enforcement action? By hiding his dream home behind dozens of hay bales!

His mock Tudor-castle home was built around two grain silos. It was certainly a passion project, with carved wooden pillars, weathered brick and stone work and even cannons and battlements.

Fidler castle

It was estimated that on the open market Mr Fidler’s secret castle could easily have fetched over £1m. He moved his family into the building in 2002, before revealing it to the world four years later. During that time he did as much as he could to keep it hidden, even keeping his son home from playschool on a day when he was scheduled to make a drawing of where he lived.

As you might expect, things didn't quite go according to plan. Reigate and Banstead Council ruled that the four year period was null and void as nobody had actually been able to see the property, let alone make any kind of objection.

It also seems that turnabout is fair play as far as loopholes are concerned. After appealing an order for his home to be torn down, Mr Fidler was told by the Planning Inspectorate that the building had not been ‘substantially complete’ for the required four years, as the hay and tarpaulin used to conceal it proved that it was, technically, an ongoing project.

The lesson: Never invest £50k in a project that does not have legal approval! If you are looking for land for a new build property, take your time and seek help from a local estate agent.

Picture credit: Reigate & Banstead Borough Council

The plumber who performed boiler work without a licence

Something that a lot of people fail to realise about trade professionals is just how dangerous their jobs can be. If a scaffolder makes a mistake he could end up endangering an entire building site, just as a lazy electrician could cause a house to burn down. 

Because of this, certain trades are strictly regulated. A plumber was reminded of this the hard way when he was caught taking on gas work despite not being on the Gas Safe Register.

When it comes to gas in the home, there is a great deal that can go wrong. Faulty work could lead to deadly carbon monoxide poisoning, or even a gas explosion. As such, all trade professionals and businesses that work on boilers, cookers, fires or any other gas appliances must be on the Gas Safe Register, proving that they can perform the work safely.

adobe plumber boiler heating

Following several customer complaints, 32 year old Gareth Scott Redford was found to have performed unsafe gas work on a number of properties in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Not only was he not on the Gas Safe Register, but his work was found to have put his customers in serious danger.

So, was Gareth let off with a slap on the wrist? Not quite: after pleading guilty to 14 breaches of gas safety law, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison!

While he certainly got what he deserved, his customers could have seen through him if they had just asked for his Gas Safe ID. 

The lesson: When you need to hire a Pro, take a few minutes to find out what qualifications they require. Also, if you ever need gas work done, always make sure that your Pro is on the Gas Safe Register.

The auctioneer fined £125,000 for felling a tree

It is always unfortunate when home improvement plans are stymied by a neighbouring property. Your neighbour might think that your extension is unseemly, or they might complain that your building work is keeping them awake at night. 

Auctioneer Neil Davey, from Dorset, had a particular problem with a tree in his next door neighbour’s garden. As beautiful as the 55 year old tree was, it blocked the view from Mr Davey’s hot tub. Unfortunately for him, not only was the tree outside of his land, it was also a protected maritime pine. In other words, simply having it chopped down was out of the question.

Or so you would think.

In order to give his property uninterrupted views of the beautiful Poole harbour, Mr Davey arranged for a tree surgeon to chop the offending pine down while he was on holiday. His neighbour Steve Bransgrove was awoken in the early hours of the morning by the sounds of a revving chainsaw and ran outside to find that the tree had been felled.

Adobe tree surgeon gardener

It was estimated that the now uninterrupted view added £50,000 in value to Mr Davey’s already high end home. Unfortunately for him, things did not end there: he was ordered to pay £75,000 for destroying a protected tree, along with an extra £50,000 in light of the value added to his property. 

His tree surgeon, Thomas McGuire, was also fined £5,515.

Poole’s county planning officer said: “The fine, financial penalty and costs are a clear message to anyone contemplating such an act that the overall cost and reputational damage outweigh any gain, whether it is for a view or a planning advantage.”

Oh, and a new tree was planted in exactly the exact same spot!

The lesson: Never make any kind of alteration to a neighbour’s property unless you have their express permission. This also applies to any alterations which could impact a shared party wall.

The pensioner who sold a property with Japanese Knotweed

When most people hear the term ‘pest’, they are more likely to think of rodents or insects than pretty flowers. In fact, there are a number of aggressively invasive ‘pest plant’ species in the UK that will not only ruin a garden but can also seriously damage the structural integrity of a property.

Japanese Knotweed is one such species. It is often described as one of the most aggressive and resilient pests in the UK, capable of damaging roads, buildings and even concrete foundations. Even worse, the plant’s tough roots make it almost impossible to kill once it is fully grown.

Adam and Eleanor Smith bought their home from 74 year old Rosemary Line in 2002. What they did not know was that Japanese Knotweed was growing on the land next door, which Rosemary retained. Years later the couple launched legal action against the pensioner, claiming that the spread of the plant had reduced the value of their property by £50,000! 

Google gardener knotweed

Speaking in her defence, Ms Line said: "Over the past 15 years, I have sprayed the Japanese knotweed with herbicide, utilised the services of the council, cut and burned the weed and now entered into a contract with (Cornwall Council contractor) Cormac Ltd to complete an annual knotweed maintenance programme.”

She also claimed that the Smiths had no intention of selling their land, though the invasive weed was also growing up through their driveway.

While it is not illegal to have Japanese Knotweed on your property, allowing it to spread into the wild or carelessly disposing of cuttings can result in five years imprisonment and a £2,000 fine. Even a single stem left in the soil can grow into a mature plant. 

The lesson: As soon as you spot Japanese Knotweed on your property you should call a specialist to have it removed and disposed of. If you allow it to spread, either onto a neighbour’s land or into the wild, you could face serious financial consequences.

The landlord who charged £1,000 a month to live in a death trap

In the current property market it is easier than ever for a tenant who does not know their rights to fall victim to an uncaring or even criminally negligent landlord. 

It goes without saying of course that landlords are subject to some pretty stringent laws on the upkeep of their properties; even so, cases continue to appear in the news of buildings left in deplorable condition, with renters having nowhere to turn to for help.

This was what led to the appearance of one Jeffrey Hu at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. He was trialled alongside Bewel Property Ltd for renting out two properties which were in such a poor condition that they endangered the lives of the tenants living there.

One of the appalling properties was found to have exposed electric cables joined together with tape. Investigators also found a rotting balcony guard, the only thing protecting tenants from a 16ft drop. Perhaps most shocking of all, tenants at this property were being charged £1,000 a month in rent!

Westminster landlord

Following an investigation into both properties, Bewel was fined £200,000. Mr Hu received an individual charge of £5,000 for the exposed cables and rotted balcony. To add more salt to the wound, he was also charged £2,000 for failing to submit gas certificates.

“This property was in a pretty dreadful state, I wouldn’t stay there and I doubt you would,” said District Judge Roscoe. “You were the sole director at the time and when there were previous convictions against the company.

“These are very serious and the excuses that have been given and the explanation is not satisfactory. You were endangering other people’s lives by having conditions that weren’t satisfactory.”

The lesson: As a landlord, you must ensure that your rented properties are in a safe and habitable condition. If necessary you can always hire a property management service to see to this on your behalf.

Westminster landlord

Pictures credit: Westminster Council