Why is my neighbour’s Party Wall Surveyor fee higher than mine?

Surveyor fees vary greatly, with the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor usually charging more than the Building Owner’s. Before delving into why this occurs, ensure that the ‘Agreed Surveyor’ route has been exhausted and that you are not paying two sets of Surveyor’s fees. The poor uptake of the ‘Agreed Surveyor’ route is one of the most serious shortcomings of the Party Wall Act’s implementation, and the status quo benefits Party Wall Surveyors, who would collectively receive more if the public pays for the two-Surveyor route. Surveyors should be required to deliver the Agreed Surveyor route, or at the very least make their respective appointing owners aware that there is a less expensive option for resolving disputes.

If the Agreed Surveyor route is not appropriate, the Party Wall Award must be served by two Surveyors. The Building Owner’s Surveyor is often less expensive than the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor, and this article discusses some of the reasons why.

The rivalry

I recently served an Award with a well-known Surveying firm that paid £1,600 plus VAT as the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor for a loft build. It took about 6 weeks to complete the procedure. Their invoice included a follow-up inspection, but when harm was claimed, they decided to charge an extra £600 plus VAT for the site visit. Fortunately for the Building Owner, I reminded both parties that the additional site visit was included in the Award, but the argument I’m making is that the price for one site visit was £600 plus VAT. A few weeks later, a prospective appointing owner contacted me to say they were comparing rates for a loft conversion and that the same firm had quoted them £675 plus VAT to serve as the Building Owner’s Surveyor. They mentioned that the turnaround time will be 48 hours. Their responsibilities may have included the following:

1. Providing a note

2. Attending the site and carrying out a condition routine

3. The terms of the Award are being agreed upon.

4. Doing a follow-up inspection

When compared to another, the organisation provides significantly more value to one person, but this inconsistency goes largely unnoticed.

The price difference is not known to the general public, but it was obvious to me because I work in the business and know what different companies charge. When you are a competing Surveyor, it can be more difficult to obtain specifics of a Building Owner’s Surveyor’s fees, and the public is sometimes unaware of fee discrepancies within the same business. The general public, on the other hand, is much more conscious of fee disparities between firms, but this may be a deceptive misconception, as in the case above, where one customer perceives them to be of excellent value while another perceives them to be a rip-off. Both are right.

Owing to the competition, building owner surveyor fees are often lower. To put it bluntly, prospective customers should shop around, and many businesses will fight for their business. There are several ways to reduce fees, ranging from accepting technology to reducing work profit margins. However, since businesses can rely on high demand, a low price can often simply mean poor service, and as many people are aware, there is a trade-off between price vs quality vs time. Many people seeking to appoint a Surveyor, especially a Building Owner footing the bill, will choose the cheapest Surveyor who will fulfil the Award as soon as possible. The Adjoining Owner, on the other hand, simply wants a Surveyor who can protect their interests and ensure that their neighbour’s construction is done in a way that minimises inconvenience. This may lead to conflict between Surveyors, with the cheaper and faster Surveyor blaming the more detailed Surveyor for any delays.

The Surveyor for the Adjoining Owner does not compete on price. They will charge extra, although this does not always correspond to the amount of time spent. I had Adjoining Owner’s Surveyors charge me a flat fee of £1,000 plus VAT for no comments on an Award.

There is a sense of entitlement to money, but there is little excuse for acts. A charge must be’fair,’ but determining what is reasonable can be challenging when so many people have different ideas about what this is. The Third Surveyor will adjudicate on fees, but experienced Surveyors know how to get away with charging inflated fees, and barring any apparent cases of unreasonable fees, the status quo of high fees continues. In certain cases, the higher a Surveyor’s fees are, the easier it is to get a Third Surveyor referral.

Given that the fee charged by the Building Owner’s Surveyor is often artificially low, the fee charged by the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor would appear to be artificially high. A surveyor competing on price should inform his appointing owner of his low fee. This will reduce pressure in the future and enable you to better manage expectations. A Surveyor vying for business would almost certainly set a fixed rate, while an Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor would almost certainly charge by the hour. This brings us to the next point: the tension between party-appointed Surveyors pursuing opposing agendas.

Price and timeliness vs. quality

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll go over it again. The Building Owner’s Surveyor would frequently charge less and guarantee a fast and simple resolution. There is a lot of pressure to produce Party Wall Awards competitively, which means easily and cheaply in the eyes of the public. This can come at the cost of consistency, which is often the primary goal of the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor.

Measuring quality can be challenging because awards are constantly appealed, and to be honest, many will contain errors – there seems to be no connection between expensive and professional Surveyors, and quality. Case law often includes errors made by some of the industry’s most prominent surveyors, who charge large fees and are highly regarded (see Property Supply and Development Ltd v Verity). The same can be said about professional bodies and accreditation – often a Chartered Surveyor has found themselves on the wrong side of a judgement, while the Verity case involves many high-ranking members of The Faculty of Party Wall Surveyors. All of this can literally blur the line between good practise and greed.

Many Adjoining Owner Surveyors would overcharge you. From ambulance chasers looking for a quick buck to overzealous Surveyors ‘making a three-course banquet out of what should have been a snack’ (see Dust v Marioni Greenaway and MacNulty), there is reasonable scepticism if an Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor’s fee is higher than the Building Owner’s.

However, there are occasions when the high fee is absolutely justified. The low-cost Building Owner’s Surveyor simply sends over a slew of drawings and an RICS template Award, and it’s up to the Adjoining Owner’s Surveyor to manage things. Reasonable requests for information can be denied, ignored, or criticised because they contradict the Building Owner’s goals of coping with issues quickly and cheaply. Few Surveyors complain to their appointing owner that a lack of information will result in higher fees. Few Building Owners are warned about the consequences of reacting half-heartedly to requests for information such as section drawings and process statements. The tension created by the conflict of these goals is highly adversarial, and it is the source of fee conflicts at the end of the process. This may result in bad behaviour all over, with Adjoining Owner’s Surveyors unfairly delaying the signing of an Award before payment is received.