What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

In a perfect world, every property owner could be left to their own devices. They could build what they want, when they want, so long as it stayed on their own land. Sadly though, we live in a world with people who would quite happily turn their quiet, suburban properties into a collection of Soviet-era housing complexes if they had the chance. The municipal attempts to regulate such constructions have resulted in a lot of red tapes and many South Africans may be wondering, what can I build anyway? What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

Most regulations are set out by the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act and are enforced fairly similarly around the country. Before we go into any real detail it should be noted that each municipality has different bylaws which govern the finer details regarding construction and planning.

Areas like Cape Town, for example, are known for having particularly strict rules with regard to the materials used in border wall construction and where such walls may be placed.

 What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?
What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

When do I Need Building Plans?

Any project that is considered a “Minor Building Work” will not require building plans (regulations imposed by local authorities may differ slightly). This definition covers many smaller constructions including, but not limited to –

  • Chicken coops that are under 10 square metres in size.
  • Tool sheds that are under 10 square metres in size.
  • Children’s playhouses under 5 square metres in size.
  • Greenhouses under 15 square metres in size.

It is very important to note, however, that this minor building works still require permission from your local authority’s building control officer. In situations where the law is not clear, this officer will generally decide whether or not you require plans.

Do you Need Plans for a Boundary Wall?

As long as your boundary wall is less than 1.8 metres high, it is considered to be Minor Building Work and thus, plans are not required. Keep in mind though, you will still need to get permission from your local building authority before you begin.

Do I Need my Neighbour’s Permission to Build a Wall?

So long as the wall is built on your property, you will not need to receive permission from your neighbour, but remember, the foundation of the wall (which will be wider and longer than the wall itself) also needs to be on your property.

 What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?
What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

Commonly, neighbours create a written agreement when building a boundary wall which identifies things like – where the wall will be built, how tall it will be and what it will be made of, etc. If you do not receive permission from your neighbour and your wall is erected past the boundary of the property, you may be ‘encroaching’ on your neighbour’s property which could have legal repercussions.

How Far Away from a Boundary Wall can you Build?

Different properties have different building lines and regulations. The distance from your boundary wall at which you can build can depend on anything ranging from the location of your property to its overall shape. It’s vital that you check with your local authority before making any building plans.

What does the Law say about Encroachment?

When a structure is built over the boundary line without permission, this is referred to as encroachment and is illegal. This definition includes instances in which the structure is built on one person’s property but a balcony or roof overhangs the neighbour’s property. In some instances, courts may order such structures to be moved or demolished, however, it is more common for the courts to placate the aggrieved neighbour with a monetary award instead.

There is not a set time in which you have to make a formal complaint with regard to your neighbour’s encroachment, however, if you are aware of it and do not make any objections for a long period of time, the courts may take this as a kind of tacit condonation.

Can my Neighbours Block my View?What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

What happens if your neighbour builds a structure on their property which effectively cuts off your scenic view, can anything be done? Well, such disputes are judged on a case-by-case basis and courts have to keep in mind that both parties have certain rights with regard to the ownership and enjoyment of their respective properties. That said, plans which could threaten such a view have been successfully challenged in the past and demolition has been ordered even after the building has been erected.

What are the Rules on Boundary Walls?

 What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?
What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

As noted, different municipalities have different bylaws governing the various aspects of boundary walls and their construction and readers are encouraged to check with their local building authorities before making any major changes. That said, most regulations throughout the country look something like this –

  • Solid street boundary walls may not exceed 1.8 metres.
  • Solid lateral boundary walls may not exceed 2.1 metres.
  • Palisade fencing on either the street or lateral boundaries may not exceed 2.1 metres.
  • Fences on street boundaries may not exceed 2.1 metres

Again, homeowners should be aware that many areas will also place restrictions on what kinds of materials your boundary walls may be built out of, as well as, the extent to which they can be seen through.

Who Owns the Boundary Wall?What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

Unless it can be definitively proven that the boundary wall resides wholly on one person’s property, ownership is generally assumed to be shared by both neighbours. Even if only one neighbour built the wall, if it is built over both properties, the ownership is usually split. This means that neither neighbour can make any major changes to the wall without the other’s permission. Simply put, both neighbours must agree before the wall is demolished, moved, raised, lowered, etc.

When a wall under shared ownership is damaged in some way, both neighbours are expected to contribute to the repairs/maintenance. If, however, one neighbour wishes to ‘upgrade’ the boundary wall with a new, more expensive construction, the other neighbour is not obligated to contribute to this endeavour.

Can I Cut My Neighbour’s Tree Branches?What is the Law on Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

Overhanging branches can cause a major headache for property owners. Their leaves can clutter the pool, their shade can cover the garden and they can even badly damage structures when they fall. For these reasons, most judges deem overhanging branches as ‘nuisances’ as they can negatively impact a person’s enjoyment of their property and thus, certain legal remedies do exist to curtail their growth.

When dealing with such nuisances, property owners are first encouraged to try and talk the problem out with their neighbours. A polite request to your neighbours to trim their own trees can go a long way and may fix the problem without too much hassle. If your neighbours do not remedy the issue themselves after a reasonable amount of time has passed from your request, you may cut the branches yourself but there are a few things to remember in such scenarios.

  • You should only cut the branches back to the boundary line. Do not go overboard. Hopping onto your neighbour’s property, wild-eyed, while clutching a pair of shears is never a good look. Trust me on this one.
  • You may not keep the cuttings unless your neighbour refuses to take them.
  • If your neighbour refuses to take them you can dispose of them and you may be able to claim for the removal costs from your neighbour.

In Conclusion – What does the Law say about Boundary Walls and Building Projects?

One of the major distinctions to make when erecting a structure on your property is whether or not it is considered to be a ‘minor building work’. Structures that fall under this definition usually do not require building plans but will still require permission from the local authority’s building control officer.

Boundary walls under 1.8 metres tall are included in this definition and thus, do not require building plans. Additionally, if they are built entirely on your property, you will not need to receive permission to build from your neighbour. That said, most boundary walls are built along the boundary lines of a property and are thus considered to be co-owned by both neighbours. Such walls may not be unilaterally altered by either neighbour unless they receive the other’s permission.

Various regulations with regard to boundary walls and other constructions are endemic to the properties and locations in which they are built. The size and location of the property may influence how near to the boundary lines the owners may build while certain municipalities and local authorities have certain rules with regard to the materials that may be used when building boundary walls and the overall size of the constructions.

If your neighbour’s tree branches are hanging over your property, you may ask your neighbour to remove them. If, after a reasonable amount of time, your neighbour has not done so, you may cut the offending branches yourself and, if your neighbour does not wish to keep the trimmings, you may dispose of them yourself.

Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although our posts cite the constitution in many instances, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.

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4 Responses

  1. Doreen Kekana says:

    Thank you for the explanation. When occupying my property, I was shown a pin that shows a boundary. Due to crime rate, I decided to build a wall for my safety. My neighbor then appointed a surveyor who said that the wall is in my neighbor’s property.
    I don’t mind him owning the wall and I feel that I cannot demolish sometthing that is not in mh properly. He must go ahead and demolish it if he do wishes. Am wrong?

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