One developer-client once told us, “horse racing is not the sport of kings—litigation is.” During the greatest high end real estate market in the history of our country, the ultra wealthy or the corporate kings have battled in our courts for every inch of land. Because only the wealthiest own townhouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn, these plots—built 50 feet by 50 feet—during the time of author Edith Wharton, resulted in shared walls, called party walls, supporting each townhouse. Because many kings want to expand their spaces wider and higher, the rules on party walls have been tested. This article aims at educating the practitioner on the not-so-obvious rules of the party wall.
Defining Ownership Rights
A landowner owns the land and all that is on it. Where the wall is partially on one piece of land and partially on the other, the person who owns the land under the wall, owns the piece of the wall on that land.1 However, each side has the right to maintain the part of the wall on the other party’s property and to make sure that it is usable by both sides.2 Neither one may interfere with the wall being completely available to the other owner.3 Thus, for all practical purposes, the law treats the wall as completely belonging to both neighbors. The minor support given by a party wall to a perfectly independent wall, where the independent wall is sufficient in and of itself to stand, does not qualify as use of a party wall, therefore not obliging the owner of the independent wall to pay for the upkeep of the party wall under a contract obliging such payments in the event such owner makes use of the party wall.4
Use of Party Walls
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