Basement Vaults: What Lies Beneath?

Basement Vaults: What Lies Beneath?

Published: 18 June 2013

There are many properties in central London with basement vaults under the pavement or the roadway, with no clear indication at all on who (if anyone) owns them.

We have many clients with basement flats who have happily converted their basement vault to a useful space such as a utility room, oblivious to the fact that it is not part of their leasehold flat.  This problem usually comes to light when they sell the flat and an estate agent markets the flat proudly showing the extra space.  When the buyer’s solicitor checks the title and lease however, it often turns out that the basement vaults are simply not shown.  What is worse is that they are not shown on freehold title either, so the question is, who owns them? 

A similar problem arises with many commercial properties in central London, particularly ground floor restaurants with a basement.  Historically, in these older properties, the vaults were used as coal cellars. Typically, old basements, cellars and vaults were not designed for modern living and can be riddled with rising and penetrating damp, sometimes even flooding.

Although converting vaults into a dry warm living area can greatly increase the value of a property, before you do this, there are a few things to think about. To own it, is to be responsible for it. Converting the space, and solving the damp problem can be costly. If you have a lease you need to consider if you want this repair responsibility, or whether the freeholder should also claim ownership as part of its building so that repair obligations are dealt with adequately.

Whether your property is freehold or leasehold, the vaults often lie under the pavement and even perhaps the public highway. A vital step is to establish who owns the area, and how you can become the owner. To establish ownership a number of things need to be looked at such as how long you have (and previous owners) used the space for, has this been continuous and "as of right?"

We often make applications for both freeholders and leaseholders to obtain ownership of basement vaults where the question of who actually owns them often remains unresolved.

If this is something that you would like to know more about, please contact Maria Guida partner in the Property and Licensing teams by email or telephone  on 0207 632 1432, for further advice.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.