The evolution of party wall surveying with Nicky Major

The evolution of party wall surveying with Nicky Major

Nicky Major, our first female guest, tells us how she became a Fellow of RICS, how party wall surveying has changed over the past five years and how consistency is key to building a party wall practice.

You can also watch this interview on YouTube.


Philippe: Welcome to another episode of Party Wall PRO the podcast. I’m very excited to have Nicky Major with me, my first female guest. Very exciting. And, so yeah, Nicky Major, one of the equity partners at Scott Davidson who started her career 20 years ago in Dorset, before coming up to London about, what, 12 years ago? Nicky’s practice focuses on high-end residential and was recently elected as a fellow of the RICS. So how does that feel?

Nicky: It feels great. It feels really good. I mean as you have alluded to there are not many female building surveyors which is my profession as well as a party wall surveyor, and there aren’t as many female surveyors out there and to be elected as a fellow, for me, personally I feel tremendous. It’s fantastic. And it’s a lot of hard work and… but I’m glad I did it. And not only just to feel good in myself but to show a lot of male surveyors out there that actually women can do it. So, I’m quite chuffed with myself.

Philippe: When you say hard work, how, what do you actually need, sorry… my ignorance, but what do you need to do to in order to be elected as a fellow?

Nicky: They recently changed application beginning of last year, so I was on the cusp of the new type but generally what you have to do is you have to prove, I think it’s 5 subjects out of (they give you list) of 20. And so you pick your 5. And obviously I specialize in residential high-end party wall matters and I also run my own practice, so I can pick the 5 subject matters. So what you have to do you have to write an… only 800 words about particular subject matter and… which is quite difficult when you got to squeeze every pertinent issue in there. And then you have to get a client or a colleague to say yes, that’s true and she’s not lying and I can verify that. So that’s what you have to do. It’s quite difficult because of course you have to find people who can verify that and choose them wisely so I chose couple of fellows and that’s what we have to do. It sounds easy but it’s not. It’s quite difficult.

Philippe: Well, congratulations!

Nicky: Thank you very much. Thank you

Philippe: One of the few women in the industry

Nicky: Yes

Philippe: How did you decide to become a surveyor? How did you end up going into that line of work?

Nicky: Well, it wasn’t a decision, actually. It was so, very briefly I did a very random selection of A Levels, as you do. I didn’t have any clue as to what I wanted to do at school. We didn’t really have great advice so I did random set of A Levels and I had no idea what to do. Rather than go do a 4-year degree in something I didn’t really know what I wanted to do I thought I’d stay home and do a little HND and as part of that I had to do work experience of whatever subject that I chose and was literally a case of opening a prospectus of a polytechnic as they work back then. Finger in the air “I’ll do that course” and I happened to fall on building studies. As part of that, like I said, I had to do work experience and a friend of a friend of a friend worked in a surveying practice and said come do some work experience with me. So I did. It happened at the right place at right time. The assistant building surveyor at the time had left. I was thoroughly enjoying my work experience and they offered me a position on the basis I did my building surveying degree by web distance learning. And thereafter become chartered so that’s what I did. I mean back then, building surveying was not that common so only a few polytechnics did the course and living in Bournemouth, the nearest polytechnic believe it or not was London. So I didn’t actually want to commute daily to London. Oh, it wouldn’t be daily sorry, it would have twice a week. And, so I did the distance learning course which meant that you had to hold down a full time job and then do about 20 hours a week study.

Philippe: Alright.

Nicky: So there we go. So that’s random set of events that led me to building surveying.

Philippe: And so you started doing more commercial work and then switched to residential.

Nicky: Yeah, so what I did probably 70% commercial, 30% residential back when I was training. And let’s be honest, residential houses in Bournemouth are not very interesting. And so I’m a commercially trained surveyor with a residential bias back then. Then I decided to move to London, bright lights and all of that excitement. And an opportunity arose and I took the plunge, went to London and fell in love with obviously the London architecture. That’s when I immersed myself in residential surveying, so yes commercial trained I know, but now I know a lot about high-end residential in and around London.

Philippe: So is it a choice people have to make from the start, residential vs. commercial. Is there’s… is there’s a skill set that is different?

Nicky: I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t think you need to make that choice. When you start your degree obviously you learn everything. But there is a vocational part of your degree that you ought to immerse yourself but I don’t think back then you needed to make a decision. And for me it just happened to be going with the flow if you like. So, so the multi-disciplinary practice meant that I learnt bit of everything and it did just happened that they are more commercial. I suppose today, the surveying of residential and commercial are completely different especially from a construction point of view. So, yes you then… I supposed towards the beginning to middle of your career you need to make a decision, whether you’re going to choose – commercial or residential. Some surveyors do both with the help of software for party wall surveyors. Some surveyors do a bit of everything and which is great. And building surveyors you can tell your hands to a lot of different disciplines. It just so happens I happened to now be a residential surveyor but there’s no reason why I can’t go back to do commercial. Or even… I mean, sometimes I do a bit of commercial surveying. Now, I do some dilapidations, I do some offices in the West End. So I don’t think it’s a decision you make, I think it’s a case that you have to learn not on the jobs as the wrong word but evolve with the jobs that you take on.

Philippe: So you came to London and an opportunity arose as you said and your first client do you remember?

Nicky: In London?

Philippe: Yeah

Nicky: Yeah, it was… it was a mad little lady and she had… she had a damp problem. And I was literally day one. Day one, I was taken to this property with one of my colleagues. He took me to the property and said “right this is the client and she’s got a basement that is very very damp. I’ll see you later, goodbye.” We had to deal with the Party Wall issues, chemically injecting a damp proof course, sourcing quotes, getting damp specialists in and dealing with the little mad lady… So, that was my very first client. And then I had some funny party wall surveyors on the other side who thought “oh, there’s a little girl! We don’t like women. We’ll make her life hell.” but it was a quick learning curve. Bearing in mind I came from as an associate director in my previous job I did have a lot of practice in dealing with difficult people, so it wasn’t so bad. But yeah, little mad old lady, in Pimlico as it happens.

Philippe: So you joined Scott Davidson from a… another firm where you were an associate director already?

Nicky: Yes, yes.

Philippe: Meaning you already had a practice that you then brought to Scott Davidson? How does that work?

Nicky: No. What happened was previous to Scott Davidson, I was with what I called the big boys, so large commercial multi-disciplinary practices. And I was with a briefly a big firm in the west end, though when I joined them it was more of a stepping stone to be honest. And previous to that I was with a large practice making my way up the rank so you know from an assistant surveyor to building surveyor to senior surveyor then Associate Director. But I found moving from Dorset area into London you have to take a bit of a… a drop in your position to get in London until they… if they like trust you, prove your worth. And make it up the ranks, so yes I joined having been in fairly senior positions before in the commercial practice.

Philippe: And so what is interesting. So the kind of the big boys vs high street firms . What’s the.. if you would recommend a newbie to follow a certain path what would you say?

Nicky: Ah, so a newbie having… let’s say the newbie having just become chartered, I would say join a big boys because they will give you the broad experience that you need to… as your foundation. The big boys will do every single discipline that a building surveyor will do from… landlord and tenant issues, dilapidations, construction, design, build specifications and party walls, rights of light and boundaries, they’ll do everything. So as a newbie recently graduated and recently chartered, I would say join the big boys. Get that experience under your belt. Yes it’s going to be hard work. Yes, it’s going to be daunting. Yes, you’re going to be scared but it will… it did me good because you get thrown into the deep end because you don’t half learn quickly and even for someone who’s recently graduated doing their APC, which is a two-year assessment you have to do to become chartered. I’d always say join the big boys. They can give you full depth of experience every time. Only when you know… you got 5, 6, 7 years post qualification, education PQE, then… then you can think right to make money what can I do let’s be honest, it’s all about making some money and enjoying your job. And then… then you can start thinking about niche practices but always as a new graduate even as a new chartered surveyor, join a big boys definitely.

Philippe: Okay. Makes sense. Good advice. So, jumping back to you what we are saying before so you joined Scott Davidson. You started your practice then from a scratch in Scott Davidson

Nicky: I joined Scott Davidsons and Scott Davidson had… it was up and running in the 80s. So they started their practice in the 80s. And I joined Nick Scott. The “Scott” in Scott Davidson. Mr. Davidson wasn’t around, he left and I also joined Mike. Mike had been there for 15 years at that time. So, I joined a small medium practice that had a good reputation so I was very lucky and to join this practice. And… and you know, they said, come join us on the basis that, you know, if you do well, you know, there’s a future for you here. In other words, you… you will become a partner eventually. It was very daunting I have to say because they made it clear that while we are a very good practicing a very good reputation, we are expecting you to either A. bring clients with you or B. generate your own clients. And… and having never done that before obviously with the big boys you simply get given the work that you do or not. And to generate your own business, clients, customers, very daunting, especially having been told you’ve got to get out there and network and that was horrendous. And I still find it horrendous. I don’t mind working but I have to do it if you want to get business, it is as simple as that. So yeah, so when I joined Scott Davidson it was like completely different. Completely different.

Philippe: That’s very interesting. Where did you start when you were told okay you have to bring in some clients. What’s the first thing you did?

Nicky: Got a coffee. No, joking. So, I mean I was given some clients obviously. I got the jobs that nobody else wanted. Let’s be honest you know. Here is the mad woman in Pimlico for example, nobody wants her. “And you can deal with her.” But you make the most of what you have given. And so I thought right okay what I do I will do the best I can with the clients I am given. When, for example I do a party wall job, I make sure I am uber efficient with the other party wall surveyors. I get my name out there with the other surveyors so they know who I am. And in terms of building up clients, customers, business, if for example, I go pick up the keys from an estate agent, I make sure I give a business card. I make sure I meet the estate agent in question, have a good chat with them, give some personality, and just make sure they know who I am. And so, I work with clients I am given. And then I keep in contact. Keep in contact and then eventually, bit by bit by bit they remember you. And they say I remember Nicky, she is the one that said hello, she’s the one that spoke to me and she was the efficient one. And eventually you will then pick up clients word of mouth, repeat business, recommendations. And… and that’s how I started from the bottom of the pile and just keep on at it, keep working keep working and make sure that people remember you. Phone them, email them until they say “let’s give her a referral to shut her up”.

Philippe: I have to say, I remember because we met… we met at a P&T lunch a while ago and I remember I was sitting next to you and you got this energy about you that people will remember you, so I guess it works. And, but, in terms of networking, any particular events that you have to go to start showing your face somewhere.

Nicky: Yes, there are business forums. I mean there is a forum called “Women in property” and so I started off going to those forums – women in property. And met a few people there and gave business cards. Other things, the RICS events, mainly that’s surveyor-esque so you don’t get many clients. Solicitors tend to have drinks evening and things that you get yourself invited. You must be invited you can’t just turn up. They are very good because they have builders, architect and things like that. And it’s just basically making sure that you are aware of what’s going on. Estate Agents, particularly around Christmas time, do cocktails in their offices. That kind of a thing. And also what I tend to do as well… I mean long gone is the day when you would have a long boozy lunch with clients and people unfortunately, I remember back in the day when on a Friday you wouldn’t go back to work after lunch. Unfortunately people don’t want it that way anymore. Some do but most don’t, so I find, a meeting for a light lunch, meeting for coffee and that sort of thing works. But I digress.

Philippe: It’s a long process. There’s no really a shortcut, isn’t it?

Nicky: No, no, and this is what I keep telling my colleague. He joined us couple of years ago and he’s desperate to get a good client base. I said to him I’ve been here 12 years. It’s started to happen to me a couple of years ago, that was 10 years ago and it’s a long, long hard process. And you just have to keep at it. Keep at it. Keep at it. And the minute you stop people will forget about you. Because when you stop people just forget. It’s a long, long process not a short sharp solution. There are a couple of small practices that I know who the principals are retiring and so do you want to buy the business and I say well, for it’s all about goodwill. People go to you, Mr. X, not your practice. So you can’t buy that. When you retire, yes naturally they will go elsewhere, but you can’t just buy practices and take on from where they left off. It’s doesn’t work that way.

Philippe: Yeah, you need a transition period.

Nicky: Transition period and also they have to trust you. So yeah that is a long process.

Philippe: And, so in terms of party wall work and software for party wall surveyors, how much of your practices is focusing on party wall work?

Nicky: It depends on the state of the economy to be honest.. Before things happened… most of our work, I’d probably say 65% of our business was building surveys on the residential high-end for purchases. People buying property. And the rest party wall work. Following certain events, things have changed because there aren’t many transactions happening. So we are now able to turn our attention to party wall work. Now I would say 75% of our business is party wall work at the moment. But because we are small and dynamic we are able to fluctuate between building surveys and party wall work. But that is all we do, building surveys and party wall work.

Philippe: And so party wall work, is that as a result of your existing relationships or is it a part of the business that you can focus on developing?

Nicky: Bit of both. I have a lot of good relations with a lot of architects and a lot of builders. And it’s those who mainly recommend us as party wall surveyors. They are the existing relationships and then… and then from those jobs you can now work it and for example meet the builder, if you were referred by the architect, make sure you meet the builder, who may recommend you for his next job and then so it continues. You may construct a good relationship with the surveyors for the next property. Under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996, there is a mechanism whereby surveyors can appoint you if the owners don’t appoint their own surveyor, so if you get on with another surveyor you might receive further appointments from them. So I think it’s working with what you’ve got and expanding with what you’ve got. Architects are a funny fish actually, they have their preferred surveyor and they won’t deviate unless you prove yourself. It’s always good to start from someone you know rather than going cold.

Philippe: So, if you want to start a party wall practice the best way to start is try get some architects to get you some work with or without a software for party wall surveyors.

Nicky: Absolutely, so for someone who wants to start a practice from scratch, get a friendly builder. How you get a friendly builder I have no idea but somehow you get a friendly builder. Find a friendly architect. It might even be called calling, popping up at their office, dropping by building sights. I know it’s difficult. I hate doing it but it’s the only way to start. Get on board with a builder and say to them “look give me a chance, this is what I can do for you”. Perhaps reduce your fees to begin with, and make sure you do a really good job and then they will eventually recommend you for other jobs. But, start with a friendly builder, friendly architect and hopefully you should be okay.

Philippe: That’s great practical advice. So party wall work itself, what do enjoy about it? Or what do you dislike about it?

Nicky: Party wall work, and this is no secret. All surveyors, all good surveyors know this. Party wall work has changed massively over the last 5 years or so. It used to be enjoyable, it used to be a case of…I mean going back a bit… not many people know this, I’ll explain: Party wall surveyors are… we don’t have clients. Once somebody appoints us, whether it’s the neighbour or the person who does the work. The adjoining owner or the building owner. Once they appoint us we can’t be disinstructed because we are appointed by statute. So the law appoints us. So we work for the wall, if you like. Not many people are aware of that. So we are impartial. And we can’t start arguing with other surveyor for the next door neighbour because we are meant to be the same. We are meant to be singing from the same hymn sheet. So five or so years previous, that’s exactly what surveyors used to do. We used to meet up. We used to agree what work needed to be done, did the schedule of condition. We were both very friendly, very happy. Resolved everything, produced the award and works could get started.. Nowadays, and I have an idea why but I would not say… so many surveyors think it’s them versus you. Let’s see what I can get away with. Let’s see what we can get for you Mr. client. Oh sorry you’re not my client. You are my owner. So that makes it very contentious and very confrontational. And most surveyors don’t like confrontations and that’s why we are surveyors . We like buildings and we don’t talk back. So it’s become very confrontational and very difficult especially with basements. Personally I think basements are fine so long as they’re designed correctly. But a lot of surveyors think that they’re the devil incarnate and you shouldn’t have a basement. And therefore, they want to make your life as difficult as possible. So, unfortunately paryt wall work, at the moment, is quite confrontational, very difficult and with it, fees are going up and up and up despite the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 saying that fees have to be reasonable,; it’s an enabling act; building owners are allowed to develop their land and their buildings; but still, the adjoining owners probably with advice from their party wall surveyors think that they are not allowed to develop their land. So it’s not as enjoyable as it used to be. Having said that, there’s still a lot of old school Party wall surveyors who are professional, know what they are doing. And it is those jobs that are very nice and easy and you get satisfaction. And I like it when a big stack of awards land on my desk and I can sign the awards, send them off with my fee accounts. So yes, I think that the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 needs to be updated. I mean it only came about in 1996 which took over the London Building Act, but I think it needs updating to quash a lot of this unnecessary aggression and me vs you.

Philippe: I would actually love to hear what reasons you think have started this confrontational approach? Is it just a general attitude of people? Or breed?

Nicky: Basements have always been dug for many years but I think the press covered a couple of incidents involving basements, I won’t mention a name, and the press decided to focus on basements saying it’s the worst thing ever and said “look they cause houses to collapse”. Okay one or two houses had suffered from damage that have been in the news but they are in the minority. So I think the press hasn’t helped. The other thing is that you don’t have to be qualified to be a party wall surveyor. Anyone can be a party wall surveyor. Anyone. Unlike a building surveyor where you have to be chartered. So there is no governing body governing party wall surveyors. Anyone can. And I think a lot of people have decided to become party wall surveyors and they don’t really understand the Party Wall etc. Act 1996. It’s an enabling act, you don’t have a client, you have an appointing owner…And that is it. So I think it’s a combination of: people who are new to party wall surveying don’t understand the act and I think all the hype surrounding basements. I think that’s probably a lot to do with it. To be honest. I think there ought to be a body that has to be put in place to monitor party wall surveyors that you have to be a member of. There are two clubs, dominant clubs at the moment : the Pyramus and Thisbe as you know and the Faculty of Party Wall Surveyors. If you are a good party wall surveyor you will be a member of either both or one and that’s good especially the faculty because the faculty you have to sit an interview, you have to answer questions and things like that.

Philippe: So it’s stamp of approval. So any owner who wants to appoints a party wall surveyor try to see if there is a stamp of the P&T or the FPWS on there.

Nicky: Yes, absolutely

Philippe: And so in terms of the day today, party wall work? Any tools that you use? Any software for party wall surveyors? Obviously I need to bring that up. Anything to make your life easier that you use?

Nicky: I would love a machine, if you can invent one, that will help with the schedule of condition. Software that will take the photographs, print it on the paper and have everything in order. Schedules of Condition for every party wall surveyor are dreadful. I mean they take forever to do. What you do is you usually dictate into your dictaphone. “There is a crack on the left of the window”. Take a photo. Brilliant. “There’s a crack to the right of the window”. Take a photo. Brilliant. But invariably what will happen is, when you get back to the office your secretary can’t really understand your dictation so you get all sorts of funny words. Then you look at your photos and it’s a sea of white walls with no cracks because of course a camera doesn’t really pick up a little crack on a white wall. So you are looking at your photos and you’re looking at the words and you think oh my goodness this is gonna take me weeks now to try and resolve what on earth have I done. So if you invent something for schedules of condition: put the photos, put the texts and spit it out the other end, brilliant!

Philippe: Okay, done. Who should you I interview next? Last question.

Nicky: Architects.Interview an architect. From a party wall perspective because they invariably… they have the initial contact with the person you wants to do the work. So they get to speak to the client, let’s call them a client because they are the client of the architect. And they speak with client direct. They understand the client and then it’s the architect in some situations who picks the party wall surveyor and I would be interested to know what an architect looks for in a party wall surveyor and what an architect expects from a party wall surveyor. That would be interesting.

Philippe: Good point, yeah, yeah, I like that.

Nicky: Yeah

Philippe: I’ll drop you a line to ask if you have anyone that you can introduce me to.

Nicky: I do

Philippe: I’m sure you do. Nicky, thank you so much.

Nicky: No problem

Philippe: I’m sure you do. Nicky, thank you so much.

Nicky: No problem

Philippe: It’s great great chat and I hope I see you in person again soon.

Nicky: Absolutely, alright, well thank you very much

Philippe: And yeah, speak soon

Nicky: Okay

Philippe: Bye Bye then.

Nicky’s employer: Scott Davidson Chartered Surveyors

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