Three steps to becoming a great party wall surveyor, with Alistair Redler

Three steps to becoming a great party wall surveyor, with Alistair Redler

In our first episode Alistair tells us how to build a reputation and what skills are needed to be an efficient Building Owner surveyor. He also shares some tips on how to start a party wall practice and why you shouldn’t do it alone too early.

You can also watch the interview on YouTube.

Philippe: Hello everyone! Today we’ve got Alistair Redler with us from Delva Patman, Redler who is the man when it comes to party wall surveying and he has been in the business for how long now, Alistair?

Alistair: Well this from 23 years, since starting work probably about 28.

Philippe: 28? How did you?– so tell me– from the start how did you get into surveying.

Alistair: By accident, almost! I left school with lousy A levels, did 3 years doing manual labor work and a cousin of mine who’s a structural engineer and now senior partner of a large firm in the South recommended that I spend some time with him seeing what engineers did. And having decided that surveying looked more interesting than engineering, I went into it. I decided that was a good call–it was all I could do. So basically, just, it was a good lifestyle rather than a choice.

Philippe: Right, so how did you, from there, go into party wall matters? Did you start straight away with just focusing on party walls or was it just general surveying and then?

Alistair: No, ah, sort of. A colleague; and there was a couple lectures on party walls that I thought were interesting. It was interesting that there was a specialization that was relatively straightforward and at that time, very boutique applying to only in London. And I quite liked the idea of it. As I got into surveying and working, I found I liked the professional end of surveying better than construction and design. So I got into dilapidation surveys, and party walls and to a certain extent repair works rather than design works; very much my field, I am not a designer at all. So, the party wall work, and I used to get as I could from the firm I was working in. And eventually, in ’92, I thought I’d apply to a firm that was more specialist and applied to a few firms including Delva Patman and got the job. So, I wanted to be more specialist and do rights of light as well so it was a deliberate attempt to get into this field.

Alistair: Delva being extremely experienced and very very capable.

Philippe: And then, and then, from there on, how do you– how do you actually start building your own practice? Because it’s –, it’s like, with my background as a lawyer you work in a law firm with a partner that hands you the work, and without questioning it. But you don’t really have time to go in and seek your own instructions, your own clients. So how did you go from, from working for Delva into slowly getting your own client base?

Alistair: I think you do it just by working, actually. I think it’s about personality, but I think it’s about working. I have -we, we, as a practice do almost no marketing. No active marketing, no classic marketing. No cold calls, no taking people to lunch twice a week, no -you know–, no marketing budget effectively. We manage to do the job, when we do the job, we think very well; we do it our way. We do it very well. That, backed up with doing lectures and articles, and just helping people out. It’s amazing, that one of the best ways of getting a name around is for your rivals to speak well of you; in party wall world particularly. And other negotiating fields like dilapidation and so on, because if your rivals speak well of you, not only do they want to negotiate with you, because well it may not be the easiest ride, it will be a fair and honest one. But, the clients can’t also go to the same people, there’s a conflict, so you get the contacts that way as well. So basically you’re doing the job best you can.

Philippe: So that “best you can”, is that just going above and beyond what normal people would deliver and bill for?

Alistair: It’s difficult, you just got to know what you’re doing. And you’ve got to be right in knowing what you’re doing. There’s plenty of people out there, who think they know what they are doing; who are very high-opinion of themselves, and it’s not shared by their compatriots in the way that they think it should be because they are not as good as they think they are. It’s difficult to call that one, I think, actually, an honest and open approach to yourself, and dealing with colleagues well; whether they’re in your firm or outside your firm, because in party wall world people in other firms are colleagues too, and or should be treated as such. You actually learn from them, feed off them, and you learn together. An example in party walls is the amount of case law recently that clarified matters; there was a bitter dispute between party wall surveyors like right to access under Section 1, like foundation details. There were surveyors that I highly respect that were completely wrong on those points by the way the courts turned out. However, I could have been completely wrong, too, if a different judge had been hearing the case. I think that the fact that the case comes in people understand the facts in such detail, they accept judgement because they understand where it is coming from. And between us, we work together. And to say, there is very little quarreling about it either, you get on with the job. So in other words, you build your knowledge, your reputation off other people as well as doing it yourself. You have to read the books, you have to pay attention, but certainly having an opened mind is critically important. I think, especially as a younger surveyor, you need to work very well with the people around you.

Philippe: So do you remember your first client? The first person that came to you?

Alistair: Yes, in fact I did my year out, my summer year, at the Property Services Agency. It was the government property department so I didn’t have a client there, really, we had a few people we worked for. But when I graduated, my very first job was Barclays’ Bank on the highway in East London. I was sent out on my own to prepare a full specs on decoration and repair, which I would never do for a very young graduate now. So that was my first one. It kind of went alright. I still don’t know whether we needed to replace all the loose lights but it got down anyways. It looked good!

Philippe: How did you get it? Was it through the person you were working for at the time?

Alistair: I worked for a firm based in Crystal Palace, really nice firm. It suffered badly in the recession that followed. And my team leader, basically, put the associate in charge and said ‘right, here’s one for you, go and do it.’ So that was it. And he had back-up, of course, someone who read the specifications and looked at photographs so you had the back-up when you got back.

Philippe: That’s always helpful.

Alistair: Oh yeah, absolutely!

Philippe: And, so if you had to give some advice to someone who wants to get into the party wall business and such, how do you start a practice from scratch? Or how do you, for people who act mainly for adjoining owners, people who scrape the land registry portal– how do you get them to get on the other side and start acting for more building owners?

Alistair: Well the first thing I think is critical is the party wall surveyor should not be an instant specialty. It really isn’t. I think you’re a surveyor first and then a party wall surveyor second. I talk about my first one being an external repair of a building, a large commercial building. I did a few years of a lot of construction work. Not necessarily the stuff we do with party walls now; I didn’t do any household work or basement work, for example, but I did construction work, and we have a policy here where we prefer our surveyors –it doesn’t allows happen– but we prefer our young surveyors to come from a firm with a good surveying background. We find they make the best party wall surveyors because they know what they are talking about and they know the profession at a wider level. For example, they understand the client’s requirements better, they understand costs better, they’ve applied law on a wider scale than just party walls law. So the answer for people who are the ambulance chasers is there are too many out there now, who go straight into party walls thinking ‘there’s a nice easy number to do,’ as I indeed, thought when I was at college. But I think you just get the practice first. To be a good building owner surveyor, you have to know what you are doing. You’re acting for developers; you’re acting for big developers. You’re not just talking about a household building owner. You’re talking about a project team that could be 20 to 30 people around the table. You need to understand what the team wants from you. And I think the party walls surveyor’s role is to get off the critical path as fast as possible. You are not the most important person in the room; in fact, you are one of the least important people in the room. Or at least you should be one of the least important people in the room. You’ve got structural engineers who design massive structures. You need to just tell them what you need for the party wall bit of their work and get it and use it so you can move on with your party wall process. You need to understand the client’s requirements. I’ll give you an example, a surveyor could spend ages arguing over a finite bit of detail on basement or over the adjoining owner’s staircase but I’ve got a job in the West End at the moment, that while it was in the demolition phase delays were going to cost £10 million a month. You don’t want to be holding up that job because you think the other surveyor is charging an extra £1000 too much. So it’s understanding the concept of that that makes you a good building owner surveyor and the best building owner surveyors are the ones who the clients can rely upon to know what they need from them. That’s the difference. To be a know-all party wall surveyor is fine when you are actively joining owners and pleasing them; it isn’t the job when you are acting for a development where you are just one cog that has to make the development work. And I think that’s a big difference — and that’s — people who are dismissive of the specialist firms and wonder how certain names out there get those names don’t really realize how well those people –and I’m talking about main rivals of mine– how good they are at doing just that job. And how good they are at delivering and organizing and, indeed, persuading other surveyors and being reassuring to adjoining owners at the same time; it’s quite a big role. It’s an important role to build, and that’s how you build a practice. That’s why people come back to you without you marketing. And that’s how you find people who phone you up and say ‘I spoke to my lawyer and he said that I should phone you,’ which, again, is what the top firms get– a number of firms get– it is the way in which you do that. So the answer is to be –it’s not to know everything about the party wall act or to be the surveyor who finds the problem. It’s being the one who can get the answers and make it work.

Philippe: There is quite a wide skill-set, you’ve got to be able to do project management, you got to be able to make yourself small when you need to be, and dig yourself up in other circumstances. So what are the other kinds of skills that someone should develop or work on if they wanted to get their foot in the door?

Alistair: Yeah, on the technical side, there’s personality and style and there’s technical. Personality, one of the things that I would say to all those surveyors is to be relentlessly nice to everybody, literally. There’s no reason to be unpleasant to anybody. If they send you some stupid comment, reply nicely explaining why they are wrong. If you’re right, they’ll concede very quickly, for example. But to get there, in the first place, you have to be right. You have to know what you are talking about. You need to read, you need to know the books, you need to know some of the case law. But I wouldn’t get hung up on it. I think quoting case law in normal correspondence is a sign of weakness, personally. You should be able to explain why something is without ‘it’s because of “x” case’, unless you need to. Unless you’re pinning down or steering somebody towards a principle that is in one case rather than another. I think you need to know your construction. You need to look at the drawings. An example, for a building owner surveyor, is there is a big tendency to –especially those on fixed fees– to push a bundle of documents across to an adjoining owner’s surveyor and let them sort out what they want out of that bundle. That is not acceptable. A building owner’s surveyor has to know what they are seeing; they need to understand what they are seeing and they need to approve it themselves before they pass it along. And the reason they need to do that partly, is so they understand the project they are on, but they learn. They go back to the team and say ‘what is this detail’, ‘why have you done this?’ ‘is the foundation a bit slender?’ And they’ll explain why it isn’t and why they’ve designed it that way. You learn on the job doing that. Interestingly, one of the best meetings on site I ever had was on a job in Kensington where we were acting for a very large and very very expensive house with overseas wealthy clients on my side. And we were concerned about movement; there was a big basement being dug. And a young engineer, young structural engineer gave the party wall surveyors a 20 minute masterclass in geo-technical movement in the site hub. It was brilliant! It was aimed at surveyors so it had no maths in it. It was all about pictures and impact; how it works. And it was very effective. Ever since then I can talk more intelligently about basement geo-technical movements. It’s amazing! And I was pretty experienced then when I had that and it was still valuable to me. So you don’t know it all. For a young surveyor, it’s listening to other people and work. And I think the other thing is don’t rush into setting something up too quickly. You can set up a business at 25 and do quite well out of it actually. There’s a big value in working with other people for some time, and getting the experience of your colleagues, and how they work, and what they know. And when you set up a firm, or when you go into a specialization, or you go into a big firm to set up your own specialization team up– which is what some people do– you can do it well because you know what you are talking about. It goes back to the basics, you need to be a good surveyor first.

Philippe: So there’s no way around ‘work your way through it’ basically?

Alistair: I think the other thing is there are jobs in the property industry, in surveying; there are two types of building surveying actually, there are two extremes in building surveying: there are people who do one job at a time in very great depth and they are, for example, the project managers on the very complex projects and then you get the other extreme where people handle 100 to 150 projects at a time in a lot of small bits; and that is the busy party wall surveyor. So you need to be able to handle that, you need to have the mindset that holds a lot of information very quickly. I’ll give you an example, sometimes as a third surveyor sometimes I have to vet adjoining surveyor fees when it comes as a third surveyor referral. And I look at it and every couple of weeks there’s half an hour down for reviewing the file and catching up with something. Well, it’s not really very acceptable. You haven’t got a brain that can hold that information even if you’ve done a hundred things since. Hold most of the information so you know what you’re looking at when it arrives. You shouldn’t be charging, for example, the fees that some people are charging for doing that. If you charge a high fee, you should be able to do that very quickly.

Philippe: So that actually brings us nicely into what kinds of tools do you use to make your life easier and to try to empty that brain?

Alistair: Yeah, not enough probably. I think being on top of the work-load is the obvious one. That’s where the mobile devices now make such a big difference. The use of iPads and smartphones and so on is useful. We do trackers for party wall work, a simple spreadsheet that has the details on it of who everybody is, who the surveyors are, and comments. We use different details for different projects. Some projects we need to send the clients a spreadsheet every couple of weeks; it has to have something new on it. Other times, it’s used for just an aide memoir of “who’s who.” But we largely rely on the surveyors doing it for themselves and work the way they do best within the framework of the systems we have in the office.

Philippe: And any tools you wish you had?

Alistair: Well the biggest problem with– it’s very easy in party wall surveying to be reactive– so you always wait for someone else to respond. I think the tools that are always useful, is to know when you should be chasing things, and not just relying on other people doing it or telling you. You should be chasing or responding to it so they don’t actually have to be chasing you. I think that is one of the main ones. As we go through very busy cycles, people will tend to deal with what is forced on top of their list; and you need to be on top of the list. So I think it’s reminders– some people are better at it than others; they just do it their own way.

Philippe: So I guess in party wall jobs “no news is bad news”. It means that you need to do something about it?

Alistair: It is, it is. And of course it’s how you do it as well. You have to be careful about over automating things. For example, the use of the 10 day notice, in my experience, we hardly ever use it here, hardly ever even jokingly use it because people do tend to take offense. You can write to somebody and try and get a quicker response off of them by sort of a polite request. But most of the time, –if no news– if you’ve forgotten to chase someone and it’s become critical on the project then you’ve got problems on your hands. That’s when you rely on your personality. I’ve got one of my colleagues, who have just been on holiday, and did what I always had to rely upon which is call in favours in the last 10 days before you go away and we had awards going out, several awards going out every day for the last four days before she went off and completely cleared the workload because she is highly regarded and people will always help her out. So that actually, is one of the advantages of doing this — you can get things done quite effectively. But it also just showed that everything was on top and capable of being completed too.

Philippe: And so, to kind of conclude — so I’m a surveyor, I’ve done it for 5 or 6 years, I’ve got an interest in party wall matters, where do I go to try to get more involved in it? Should I join the P&T club?

Alistair: Yeah. I’d definitely join the P&T club. There’s no barrier to entry. Apart from being a professional in the construction. I would do talks. The P&T club does the Theodore Bullfrog talks which are the junior-based ones. They are not normally full, they are very cheap; only about £12 for a decent talk, free food and drink, and it’s a good way to network young surveyors of similar experience and more experience, which is particularly useful. You can’t under-emphasize the importance of talking about these things with your peers, not just your superiors. I think that is critically important. I think someone here can speak to me and get an answer but if they speak to one of their colleagues at their same level, they’ll end up with more of a debate and discussion and then someone will get the book out and have a look. You can get a lot of depth. It can be as useful. So I think they should do that, I think they should decide where they are working or what they are doing. I mean I got a lot of my good experience working in a general building surveying firm and then in a multi-discipline surveying firm getting quite a lot of the party wall work but with good clients and that got me the experience without having to do full-on party walls and nothing else. That lead me into what I’m doing. I don’t think someone should necessarily think you have to go and work for a firm like ours straight away to get all that experience. I think you can get it with a wider range and then build that specialty as you know you want to do it. But by all means if someone has a year or two of experience and wants to for a specialist firm and they know they want to, then that’s absolutely fine. The other thing to watch out for, of course, is if you come to a firm like ours, or some of our rival’s, without special construction experience getting charted is very difficult. We have great clients, really good work, really good experience with very good teams, best architects, best engineers, but that’s not the same as doing it yourself and going through an APC. So, and I would say to anybody, no matter how tempting party wall surveying is and how lucrative it may appear, if you’re going to get a good, well-paid job, you’ve got to think about whether you’d want to go through your career not having got charted or having to go back and do it; and I think it’s worth having it. And also, by getting charted, you have done what a firm like ours needs to know that you’re going to be a competent surveyor doing the job. So, well we have surveyors who aren’t charted and they do a perfectly sound job; I think people should aim get charted first, and then target firms like ours for where they come to after that.

Philippe: How easy is it for you guys to find the right people?

Alistair: Not always that easy, funnily enough. If people really want to come to our field there’s –we’re competing with the other firms, when they’re looking– there are people who are worried about being a specialist, even if they’re good at it. And it’s getting the right people; there are plenty of people who think this is what they want to do, or they’re the perfect person, but their CV isn’t good enough; it just isn’t right. If you got too much of the wrong-side experience– you know, I happen to think having consultant experience is more important than client side for our particular way we work with our clients. So you have to find that as well, but that’s just us. So we sometimes have difficulty. The hardest thing is getting the young, well-experienced surveyors because they’re gold dust. Someone just charted with a good range of experience is always going to be in demand because of what they can bring. That said, we have a full team at the moment; we’ve recently just taken someone else on. So it’s going quite well.

Philippe: That’s good! Great, well thank you Alistair so much for your time. And I’m sure I’ll see you around.

Alistair: Brilliant! I look forward to seeing you.

Philippe: Well, bye then!

Alistair: Take care now!

Alistair’s firm: Delva Patman Redler

Links mentioned during the interview: Pyramus & Thisbe Club

Our flagship Software for Party Wall Surveyors

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