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Restrictive Covenants: What is a "Single Private Dwellinghouse"

Land and property can often be conveyed subject to rights or restrictions which the owner may be bound by, known as restrictive covenants. Common restrictions include prohibiting building, advertising, and certain uses. Properties in Peverell, Plymouth commonly have a restriction on the title prohibiting the owner from using their property for business purposes (save for some limited exceptions) which may explain why there are no public houses in the residential area. Similarly, properties in Mannamead, Plymouth may have a restriction on the title limiting their use as a public house or, more unusually, not to operate a steam engine in them. Covenants are intended to be drafted in such a manner so as to prevent ambiguity but this isn’t always the case. A notable example of this is the common restriction found on the title which prohibits the property from being used for anything other than a single private dwellinghouse, which, on the face of it, seems straightforward however this restriction has often caused confusion for both the aspiring or experienced property developer who may seek to convert a single dwelling into several dwellings.

The restrictive covenant “to use the property solely and strictly as a single private dwellinghouse” appears to be unambiguous. However, the covenant is open to interpretation. The inclusion of “a private dwelling house” may appear to limit the scope of development to just one property; the word “private” may appear to restrict the persons in occupation; and the word “dwellinghouse” may appear to restrict the properties use to residential. Logically, when faced with this clause, a developer may conclude that the property is unable to be converted into multiple dwellings. In practice, the way the restriction has been written will in turn have a significant impact on its interpretation.

In Crest Nicholson Residential (South) Ltd v McAllister [2003] 1 All ER 46, the High Court concluded that the primary concern was whether “a private dwelling house” implied a limit on the number of dwellinghouses. The High Court decided that as a matter of ordinary language, “a private dwellinghouse” tended to carry with it the concept of singularity rather than plurality and that the restriction to “a private dwelling house” meant the restriction to a single dwelling house. The distinguishing words in the restriction appear to be “single” and “private”. The inclusion of the word “single” may seem to restrict the quantity of dwellinghouses on the property with the restriction, as this word connotes to only having one dwellinghouse. However, it has been held by the Courts that “single” can include several single self-contained flats.

Additionally, the inclusion of the word “private” may allude to restricting the use of the dwellinghouse as a House of Multiple Occupancies (HMO), as this word has historically meant that the dwellinghouse is to be occupied by one family. But, “private” has also been seen to include a HMO in the event that the occupants are a single social unit. Triplerose Ltd v Beattie addressed this and the Court determined that a property being occupied as a private dwelling was a question of fact and relied upon the degree of permanence of the occupancy and the cohesion between the occupants.

These distinctions emphasise that each covenant relies on its wording and the wider context of the property in order to be effective at achieving the intention.

Whether or not the restriction that the property is to be used solely and strictly as a single private dwellinghouse impedes an aspiring or experienced property developer will be decided on the context. If you would like any assistance with checking whether the title to your property contains any onerous or prohibitive restrictions, please do not hesitate to get in contact with a member of the team.