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Is a houseboat a fixture? Court says no…

01/11/2011

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United Kingdom

Is a houseboat a "fixture"? Court says no…

This article was included in the Winter 2011 issue of Informer- the real estate newsletter

A recent court decision has thrown more light on the vexed question of what are (and what are not) fixtures and fittings. 

The dispute concerned some houseboats in Bembridge Harbour, Isle of Wight.  The houseboats did not float on the water, but instead rested on wooden platforms (clear of the tide) which were supported by wooden piles driven into the harbour bed. The owners of the houseboats had bought the houseboats themselves, rather than any interest in the land, and paid a “site-rent” for the “plot” that the houseboat occupied. The owner of the plots was seeking possession of the plots, and the owners of the houseboats argued that they occupied the plots as tenants, and not as licensees, and that their houseboats were in fact “dwellinghouses” so as to give them protection as assured tenants under the provisions of the Housing Act 1988. 

Any tenancies related to the plots which accommodated the wooden platforms upon which the houseboats rested. The only way that these could have been tenancies of “dwellinghouses” (as contended by the tenants), and therefore assured tenancies, was if the houseboat had become part of the land comprised in the tenancies (i.e the plots).  The first question for the Court to decide was, therefore, whether the houseboats were considered to be “chattels”, and therefore removable at the end of the tenancy, or whether they had become attached to the land in such a way as to become part of the land, i.e. “fixtures” that could not be removed at the end of the tenancies.

Determining whether an item is a chattel or a fixture involves considering:

  • the degree of annexation of the item to the land, and
  • the purpose of the annexation to the land. 

In considering the degree of annexation, if the object is affixed to the land, there is a (rebuttable) presumption that it is a fixture, particularly if the effect of removing the object is that it would be damaged.  If the object is resting on its own weight, it is presumed to be a chattel (once again, a rebuttable presumption).  In considering the purpose of the annexation to the land, if the object was meant to remain in position permanently or for a substantial period, is a fixture.  By contrast, if the object was fixed for a temporary purpose, then it is generally a chattel.

The Court of Appeal found that whilst the houseboats could still be lifted off their supporting structures by crane (suggesting they are chattels), this could not be done without causing substantial damage to the units (which could suggest that they were intended to be fixtures).  However, what was relevant in this case was that the sole cause of that damage would be the deterioration resulting from the tenants' failure to maintain the houseboats.  The Court held that the question of whether the houseboats were chattels or fixtures had to be answered by reference to their condition at the time when they were originally placed on the supporting structures (and it was assumed in this case, in the absence if evidence of their original condition, that they had been in a reasonable state of repair). The Court also held that any later improvements or alterations made to the houseboats cannot be taken into account.  The issue of annexation must depend on the position when the houseboat was first placed on its present support.

Finally, the Court found that the houseboats had been brought, fully assembled, to their respective present sites and placed on their supporting structures, and could be removed in the same manner.  The supporting structure may have become affixed to the land, but the houseboats themselves, that were not fixed in any way to the supporting structures (they rested on their own weight), remained chattels.  They were and remained essentially boats, albeit adapted for residential use, that did not form part of the land, and could therefore not be dwellinghouses for the purpose of the Housing Act 1988.

Article by Lauren King, Associate in the Property Litigation Practice at Fieldfisher.

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