Unravelling the Mystery of Paper Roads: A Guide for Property Buyers
Known as Paper Roads in New Zealand, Ghost Roads in the United Kingdom, and Paper Streets in the USA, the concept of “paper roads” may initially sound confusing. Despite their enigmatic nature, New Zealand is littered with them. These roads legally exist on paper but often not in the physical world, a testimony to the country’s early surveying practices dating back over 100 years. Unfortunately, they continue to impact property transactions today, often causing more problems than benefits.
What is a Paper Road?
A paper road, also known as an unformed legal road, is a legally recognized but unconstructed road. Early surveyors often plotted these phantom roads during land subdivision to provide potential access to parcels of land. Although they exist on legal documents and maps, in reality, they are usually overgrown, unmaintained patches of land, indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape and neglected by the council.
Despite their unformed status, paper roads are public land in New Zealand. This legal standing means anyone can traverse them on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, or even in a vehicle. However, these unmaintained roads pose significant challenges, especially during severe weather occurrences like those experienced in Jan/Feb 2023. Many large landslips occurred next to private properties, which the councils refused to rectify.
In some cases, these landslips are extremely dangerous and continue to cause damage and undermine neighbouring properties today. They also present a potential risk to public users which I simply don’t understand why this gets ignored by the authorities we are supposed to trust to do a capable job.
Buying Property Next to a Paper Road: What You Need to Know
Purchasing a property next to a paper road presents a unique set of considerations:
- Access Rights: Paper roads are public land, which can lead to potential privacy and security concerns, despite the advantage of increased accessibility.
- Future Development: The unformed status of a paper road does not guarantee it will remain so. Future development could lead significant construction disruption, increased traffic, and noise near your property.
- Maintenance: Local authorities, responsible for paper roads’ administration, are not usually obligated to maintain them. This could mean dealing with overgrown vegetation, unsightly weeds, gorse, and potential pest issues, which could impact your property’s sale value.
- Closure or Sale: A council may decide to close or sell a paper road, which could amongst other things affect your property’s privacy.
- Purchasing Paper Roads: If you wish to extend your property for private purposes, such as extending your garden, you can apply to the council who will consider your case. You will likely need permission from all the bounding neighbours which can be a challenge, and the council will want market value for the land, even when the land is unlikely to be able to accommodate additional buildings, which in the eyes of the retail banks is not a good funding proposition.
In my opinion, the council’s and if relevent their transport division should be maintaining the paper roads, at least make them safe if unstable, or likely to be. Despite the uncertainty of whther I’m allowed to, I spend over an hour mowing the council land – almost weekly in the summer months. I also maintain their fences, gorse, and weeds. It’s disappointing dealing with the lack of action or care from Auckland Transport (aka Auckland Council), especially when potential dangers to the public are evident.
Given that most paper roads were drawn over 100 years ago and now lead nowhere, I believe it’s time to transfer them into private ownership, or at least insist on councils maintaining them properly.
As it stands, while some neighbours may appreciate the use of the additional land, as a potential property buyer, you need to be aware of paper roads’ potential public use and lack of maintenance by the councils, especially if the land becomes unstable and unsafe. Whether you see them as a charming historical quirk or a practical consideration, understanding unformed roads is an essential part of buying property in New Zealand, The United Kingdom, and the USA.