Boundary Disputes

Nothing can ruin a good relationship with your neighbors faster than a disagreement about a property line. The best way to avoid trouble is by understanding the boundaries of your property from the beginning. When you purchase real estate, you will find a legal description on the deed. If possible, you should also obtain a title insurance policy or title opinion and a survey to describe or show your boundaries and any encroachments or limitations. Encroachments might include a driveway or a fence that was installed slightly over the line, while limitations might include easements that allow others to use a part of the property. If your property is part of a subdivision, you may also be able to look at the plat map to see the boundaries of your lot and neighboring lots. Contact the county recorder of deeds for details. If you do not have the legal description for a property you already own, the recorder should be able to help.

Types of Disputes

Boundary disputes often result from the construction of improvements, such as a driveway, a deck, or a fence. To avoid problems, never begin construction without obtaining required permits. Check your title insurance or title opinion for any restrictions. If applicable, obtain the approval of any homeowners’ association. Finally, simply tell your neighbors what you plan to build and determine whether they have any concerns before you spend any money.

Sometimes, a dispute may arise over the need to maintain or remove existing landscaping or structures. In these cases, the owners usually do not know exactly where the boundary is. Determining the boundary line is the starting point.

Other times, neighbors know where the line is but disagree about the right to cross it. For example, an owner may regard a tree on the neighboring lot as dangerous and want to remove it, or an owner may need to get heavy equipment into the backyard to install a new well, but the equipment cannot get back there without crossing the boundary line.

Resolving the Problem

A survey will often resolve the problem. If the tree or the branch is on your property, you can remove the tree or the branch. But it is not always that simple.

If the problem is not on your property, consult your municipal (city, town, or county) code enforcement office to determine whether that tree, fence, or digging complies with local laws. Another possibility is that the installation interferes with utility easements, so you should contact the electric, gas, or water companies. If the installation does not violate an ordinance, it still might constitute a private nuisance if it seriously interferes with your enjoyment or use of your property. If you cannot resolve the situation by talking to the neighbor, consult an attorney as soon as possible before too much money is spent.

Some of the more unusual issues that might complicate the situation include a prescriptive easement or adverse possession. Both legal concepts refer to a situation involving the use of another owner’s property for a time longer than the limitations period, so that the owner is no longer able to file a lawsuit for trespass or ejectment. For example, if the neighbor’s garage was built so that it is over the property line by 10 inches, but it has been in that location and in use for 35 years, it may be too late to bring a claim. If you try to block access to the garage, the neighbor may be able to go to court and obtain a declaratory judgment of his or her right to continue to use it. States have different limitations periods, so in this situation you need an experienced real estate attorney.

In some cases, a neighbor can obtain an easement by necessity to cross other property, if it is essential to obtain access to his or her own property. In resolving property disputes, courts often look at whether either party has "unclean hands," or acted unfairly, such as by deceiving a neighbor about the property line.