Having good relationships with neighbors is often key to enjoying one’s home. Certainly, adversarial relationships with neighbors detract from the peace of mind one hopes to find at home. Boundary disputes are among the most common sources of conflict between neighbors and can quickly get out of control from both an emotional and a cost perspective, making home a source of anxiety, conflict, and anger.
Land boundaries are often referred to as property lines. They define the location and edges of parcels of real property. A boundary dispute may arise due to confusion or misinformation or due to an outright disagreement. Two of the most common boundary issues are:
- Neighbors disagree on the property line itself. This often happens because people have relied on verbal descriptions of property boundaries. For example, “My property goes right up to that line of shrubbery and your property starts on the other side.” It could also happen because key markers—for instance, iron pins, stream beds, hedges, or trees—get moved or disappear altogether. The person who disputes a property line generally has the burden to show the line is someplace else.
- Neighbors agree on the actual property lines but dispute the use of land within the lines. For example, one neighbor may not want the other to cross the property line when building or installing an improvement, such as a fence or structure. Another example is that one party does not want the other party to install a barrier, like a fence, stand of trees, or building that will disrupt a scenic view or block a path or driveway.
Potential approaches to resolving a boundary dispute depend on the type of disagreement, but a calm, diplomatic conversation is always a good place to start. Most people are receptive to friendly discussion and are just as interested as you are in avoiding conflict and legal action.
When the Dispute Is about Property Lines
A quick examination of the deeds and plats for the two properties may be all that is required to settle a disagreement over the location of property lines. Boundary markers are often noted on the plat or in the property description on the deed. By taking a walk around the area in question with your neighbor, plats and deeds in hand, you may be able to locate markers and gain clarity on the location of the line.
If the documents are unclear or you find it impossible to locate markers, you may need to commission a surveyor to come out, take measurements, and render a professional assessment on the location of the property line. Your neighbor may be willing to split the cost of the survey with you. In any event, having an expert opinion may serve to settle the dispute. Be sure to ask the surveyor to point out key markers, or to install markers like iron pins or blazes on trees if no markers exist.
If neither of these alternatives yields a resolution, you will likely need to hire an attorney to review the situation, offer advice, suggest potential solutions, and possibly initiate legal action. The threat of legal action may be sufficient to catalyze a resolution with your neighbor.
Potential legal actions may include:
- An ejectment or trespass lawsuit asking the court to remove a neighbor who is occupying your property, or a structure such as a fence that is keeping you off your property
- A lawsuit requesting declaratory judgment from the court to determine who is the rightful property owner
Even if you and your neighbor are able to reach agreement on your own, you may need legal assistance to solidify and implement a solution such as preparing a boundary agreement and recording it in county records to clear up the matter for good.
When the Dispute Is about Property Usage
This situation can be trickier to address than a simple disagreement on where to draw the property line because opinions and personal preferences are involved. This is not always the case, however. A neighbor would have a solid case to object and insist on remedy if:
- An improvement clearly crosses a property line
- Building permits for an improvement are not obtained before work or installation is started
- Approval for the improvement is not obtained from a required source such as a city or town planning commission or homeowners’ association
- The improvement violates a state law, a local ordinance such as a zoning restriction, or a covenant of a homeowners’ association
- The improvement violates a restrictive covenant (a clause in a deed limiting property use)
- The improvement interferes with an established property use, such as blocking a path or driveway
Again, it may be possible for neighbors to work through a land use dispute on their own, although legal support is frequently required.
Disputes between Neighbors over Trees
Among the most valuable assets of any property are its trees; therefore most homeowners deem it of utmost importance to protect their trees. However, the tree that is for one person a glorious gift of nature may be the source of frustration, anxiety, or even damage for a neighbor. A tree overhanging a neighbor’s property poses risk of injury or damage, while a tree that isn’t trimmed properly can block a neighbor’s scenic view.
In Washington, the law protects property owners from tree-related damage.
- If your property is damaged by a neighbor’s tree, you may be entitled to recover compensation for the damage, depending on the situation.
- If someone damages your tree, you can recover actual damages, meaning what you paid for the tree or what it would cost to replace the tree. In addition, if the damage inflicted on your tree was deliberate, rather than accidental, you may sue for triple actual damages.
If a Neighbor’s Tree Damages Your Property
A tree owner is responsible for damage caused by his tree if his failure to maintain the tree contributed to the damage. Specifically:
- If a neighbor allows a tree to grow onto your property to the extent that it uproots a fence, that would be considered an encroachment onto your property. The tree owner would be required to remove the offending tree and compensate you for replacing the fence.
- If all or part of a neighbor’s tree falls on your property, the neighbor may or may not be responsible for damages to your property.
- If the damage was solely the result of a storm or act of God, not due to any neglect on the part of the owner, the tree owner will not be responsible as the damage could not have been foreseen. In this case, your homeowners insurance would be responsible for your damages.
- If, however, the tree was in poor health or a limb appeared precarious and the owner failed to properly maintain the tree, the owner may well be responsible for resulting damage when the tree or a limb falls, even if this happens during a storm.
- Leaves, bean pods, or acorns which fall from a neighbor’s tree and end up on your property are considered a natural occurrence and are your responsibility. The law would not regard this tree debris as “damage.”
You do not have to wait around to become a victim of your neighbor’s tree. In every state, homeowners have the right to remove branches and roots that stray from a neighbor’s tree onto their property. In other words, if a limb from your neighbor’s tree is overhanging your property and you fear it may fall and cause you damage, you can preemptively cut the limb. However, in order to take advantage of the protections afforded you under the law, you must first follow certain procedures.
- You must warn or give notice to the tree owner and allow him a chance to correct the problem. If the tree owner does nothing, you may take action.
- As a general rule, you may only trim a neighbor’s encroaching tree up to the boundary line, meaning you may only cut a limb to the point it crosses onto your property, not all the way to the trunk of the tree.
- If trimming the tree requires entering your neighbor’s property, you must first obtain his permission. There is an exception to this requirement if a limb threatens to cause imminent and grave harm, in which case you are not required to obtain permission before taking preventive action.
- You may not cut the entire tree down or destroy the structural integrity of the tree by improper trimming.
If a Neighbor Damages Your Tree
To run afoul of the law, your neighbor does not have to chop down your tree. It is enough to cause damage to the health of your tree. For example:
- Your neighbor has the legal right to trim branches of your tree if they hang over the property line, but if the trimming seriously injures or kills your tree, your neighbor will be liable to you for the damage done.
- Similarly, if your neighbor uses a chemical in his or her yard to destroy unwanted plants or roots, and the chemical seeps onto your property killing one of your trees, your neighbor will be liable.
In general, you must meet two requirements in order to claim compensation for a damaged tree:
- Your own property must be damaged. Specifically, if a neighbor trims the part of your tree that hangs over his property line causing that part of the tree to look terrible but not harming it in any way, you have no right to recovery.
- The tree in question must not create an immediate danger to others. Unsound trees that threaten a neighboring property are not under the same legal protection as healthy trees. In some circumstances, for example, if a dead tree is about to fall, a neighbor can even enter an owner’s property without permission in order to take action to prevent harm.
Providing these criteria are met, when someone damages or destroys your tree, you can recover the amount of your actual loss. This recovery is available even if the damage was caused by an honest mistake. A final dollar figure for actual loss may include:
- The cost of replacing the tree. You are entitled to replace the tree with one of reasonable size, although you may not be able to exactly match the size of the lost tree.
- Diminished property value. If replacing the tree is impossible, you can recover the decrease in your property value caused by the loss of the tree.
- Out-of-pocket expenses. You can recover money reasonably spent trying to save an injured tree or removing a dead one, obtaining appraisals, cleaning up debris, repairing the yard, and time missed from work in order to deal with the tree damage.
If your homeowners insurance covers some part of your expenses, you will need to deduct that amount from what you are able to recover from your neighbor.
We Can Help
Consulting an attorney when you can’t agree with your neighbor doesn’t mean you’ll wind up filing a lawsuit. Boundary dispute lawsuits can be expensive and difficult to win. An experienced attorney can suggest and help explore other options. We at the Deno Millikan Law Firm have deep experience in this area and stand ready to guide you and ensure your legal rights are protected. Contact us today at 425-259-2222.