By Lee Wallender
If you have ever rented or shared an apartment and then purchased your own home or condominium, you know the heady feeling of freedom that property ownership brings. Now that you own your house and land, no longer are you beholden to others who surround you. Your home is your dominion and you may do as you wish. Right?
Not exactly. Property ownership does provide more freedoms than you have in a rental or a shared living situation, but you still must live near others in a civil manner.
In some cases, your actions or your neighbors’ actions become a matter of civil law, involving law enforcement and courts. In other instances, etiquette is the social lubricant that magically converts wary neighbors into good neighbors – a far better alternative to legal action.
Property Lines and Fences: Keeping Personal Zones Intact
Property rights are so important that they have long been codified by society and entered into law.
Beginning with the abolishment of the feudal system in the Middle Ages, common people – not just royalty – could own real property. Laws regarding boundaries form the very foundation of property law. In fact, the one thing that defines private property as being truly private is its set of boundary lines.
Property boundary lines do not exist in the physical world; fences are not boundary lines. Rather, they exist only on paper in the form of a surveyor’s report or at your local county tax assessor’s office. Understanding how property boundary lines work is vital to preserving harmony between neighbors.
Going Beyond the Line: Being a Courteous Property Owner
Encroachment is the legal term for going past your property line. When a person strays, it is called trespassing. When objects stray, it is called encroachment. A typical scenario is when you or a neighbor construct a work shed, outbuilding, or fence that is partially or entirely on neighboring property.
Encroachment is a serious boundary issue because you may lose ownership of part of your own property though a legal action called adverse possession. Adverse possession is where a neighbor squats on land that they do not own long enough that they can take legal action to claim that land as their own. Naturally, you want to stop encroachment long before adverse possession begins.
Similarly, if you find that you are encroaching on your neighbor’s property, it is in your best interests to find sensible, friendly ways to solve this problem.
- The friendliest, most logical, and often most effective first step is to speak to the neighbor and ask them to remove the structure.
- If removing the structure proves too costly, you can give the neighbor written permission to use the property at no cost or for a nominal rental cost to ward off future adverse possession claims.
- Alternatively, you can sell the land to the neighbor, or offer to purchase the land if you are the one encroaching;
- As the least desirable final step, you can go to court to force the neighbor to leave your private property.
Being a Good Neighbor When Installing a Fence
As the poet Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It should be added that good fence etiquette makes for happier neighbors who get along for years to come.
Fence etiquette is about combining the basics of fence law with basic common sense and courtesy, such as:
- If you want to put in a fence, talk to your neighbor about your plans – in person. Written requests tend to come off wrong. In-person discussions lead to fewer misunderstandings.
- In your conversation, clarify the type of fence you wish to build and whether you will be sharing costs.
- Order a land survey of the boundaries. A house plat is not sufficient to determine the exact property lines.
- If you are paying for the fence, it is within your right to have the finished side of the fence facing your property. The finished side is the one that has fence boards covering the fence posts.
- If you are sharing costs, you can ask the fence company to alternate finished sides. Or, if you strongly prefer the finished side, you can work out a cost sharing plan that charges you more for the benefit of having the finished side (for example, you pay 60 percent and they pay 40 percent).
- Trees are considered fences (and bushes and hedges, too). Most zoning commissions recognize that bushes, trees, and hedges, if arranged to act like a fence, are effectively fences. Thus, they are subject to the same height restrictions as fences.
- Has your neighbor installed a fence and is retroactively asking you to pay for half of the costs? Some states require both owners to evenly divide the cost of fences that are on the boundary line – whether or not it was discussed in advance. In other states, this is not the case. Consult a local attorney for advice on this matter.
Dealing with Neighborly Flora and Fauna
Rare is the neighborhood that has no flora (trees, bushes, hedges, grass, etc.) or fauna (our beloved dogs, cats, and other pets). Because both the flora and fauna often refuse to be tamed, they regularly encroach on neighbors.
Bushes grow onto neighbors’ properties, tree limbs extend their reach and then fall, grass grows tall and becomes a visual nuisance. Animals physically trespass on neighbor’s lawns and howl late at night.
The following are ways to deal with problems that may arise:
Q: A Tree on the Neighbor’s Side is Impacting My Side. Are They Liable?
As the neighbor who is being impacted, you have the right to trim any part of the tree that is harming your property, but only up to the property line. For any damaged property – roots cracking a sewer line or septic tank, for instance – you can seek compensation for damages. As always, talk to the neighbor before going to court. 5
Q: Can I Cut a Tree Limb on My Side?
Yes. You can cut a tree limb or any vegetation that extends onto your property up to the property line. However, your trimming cannot harm the tree. If you do harm the tree, you may be liable for the cost of the tree.
Q: My Tree’s Leaves End Up on My Neighbor’s Side. I Feel Bad About This. What to Do?
Legally, those leaves are now your neighbor’s, and they must remove them. However, to preserve good relations, you may offer to pick up the leaves on alternating years or share the costs of removal.
Q: My Neighbor’s Hedges Are Too High
Zoning and permitting departments consider vegetation to be the same as a fence when it is grown for that purpose. For example, a homeowner cannot bypass a fence height regulation of six feet maximum by growing hedges that are eight feet tall. Begin by speaking to your neighbor; they may not even be aware of the overgrown vegetation.
Q: A Tree Is Blocking My View. Can I Have It Removed?
In most cases, no. However, some cities that have attractive vistas have adopted ordinances that help preserve views. If the zoning board finds that you can remove the tree, you will be liable for the cost of removal.
Q: My Neighbor’s Dog is a Nuisance. What Can I Do?
First, speak to your neighbor. It’s best if you can resolve matters this way, as going to court will only cause acrimony and be expensive. If you cannot resolve the issue directly with your neighbor, FindLaw.com advises that you can “file a civil lawsuit for nuisance and seek a court order demanding that your neighbor remedy the problem in a timely matter.”
Great Neighbor Behavior 101
Most of the problems that develop between neighbors can be prevented by being a good neighbor, as well as gently encouraging your neighbors to adopt similar behaviors.
- Communicate Regularly : A few casual, friendly words at the mailbox are usually enough to maintain a good relationship between you and your neighbors.
- Organize an Annual Event : To deepen these surface-level relationships, organize an annual block party, garage sale, or potluck.
- Bring a Gift : When the occasion arises (new baby, marriage, graduation, etc.), drop off a small gift at your neighbor’s house.
- Ask for Advice : Everyone loves to give advice. Even the most reticent person will open up when asked their opinions on paint sprayers, how to aerate a lawn, the best electric cars, or any other topic that they know well.
- Alert Your Neighbor About Events : When you are planning something that will impact your neighbor, talk to that neighbor ahead of time. Events include: major remodeling, noisy yard work during off hours, large parties.
- Take the Extra Step : If you are blowing snow from your property, do your neighbor’s sidewalk as well.
- Bring in the Cans : Do not let garbage cans sit on the street more than one day past collection date.
- Keep Your Yard Tidy : If you want to let your yard run amok, let it be your backyard. To be considerate of your neighbors, keep your front yard or other visible areas neat and tidy.
- Share Things : Except for one hour a week, your lawn mower just sits in your garage doing nothing. Share it. Other items that are shareable or that you can pass on include tools, ladders, kids’ bicycles.
- Be Flexible : You may hate it when your neighbor’s cat poops in your garden bed. But you may not know that they hate it when your son works on his car late at night in the garage. Not all problems are actionable. Some require grace, humility, and flexibility. The same may be returned to you.
Being a good neighbor – and having neighbors who are good – means amicably resolving differences between each other first before going to court and seeking legal remedies.
Lee Wallender began remodeling homes when he transformed a World War I-era farmhouse into a comfortable new home. He has been writing about home remodeling on About Home Renovations since 2006.