How to deal with neighbors that encroach on your property
Oct 15th 2008 9:00AM
Updated Oct 17th 2008 8:05AM
You've finally bought a little patch of Mother Earth that you can call your own. Then you discover your neighbor is encroaching. Perhaps his fence is two feet over the property line, or the dying limb of his sugar maple is overhanging your garage, or his barking dog is keeping you up all night. How can you deal with such encroachments?
First, let's clarify a couple of terms. An easement is a right of access that has been agreed-upon by the property owner, in writing, or mandated by a government decision. Perhaps the first owner of your house granted your neighbor access to a dock on your property in perpetuity, or the city has retained an easement to access power lines that run across the back border of your property. If the easement is recorded, you don't have much recourse.
An encroachment is tresspass without permission, and you can do something about it. If your neighbor has taken a few feet of your land when building his fence, you can take steps to take back your land. A caveat, however; make sure you know where your true property boundaries are. For example: the back edge of my property is fenced, and the fence has a four-foot jog where two abutting properties meet. When I moved in, my neighbor told me that one of those landowners had moved his fence to take four feet of my land before I moved in, and I intended to require him to move it back. To my chagrin, when the property was surveyed, I found that the previous owner of my house had, in fact, taken four feet of my neighbor's property.
If you are confident about the borders of your property, you could approach your neighbor and politely request that he honor these lines. Property owners often become unreasonably confident that the customary boundaries reflect their title, though, so sharing the survey information could help greatly in this discussion. Also, modern surveying techniques are much more accurate than older methods, so in comparing property titles there may be some overlap. These inaccuracies are usually settled by dividing the land in question.
You should also be aware of the laws of adverse possession. If a person has used a portion of your land for a period of time, as identified by state law, he could claim title to it when the statute of limitations for ejection has passed. This often protects fences built off the property boundaries.
At this point, consulting an attorney is money well spent.
According to Consumer Reports, should a neighbor's tree limb falls on your house, obtaining a satisfactory settlement often depends on your ability to prove that your neighbor knew and ignored the hazard.
If you see the potential for such a problem, take an escalating approach to head it off, documenting each step. Politely express your concern to your neighbor. If he disagrees, offer to share the cost of bringing in a tree surgeon or other professional for an opinion.
If your neighbor doesn't respond, follow up with a politely written letter reiterating your concern. Document both. Take photos of the subject of your concern. Consult your insurer to determine coverage should the limb fall on your house.
If the worst does come to pass, you still might have to go to small claims court to get satisfaction. There, your documentation should serve you well.
Noise encroachment is perhaps the most common inspiration for a neighborhood war. To combat it, first familiarize yourself with the local regulations. Make sure you aren't also violating code with your leaf-blower or lawnmower.
Then talk to other neighbors. If they are similarly put out, one of you should approach the transgressor as a representative of the group. This might convince them to address the problem.
Keep in mind that they may not even be aware that the dog is yapping or their child's 50 Cent tunes can be heard two states away. Here, a recording might come in handy, and most of us have the capability, with our cell phones, to record the sounds.
If your neighbor is unresponsive, begin a journal of sounds and times. You may discover that the occasions are infrequent, and your best route to neighborhood peace is to live and let live.
If calling the cops seems like your only remaining option, make sure that you have recordings, your log, names of like-minded neighbors and details of the transgressions ready for the officer, to prove that you aren't a grouch with unreasonable expectations. Don't stand on your stoop and watch the cop call the neighbor to task; this will only cause more resentment.
And for God's sake, don't take your frustrations out on the dog. It is barking for a reason, and that reason is that your neighbor is not treating it properly.
All of these problems are more easily dealt with when neighbors are familiar with one another, so a block party or similar ice-breaker can pay enormously in avoiding a street war. So think about meeting your neighbors there, rather than waiting until you're mad enough to spit.