Good neighbors go a long way towards enjoying your home and real property, and conflicts can make property ownership equally unpleasant. A boundary dispute is one conflict to avoid because costs and emotions can quickly get out of control.
A boundary dispute may be a question of confusion or uncertainty, or a true disagreement about ownership and the property line. There are different types of boundary disputes, and legal approaches to solve the problem. Cooperation and diplomacy, however, are often the best solutions, no matter which side of the fence or property line you're on.
Defining Boundaries and Issues
Another common name for a boundary is a property line, and it's a good alternative. Boundaries are the lines defining or marking the location of a parcel of real property. There are different sources, types and solutions to boundary dispute issues. Common situations are:
- Neighbors agree on the boundary, and dispute property use, such as crossing the boundary when building or installing an improvement, such as a fence or structure
- Neighbors disagree on the boundary itself due to issues such as conflicting property descriptions, or changes in property ownership and interests based on use
Where to Find the Property Line
Talking to your neighbor about a boundary line issue is a good place to start. Most people are receptive to friendly discussion, and aren't looking for a lawsuit. You and your neighbor should start by looking at the deeds to your properties, and the most recent surveys each of you have. You need to know where the property lines are, and these documents often give you the correct answer. You can have a survey done if needed.
Help from Your Lawyer
See a lawyer if you and your neighbor can't agree, or you need more help in solving your issue. You may need further help and information on identifying the boundary, or you need legal assistance in putting your solution into effect, such as preparing a boundary agreement and recording it in county records to clear up the matter for good.
Even if you see a lawyer because you can't agree with your neighbor, it doesn't mean filing a lawsuit. Your lawyer will likely offer other options, short of going to court. The person who disputes the current property line generally has the burden to show the line is someplace else. Boundary dispute lawsuits can be expensive and difficult to win.
Types of Boundary Dispute Lawsuits
Lawsuits involving property boundaries can take different forms, including:
- Ejectment or trespass to remove a neighbor who is occupying your property, or a structure such as a fence keeping you off your property
- Declaratory judgment to ask the court to decide who is the rightful property owner
Property Improvements Lead to Boundary Disputes
Boundary questions often come up when a property owner makes improvements - a fence is a prime example. A property owner may be on the losing side in a boundary dispute lawsuit by a neighbor when:
- An improvement clearly crosses a property line
- Building permits aren't obtained before work or installations are started
- Approval isn't obtained from a required source such as a city or town planning commission or homeowners' association
- The improvement violates a state law, local ordinance such as a zoning restriction, or covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC & Rs) of a homeowners' association
- The improvement violates a restrictive covenant (a clause in a deed limiting property use)
- There's interference with an established property use, such as blocking a path or driveway (a prescriptive easement)
Be ready for your neighbor's defenses, and review possible responses before you decide to file a lawsuit. Defenses include:
- You have the facts wrong
- Your neighbor claims to own the disputed property through adverse possession
- Property use established a prescriptive easement, authorizing your neighbor to come across your property
- You gave consent to use your property
- Time's up - you waited too long file a lawsuit, and the statute of limitations ran out
- It's your fault. Your neighbor may claim you did something wrong and you have "unclean hands," making it unfair for you to seek a solution in court
Familiarity with the issues can help you communicate with your real estate attorney and find the best way to solve your boundary dispute. Your attorney's guidance and advice may be all that's needed to sort through the issues, the facts and documents, and put your property lines in focus.