Who owns a tree growing on the property line? Can a neighbor build a fence without your permission? As a landowner, knowing your property limits as well as your property rights will help you handle boundary disputes from trespassing to encroachment.
In this post, we explain the difference between trespassing and encroaching, outline your options should either property violation happen to you, and detail your rights and duties in common property disputes with neighbors.
Why Are Property Lines Important?
A property line is an invisible line that determines the legal boundary of your land. To review your property lines, you can consult a survey plan or arrange to have a land surveyor prepare a new survey plan. If you’re a new homeowner, you should consider ordering a new plan, as it will take into account prior surveys or plans and reflect the current landscape (changes to the land may have occurred over time).
Boundaries can also shift over time, with fences, gardens, sheds, and other physical entities creeping over the property line. Pre-existing barriers such as fences or bushes do not necessarily conform to the legal boundary, which is why commissioning a survey plan can help you identify physical encroachments or instances of trespassing.
Encroaching vs. Trespassing
When it comes to property disputes between neighbors, we can differentiate between two types of violations: encroachment and trespassing.
Trespassing usually refers to the unauthorized and intentional entry of people, animals, or vehicles upon your land. Trespassing can consist of someone:
- Hunting or fishing on your property
- Allowing livestock to graze on your land
- Harvesting your crops or picking fruit from your trees
Encroachment means to push past the property line and claim ownership of someone else’s land. Some instances of encroachment may include a neighbor:
- Planting a garden that extends onto your property
- Allowing water from a swimming pool to run off into your yard
- Building a structure on or that protrudes onto your property
What Can I Do About Trespassers?
In most cases, neighbors or other individuals who are using your land are unaware of the property boundaries. Or, perhaps they are aware, but have been using the land for years and don’t think it’s a problem.
Installing signage (e.g. “No Trespassing” or “Private Property”) can help deter innocent trespassers, but likely not those who intentionally enter your property without permission. Thus, in order to have legal recourse against intruders, ensure you conform to your state’s requirements for proper signage.
Before speaking to the trespasser, it’s advisable to consult a survey plan to confirm you are correct about the boundary. Once you have done this, approach the individual next time they are trespassing and inform them that they are on your land. If that fails to resolve the issue, you can send a Cease & Desist Letter or consult an attorney. However, be aware that most trespassers will not be prosecuted if they haven’t caused harm to the property.
What Can I Do About Encroachments?
Most disputes can be resolved with a conversation or a meeting, but in some cases you may need to hire a mediator or even take legal action. Two of the most common encroachment issues involve fences and trees.
Fences and Property Lines: What You Should Know
As a rule, a fence that is built on the boundary line belongs to both property owners if they both use it, meaning that they share ownership rights and any costs associated with the fence.
If your neighbor wants a fence and you do not, they can build a fence on their land or even on the property line. If your neighbor builds on the line, they are solely responsible for the fence’s cost and maintenance so long as you do not use it. Because states may define “use” differently, be sure to consult your local laws to know your rights.
A fence encroachment can occur when you discover a fence was built or is being built on your land. Here is what to do if that happens:
Existing fences: Upon consulting a survey plan or property deed, you discover that a fence was built on your land by a current or past neighbor, and not along the property line as you thought. If you do not use the fence and do not wish to claim ownership, you should speak with your neighbor about their options. It’s a good idea to have a written record of your request in case matters escalate, so consider sending a Demand Letter that outlines the issue and requests a resolution.
If the fence has been in place for a long time, your neighbor may claim adverse possession, which means they have gained title to the property after controlling it for a certain amount of time. However, in most cases, your neighbor may be willing to move the fence, or even to rent or buy the land from you.
New fences: Another possibility is that your neighbor begins construction on your property. If you can be certain about the location of the property line, you can ask your neighbor to stop building or, if that fails, send a Cease & Desist Letter. If you aren’t certain that the fence is encroaching on your land, you can still request your neighbor to pause construction until you can hire a surveyor or get your hands on a survey plan.
What to do About Encroaching Trees
A tree legally belongs to the person on whose land the trunk stands. If the trunk stands on the property line, neighbors can share ownership of the tree. An encroachment occurs when a portion of the tree, such as a limb or a root, grows over the boundary line and generates unwanted shade, creates debris (such as falling leaves, seeds, and fruit), or threatens to damage property.
It’s important to consult your municipal bylaws to learn about your rights and obligations, as well as those of your neighbor, but there are some general rules to consider if your neighbor’s tree is encroaching on your property:
Trimming: The tree owner is not responsible for trimming the branches that are growing on your property. You are allowed to trim the limbs or branches up to the property line, but cannot trespass into your neighbor’s yard to do so (unless you have permission). You are also responsible for discarding the debris from your work.
Removal: If the tree is causing imminent danger to you or your property because it is sickly or about to fall, you may take reasonable action to remove it, although it may be in your best interest to consult your neighbor first. In contrast, if the tree is healthy and you remove it or kill it with chemicals, your neighbor can hold you liable for damages—and keep in mind that mature trees can be valued at thousands of dollars.
Damages: If your property is damaged by a neighbor’s tree, they may be held responsible for damages, provided that a court finds your neighbor negligent in allowing branches to grow onto your property or allowing an unhealthy tree to remain standing. Tree owners are responsible for regularly inspecting their trees to ensure they are healthy and sturdy.
Natural products: While it is tempting to pick the fruit from branches hanging over your property, you might consider asking your neighbor first, as that fruit still belongs to them. When it comes to fallen fruit, you own whatever falls into your yard, a principle that holds true for any natural product, including fallen leaves. You alone are responsible for collecting and disposing of any leaves or seeds that fall into your yard from a neighbor’s tree.
Do Fences Always Make Good Neighbors?
Neighbors can occasionally trespass or encroach on your land, and while it’s important to protect your property, avoid damaging your relationship by being overly aggressive or demanding. Approach difficult conversations with courtesy and understanding, and try to think of constructive solutions.
Have you ever had a boundary dispute with a neighbor?