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A Homeowner’s Guide to Property Line Disputes:

How to Handle Encroachments

Last Updated: October 11, 2023

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Key Takeaways:

  • Property lines are the legal boundaries determining where a property starts and ends.
  • Sometimes, property line disputes due to encroachments arise between neighbors.
  • Handle disputes through communication, documentation, legal letters, surveys, and lawyers if needed.

Nothing has the power to damage a relationship between neighbors quite like a fight about boundaries and property lines. Unfortunately, many landowners have these types of disagreements every year.
In this article, we discuss property line disputes, encroachments, and tools to assert your rights (such as a Cease and Desist Letter).
Whether you're currently involved in a dispute or seeking knowledge to safeguard against future disputes, this guide gives tips on protecting your property and maintaining harmony with your neighbors.

What are property lines?

Property lines are the legal boundaries that determine where a property starts and ends. Think of them as invisible lines that define a piece of land.
Property lines are also known as:
  • Boundary lines
  • Survey lines
  • Parcel lines

What’s the purpose of property lines?

It’s essential to understand property lines for several reasons:
  1. Ownership rights : Property lines define boundaries and what land owners are responsible for maintaining.
  2. Dispute prevention : Property lines provide a clear reference point for determining where one person's property ends and the next one begins.
  3. Zoning and land use : Properties have specific rules regarding building setbacks, easements, and permissible land uses. Property lines help you comply with these rules.
  4. Real estate transactions : When buying or selling property, clearly defined property lines are necessary for determining the property's value.
  5. Property taxes : The size of a property affects its taxable value. Property lines determine the appropriate tax amount.
Sometimes, finding property lines can be tricky. That being said, it's crucial to know where they are to avoid infringing on a neighbor's land.

How to locate property lines

To find the property lines for your piece of land, try the following five steps:

1. Check your property documents

To locate property lines, begin by reviewing documents related to your property. They can offer valuable clues and details about the boundaries of your property. These documents may include:

2. Ask your neighbors

If your paperwork isn’t giving you the information you need, try talking to your neighbors to see if they know anything about your shared property lines.
They might have personal knowledge of the property lines based on their own surveys or interactions with previous property owners. Sharing knowledge and comparing notes can help you find out where your property ends and your neighbor's property begins.
While your neighbors' input can be useful, it should not be solely relied upon for legally accurate boundary information.

3. Visit local government offices

Besides consulting your records and neighbors, consider visiting relevant government offices such as the:
  • Local zoning department
  • Local assessor's office
  • County clerk's office
  • Land records office
These offices often maintain important property-related documents, including existing surveys, plats, certificates of title, and records of property boundaries. Depending on where you live, you may be able to access these documents online as well.

4. Use online resources

Some counties offer property records online, enabling residents to conveniently access property information from their own devices. It might be worth trying to find these resources on your county's official website before traveling to the local office.
In addition to your county's website, you might find assistance from other online platforms like LandGlide or Regrid. These tools offer an efficient way to look up specific lots or parcels of land.

5. Hire a surveyor

Sometimes, hiring a professional is the best way to determine exact property lines.
Surveyors use specialized equipment to measure and mark the exact boundaries of your property based on legal records and other data. They will provide you with a survey report and should physically mark the property lines.
Their expertise will ensure you have the accurate information you need for various purposes, such as building projects or addressing any potential boundary disputes with neighbors.

What is an encroachment?

An encroachment is when a property owner constructs or extends an unauthorized physical structure into their neighbor’s land or property. Encroachments can either be above or below the land's surface. In addition, they can be intentional or unintentional.
Often, encroachments are at the center of property line disputes: one person thinks their land’s property line is located in one place, and their neighbor disagrees.
Encroachments can take various forms and occur in residential and commercial settings. Some common examples of encroachments include:
  • Fence overlap
  • Building extensions (e.g., an overhanging roof)
  • Driveways or pathways
  • Landscaping and gardens (e.g., overhanging trees)
  • Swimming pools or hot tubs
  • Retaining walls or berms
  • Septic systems or drainage

Encroachment versus trespassing

When it comes to property disputes between neighbors, we must differentiate between two types of violations: encroachment and trespassing.
To trespass means to intentionally enter another owner’s property or land without permission. Trespassing could mean someone:
  • Crossing through your land
  • Hunting or fishing on your property
  • Allowing livestock to graze on your land
  • Harvesting your crops or picking fruit from your trees
In contrast, encroachment means constructing past the property line.

Encroachment versus easement

An encroachment is a physical intrusion of one property onto another, while an easement is a permanent or temporary legal right to use another person's property for a specific purpose.
A common example of an easement is a utility easement, which grants utility companies the right to access and maintain utility lines on private property. Often, easements are recorded in a property deed or a separate easement agreement.
Besides differing in their purpose, encroachments and easements are also different in the following ways:
Encroachment Easement
Usually occurs without the permission of an affected property owner Usually established with a property owner’s consent
Usually requires correction or removal Doesn’t require correction
Violates legal rights Respects legal rights

How to handle property line disputes and encroachments

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to property line disputes and encroachments. That being said, the following steps are a great place to start:

1. Talk to your neighbor

The first step in handling property line encroachments is to initiate open and respectful communication with your neighbor.
Reach out to them in a friendly manner, express your concerns, and listen to their perspective. Remember that encroachments are often unintentional, and your neighbor might not even be aware of the issue.
While it can be tempting to resort to legal action or confrontation, starting with open dialogue offers the following advantages:
  • Effective problem solving : Being respectful and working together is more likely to lead to amicable solutions that benefit both parties.
  • Cost-effective : Legal actions and boundary disputes are time-consuming and expensive. Talk to your neighbor first to potentially avoid costly legal services later.
  • Saves time : Legal battles can take months or even years, but an open conversation can resolve a dispute as quickly as it starts.
  • Preserves relationship : A friendly conversation can help preserve positive neighborly relations.

2. Use documentation as proof

Documentation is a powerful ally in substantiating your claim and resolving the issue with your neighbor.
The following documents serve as concrete evidence to demonstrate that the encroachment is indeed occurring:
  • Property deed
  • Plat map
  • Certificate of title
  • Previous survey
  • Legal land description
Property boundaries can sometimes be challenging to determine visually. Use these documents to ensure a clear and factual representation of the situation.

3. Send a Cease and Desist Letter

A Cease and Desist Letter is a formal and assertive way to request that your neighbor cease their actions. Here are some tips on how to send an effective Cease and Desist Letter for an encroachment property dispute:
  • Clearly describe the encroachment and how it is affecting your property
  • Include specific details about the location and extent of the encroachment
  • Provide evidence from property deeds, surveys, plat maps, or other relevant documentation
  • Assert your property rights firmly
  • Reference any applicable laws or regulations that support your claims
  • Maintain a respectful tone throughout the letter
  • Be clear about the actions you expect the neighbor to take to rectify the encroachment (e.g., removing structures)
  • Set a reasonable timeframe for compliance
Sending the letter via certified mail or with delivery confirmation proves that the neighbor received the letter. This is valuable if further actions are necessary, such as pursuing legal recourse in the event of non-compliance.
Keep a copy of the Cease and Desist Letter and any response from the neighbor for your records.

4. Get a new property survey

Consider obtaining a new property survey. It can be an effective step toward resolving the issue.
A licensed land surveyor will conduct a professional property survey, providing precise and reliable information about the property's boundaries. This also offers clarity on the encroachment situation.
With an authoritative survey report, you and the neighbor will have concrete evidence about where a property line truly exists. Plus, the survey is a valuable resource in legal proceedings.

5. Hire a lawyer

While open communication, documentation, and professional property surveys should be the initial approaches to resolving the issue, there may be instances where reaching a satisfactory resolution is impossible. Sometimes, as a last resort, hiring a lawyer is a necessary step toward resolving a property line dispute.
In such cases, a lawyer with expertise in property law can:
  • Provide valuable legal advice
  • Represent your interests
  • Explore potential legal remedies
Although involving a lawyer can be costly and adversarial, it may be necessary when other attempts at resolution have been exhausted. In the end, it’s about safeguarding your property rights and ensuring a fair and equitable outcome.