When you moved into your new house, the neighbors were so friendly. You almost felt bad about putting up a fence, but you promised your dog he’d have plenty of room to frolick when you finally owned your own little piece of land. So you did, and now those same neighbors are giving you the cold shoulder, along with a letter from their attorney.
What in the world caused them to turn from the nicest people you’d ever meet to ice-in-their-veins cold? According to their lawyer (they’re not speaking to you anymore), you’ve encroached on their property with your fence.
Property Line Disputes: The Basics
Please note: the laws that revolve around property line disputes vary wildly from state to state, so this topic can only be addressed in broad strokes. We’ll give you a good place to start to understand why your neighbors are so angry, though.
All you wanted to do was build a fence. You thought the place you stuck it looked right — it was kinda along the middle of the space between the two houses. You kind of figured that if you were off by a foot or two, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. As it turns out, people get really touchy about a foot of land these days.
What’s happened here is that you’ve accidentally taken the first step to adverse possession of the neighbor in question’s land. This threatens to decrease their property value, since you could, in theory, become the legal owner of that land given enough time and effort. Of course, you didn’t mean to do it, but they can’t see that right now. Right now they’re just angry.
What is Adverse Possession?
Adverse possession, as defined legally, is when a random person occupies your property in an open, hostile and continuous way. Breaking it down:
The open: The occupant made no secret of being there. They’re not hiding or trying to be sneaky.
The hostile: You didn’t tell this person it was ok to hang out, they didn’t seek your permission anyway, maybe they thought it was theirs or maybe they just didn’t care who owned the place.
The continuous: The usurper is there for a long time without stop. In some states, this can be as little as about five years, in others it might be 20. It’s important for affected owners to act fast if they don’t know which category their state is in.
By not having your property surveyed before putting up your fence, you’ve done all of these things, though obviously not intentionally. But now that you know, it’s time to do something to clear the air.
Some Solutions to Boundary Woes
In this scenario, you’re the accidental assailant, but it could just as easily happen in reverse, where you’re the one whose new neighbor built a fence that you weren’t happy about. Either way, the approach is similar.
Step 1. Talk to the neighbor. If you did the encroaching, apologize profusely and throw yourself on the mercy of your neighbor. Explain that you didn’t realize you needed a survey or that you thought you were putting the fence in the right spot. Often people will surprise you with their ability to forgive if you’re willing to meet them part of the way.
Step 2. Figure out your options. With the neighbors warmed up again, it’s time to figure out how to solve the problem. You could simply have a survey, dig up the fence and move it to the proper location. But, let’s say that’s currently cost-prohibitive, what with the recent house purchase and fence erection both taking up a lot of your free cash. To protect your neighbor’s rights, start with one of the following:
* A notarized letter granting you permission to use the land. This way, you’re openly declaring that your intentions are not hostile and the owner is giving you permission to be on their land. You can leave your fence in place — at least for now.
* A rental agreement. By agreeing to a small rental fee (even as low as a few bucks a month), you immediately acknowledge that your fence is on the neighbor’s property. Should they want to sell their home, they could simply terminate the rental agreement and you’d have to move the fence. It might be a good idea to stipulate a deadline for moving the fence just to protect everyone.
Whatever you choose, make sure to file a copy with your county recorder so that it becomes a public agreement. This will help your neighbor by creating a permanent record that any appraiser or title researcher could pull up later should the fence problem threaten to cloud their title.
What If You Can’t Come to Terms?
If you’re in the situation where the shoe’s on the other foot — your neighbor built his fence on your lot and you sent the letter from the attorney, then you’re the one that’s angry and frustrated at such ruthless behavior. Remember that it could have been a simple oversight, but definitely try to work it out with minimal bloodshed initially.
If, on the other hand, you went to chat with the neighbor and he told you he liked your lot and wanted to keep it for himself like some sort of real estate pirate, well, you can’t just leave it like that. You may have to take him to court to settle the issue (if you live in a planned neighborhood with an active HOA, they may have a mediation process in place to handle these problems).
In the weeks leading up to court, you may be given any or all of these options by the neighbor’s attorney as a settlement: sell your property, split the difference or give up and let the pirate win. Likely end results of these choices include:
Sell: You lose a piece of property that could affect your real estate values. If it’s a few inches, maybe it’s not a big thing, but if it’s several feet all the way down your 200 foot long lot line, it could be an issue. Consult with a Realtor or appraiser for more on the value impact, as well as how much compensation to seek.
Split the difference: You’re not admitting defeat, but it’s still not the outcome you’d hoped for. You still lose something, though not as much as you would have if you hadn’t gone to court. If the neighbor will pay you something for your loss, consider it.
Give up: Don’t do this. It’s just like selling, except you don’t get any compensation for the property you’ve lost.
Always consult with your lawyer before making a final decision on how to handle a property line dispute.