Not Knowing Your Property Line When Buying a Home Can Be Expensive

Reader Question: I recently had my lot surveyed, and it turns out one neighbor’s fence is three feet over my property line, butted up against the back of my garage. The neighbor to the side has a fence that is about five feet inside their property line. I have someone cut my grass and don’t want to pay to mow their lawn. I don’t know what to do about the fence on my property. If I should go to sell my house, I am sure this will be an issue. Can you advise?

Monty’s Answer: Surveyors can sometimes make mistakes, and neighbors place fences in the wrong place more often than one would think. The situation you are describing seems a bit odd. The time is right to solve the problem for more reasons than a sale. Another reason is a legal theory called “adverse possession.” Every state’s rules are different, but the gist of the law is that when a neighbor encroaches on adjoining property for a specified period (like 20 years) without any notice from the infringed upon neighbor, a court could decide that land becomes the property of the encroaching neighbor.

There may be zoning codes that require a certain distance between a building to the lot line. “Setback” is the term used to describe the condition.

Consider the following three steps

  1. Approach both neighbors and ask them if they have a survey of the property they own as there may be some confusion as to the location of the lot corner stakes. Before you do this, go online to the website of your municipality. Once there, search for “GIS mapping.” GIS mapping is an online system that pictures property boundaries on a map. Another GIS feature is aerial photography. By activating these two features, you can see how the lots fit together on a photograph without leaving your home. As a caveat, the GIS system states on the website the descriptions may not be accurate.
  2. If the GIS corroborates your survey, you can approach the neighbors. If the trespassing neighbor cannot produce a survey defending the location of his fence, notify them the fence must be moved in writing. You may or may not want to inform the neighbor who’s lawn you are mowing. It would help if you learned how the adverse possession laws work in your state or consult a real estate attorney. It may be possible, depending on the law, and how long each of you has owned the property, to claim the strip. You are only asking the attorney for their opinion of the situation; you are not starting a lawsuit.
  3. Now that you have the information you need, you can make an intelligent decision on how to proceed. There may be variables; your financial situation, your relationship with your neighbors, what caused these errors in the first place, and other potential histories. Sort through these points, decide on a course of step-by-step action and proceed.