Most homeowners in California assume that the boundary lines of their property are located where noticeable structures separate the two parcels of land – for example, where a fence stands. However, the perceived location of a boundary line is not always accurate, and homeowners can occasionally run into problems as a result.
Understanding boundary lines can be helpful for any homeowner who wants to avoid future litigation, and in this article, we draw on the book Neighborhood Law to outline how a homeowner can clearly establish the boundary line of their property and discuss what to do if their neighbor breaks those boundary lines.
Identifying the Boundary Line
For neighbors to agree on the boundary line, four conditions must be met:
- There must be genuine uncertainty as to where the true boundary line runs on the ground.
- Both landowners must agree on the new line.
- The owners must then behave in a way that respects the agreed-upon boundary line. Lawyers often call this “acting in reliance on the agreement.”
- The agreed boundary must be identifiable on the ground.
If there is uncertainty or disagreement, landowners can start by calling in a surveyor to identify the official boundary line. A surveyor will survey the property and place official markers on the boundary lines. However, the downside of this process is that it can cost hundreds of dollars; understandably, many homeowners prefer to avoid this hassle.
There is also the risk of finding an unpleasant surprise. In some cases, a surveyor may determine that the boundary line is quite different from the perceived boundary line, meaning that one property owner may own more of their neighbor’s land than expected. If this occurs, one homeowner may have to pay the other homeowner for the property they have been occupying, which can fuel further friction and even litigation between neighbors.
Establishing the Boundary Line (Legally!)
There are different avenues a homeowner can take to set a boundary line, each requiring a different amount of work and third-party help. Let’s review your options.
- Sign a Quitclaim Deed
Homeowners who agree on the location of the boundary line can simply complete a Quitclaim deed. This deed transfers to the other neighbor all rights they have to property that falls on the other side of the line they have agreed on. Once completed, the Quitclaim deed should be filed with the county land records office.
If either homeowner has a mortgage on the property, they will need to consult with their attorney to draft the deed. In fact, using an attorney for this process regardless of which method the homeowner pursues may benefit both homeowners legally.
- Sign an Owner’s Agreement
To end any confusion surrounding the boundary line, homeowners can also opt to draft and sign an Owner’s Agreement. Similar to the deed, the agreement specifies the exact location of the boundary line. However, the line is more ambiguous in this document – an Owner’s Agreement is often used when a boundary line cannot be located because the deeds or map do not clarify one.
An Owners’ Agreement is binding to the homeowners and future buyers, so it should be filed in the public land records, but the agreement does not change the ownership of land.
- Letting the Court Decide
If neighbors cannot agree on the boundary line, then they can rely on the courts to decide. Even though it can seem daunting, we always recommend that California residents consult with a real estate attorney to proceed with a boundary line dispute. There’s a good reason for this: the resolution of California boundary disputes can be surprisingly challenging and involve complex legal rules and concepts.
When A Neighbor Doesn’t Honor the Boundary
If you find yourself challenged by a neighbor who repeatedly refuses to honor the boundary line that has been established, consider these three next steps to resolve the conflict:
- Act Promptly
- Talk to the Neighbor
- Hire A Lawyer
Most homeowners prefer to avoid step three, so it is best to confront the issues as soon as it arises.
Case Study: Boundary Trees, Fruits, and Nuts
Challenges regarding boundary lines arise commonly with landscaping issues – specifically, with trees. Due to the growth patterns of these natural elements, most homeowners do not have control when their trees invade their neighbor’s boundary. When this is the case, there are a few key elements to be aware of:
The location of a tree trunk typically determines who owns the tree (and who is therefore responsible for maintaining the tree and its roots). In California, trees whose trunks are partly on the land of two
or more property owners are called “line trees” and are shared by all such neighbors. This includes trees whose trunks grow from one property to the next.
Only by establishing the location of the boundary line can two neighbors understand who really owns the tree. When the trunk straddles the property line, the neighbors become co-owners of the tree. Therefore, the associated responsibilities, including maintenance and care, must be split.
So, what if the said tree is growing fruits and nuts? Well, the same rule applies – The location of the trunk determines who can claim ownership over the fruits and nuts. Of course, if the fruits and nuts hang over the property line, things might get messy, and a dispute may be triggered between two homeowners, depending on their existing relationship. If the tree hangs over the boundary line, the tree owner can face trespassing allegations for attempting to collect the fruits and nuts that fall over. As for who owns the fruit once it falls, this is a grey area in California. Additionally, the neighbor on the intruding side of the tree has a right to trim the overhanging branches. If you have a fruit tree hanging into your neighbor’s yard, your best bet would be to maintain a friendly relationship with them – and share the fruit each season!
If one owner refuses to cooperate, yet boundary lines have been established, the homeowner who has taken responsibility can take the other homeowner to court to cover the associated costs. As always, be sure you are well prepared before you sue your neighbor: know who’s responsible for the tree; be sure the problem requires joint contribution; document the problem and obtain an estimate of how much the other owner should contribute; suggest mediation; then, go to small claims court. For more information, check out last month’s article: Branches, Limbs, and Roots: How to Deal with Your Neighbor’s Tree Problem.
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