A property dispute is a legal dispute that involves real estate. While it may sound relatively simple, the term “property dispute” covers a wide range of possible disputes over a wide range of property. The property involved could be anything from a vacant lot to a home, deck, condominium, manufactured home, pond, driveway, and other possible elements of real property.
Property disputes can be small or large, and may occasionally affect marketability of title (although it doesn’t have to in order to be a dispute). For example, a property dispute may arise when a builder of new construction homes pours a concrete driveway for a brand-new home–but accidentally creates the driveway so that it crosses onto the neighbor’s property by six inches. This is a small issue, but has the potential to become a larger problem down the road if it is not corrected.
Who Can Be Involved in a Property Dispute?
Property disputes can involve just about anyone who has an interest in the real estate in question. For example, most property disputes involve the owner of the property in some way, but they can also involve:
- Landlords and Tenants;
- Homeowner Associations (HOAs);
- Family Members;
- Builders and Developers;
- Government Agencies; and/or
It can be important to keep in mind that cities and municipalities can be part of a property dispute. Cities have the ability to own property, and often have agencies that regulate property or issue building permits (such as a city or town planning department).
Often, property disputes that involve cities or municipalities can involve issues of eminent domain, where the government has the right to take and use property for public purposes.
What are Some Common Types of Property Disputes?
As we said before, property disputes can range from the small to large, and can vary in their severity. Some common property disputes can include:
- Boundary Disputes: Which can involve disagreements among neighbors regarding the location of a property line.
- Landlord-Tenant Disputes: Which can sometimes involve a dispute over who is responsible for damage or repairs to the property, whether there was sufficient damage for the landlord to retain the tenant’s security deposit, or issues regarding eviction from a property.
- Zoning Issues: Which involves whether the property is being used for the same purpose it was zoned, what zoning ordinances the town has in place, and whether the owner needs to apply for a variance from the town.
- Homeowner Association Responsibilities: Which may bring up questions of whether the HOA is responsible for maintenance and upkeep of some elements of the neighborhood.
- Utility Easements: Sometimes homeowners may not realize whether or where utility easements are located on their property.
- Ownership Disputes: Which brings into question who is the rightful owner of a property.
Most commonly, when we think of a property dispute, we think of a boundary dispute. For example, a homeowner puts up a fence in the backyard and inadvertently puts their fence over the property line into the neighbor’s yard. Or perhaps there is a tree located between two homes, and one neighbor wants to cut branches that are arching over her roof–who owns the tree?
Often, boundary disputes can be resolved at least in part by having a proper survey conducted on the property (especially if you’re planning on putting in a fence). Other property disputes may become more complicated, especially when you start running into issues questioning ownership.
What is a “Cloud” on Title?
Generally speaking, a “cloud” on title refers to any irregularity or outstanding claim in the chain of title to the property. Usually this means that there is an unresolved claim, a lien, or some other encumbrance on the property that would prevent transfer of ownership from one party to another. Clouds on title are usually found during a title search on the property.
For example, a legitimate question about rightful ownership can directly impact an impending sale–if the party who signed the contract to sell the property does not own the property, they have no right to sell!
This serious cloud on title is best handled with the help of an experienced real estate attorney, who can research the chain of title in the county records and determine whether corrective documents need to be prepared and filed with the county or whether a quiet title lawsuit should be initiated to clear up the issue.
Other clouds on title can be smaller. A tax lien from the IRS can be resolved by paying any back taxes that you owe (which you can do with or without the assistance of an attorney).
Some may list other items as “clouds” on title, like HOA covenants, zoning requirements, and recorded easements, but these particular items do not necessarily affect transfer of ownership. While they do affect the property, buyers should be made aware of these items because they can affect the buyers’ use of the property.
What Remedies are Available for Property Disputes?
Remedies for property disputes often depend on the nature of the dispute and the state where the property is located. Potential remedies include injunctions, judicial sales, monetary damages, and quiet title actions.
If you are seeking to stop your neighbor from doing something with their property (like burning trash or building a “spite fence”), you may seek an injunction from the court. An injunction, sometimes referred to as a “cease and desist” order, is a judicial order that requires a person to do or stop doing a specific action.
In some cases, the court may use a judicial sale of the property to remedy the situation. This is most common in foreclosure situations, where a homeowner has failed to make mortgage payments.
Judicial sale also occurs in partition actions, where co-owners of a property no longer want to be co-owners. In a partition action, the court may order the property sold and the proceeds distributed among the co-owners according to the proportion of their ownership of the property.
Monetary damages are intended to cover any losses you may incur as part of the property dispute. For example, if a builder of a new construction home pours a concrete driveway over the property line so that the driveway is six inches onto the neighbor’s property, and you incur expenses to have the driveway dug up and corrected, the builder may be directed by the court to pay monetary damages. Or, for instance, if a neighbor cuts down one of your trees, you may be entitled to monetary damages (like the value of the tree).
Quiet title actions are a specific type of lawsuit used to determine legal ownership of a property, and are more common when the chain of title in the public record is incomplete.
Do I Need an Attorney if I Have a Property Dispute?
It depends on the nature of the property dispute. Sometimes, a dispute can be resolved by just talking to your neighbor and maintaining a good relationship with them. Politeness and respect can go a long way in resolving minor disputes. If it gets to the point where you feel a demand letter is necessary, you can certainly discuss that option with an attorney.
However, there are some situations where it is important to consult a qualified real estate attorney right away, especially if someone is trying to claim ownership over your property or there is a genuine issue with title to the property. Property laws can vary greatly depending on what state you are located in, and it is extremely helpful to consult an attorney local to you, who is knowledgeable about how property laws work in your area.
A local real estate attorney can talk through the situation with you, research the public records regarding the property, and give you the best advice on how this affects your property and the best way to move forward. In some situations, your attorney can also represent you in court (if needed), work with you to clear any clouds on title, and help you to clear any liens that you may have on your property.