Property lines are the boundaries that separate one piece of land from another. Landowners often choose to place a tree, shrub, or fence on or near their property line as a way to identify the boundary of their property. However, doing so can cause property line disputes.
Property line disputes commonly arise between neighboring property owners when there is uncertainty about the exact location of the property line, or when trees, shrubs, or fences along property lines become an eyesore or a hazard.
What if My Neighbor and I Disagree on the Location of the Property Line?
Property lines are invisible so it is incredibly common for there to be some uncertainty as to where exactly the legal property line is. The only way to know the exact location of a property line is to check the official “plat map” or to have a property survey conducted.
A plat map is a detailed map showing property lines and precise measurements for pieces of land near each other. Plat maps are recorded at the courthouse for public use and can be found online in many counties.
A property survey, on the other hand, is a detailed map usually showing a single piece of property and the location of the improvements on the property relative to the property’s boundaries. Surveys are typically only for the personal use of the landowner.
Based on a plat map or property survey, you should be able to tell whether the location of a fence or a line of trees or shrubs properly reflects the actual property lines. You will also be able to tell on which property each tree, shrub, or fence, actually lies and therefore, who owns and is responsible for each one.
What if a Tree, Shrub, or Fence is Near the Property Line?
Each property owner is, of course, responsible for the maintenance of a tree, shrub, or fence located on their own property, but disputes can arise when a tree or shrub is close enough to a property line that branches overhang or roots grow underground into a neighbor’s property.
Each tree, shrub, or fence owner is required to take reasonable care to perform the appropriate maintenance in order to prevent them from causing damage to a neighbor’s property or from becoming a nuisance and interfering with the neighbor’s ability to enjoy their property.
For example, branches from a tree that overhang a neighbor’s property can pose a hazard to their house if the tree is damaged or dying, and the roots from a tree or shrub that grow underneath a neighbor’s property can damage their sewer lines or disrupt their pavement or foundation.
Similarly, a fence that has fallen into disrepair may pose a risk of falling onto and damaging a neighbor’s property, or an overgrown shrub may prevent a neighbor from being able to use their driveway. Important to note is that leaves falling from one person’s tree onto another person’s property are not considered a nuisance, as a tree shedding its leaves is natural, inevitable, and not under any control of the tree owner.
It is always best to discuss concerns with a neighbor first, but a property owner has the right to trim branches from a neighbor’s tree that overhang their property, as well as the right to trim and remove roots from a neighbor’s tree or shrub that are interfering with improvements on the property when necessary to prevent property damage. A property owner that wishes to do so, however, is responsible for the cost of the trimming and will be responsible if irreparable damage is done to the tree/shrub as a result of the trimming.
Property Damage Resulting from a Tree, Shrub, or Fence Near the Property Line
The party responsible for property damage from a tree, shrub, or fence near a property line will depend on the circumstances under which the damage occurred. Generally, a tree owner will be responsible for damage done to a neighbor’s property by their tree only if the damage was foreseeable and preventable.
For example, if a hurricane or blizzard causes a tree branch from one property owner’s tree to fall onto a neighbor’s roof, then the tree owner will not be held responsible for the damages. In a situation like this, the neighbor whose roof was damaged would need to file a claim with their homeowner’s insurance.
On the other hand, if a tree that overhangs a neighbor’s property has been dead or a fence has been near falling over for years and the neighbor has requested that the tree or fence owner remove the tree or fence, then the tree or fence owner will likely be responsible for the damage when the dead tree limb or damaged fence inevitably falls onto their neighbor’s property.
What if a Tree, Shrub, or Fence is Right on the Property Line?
When a tree or shrub is located directly on the property line, each neighboring property owner is responsible for upkeep on their side of the property line. For a fence built right on a property line, the property owner that installed the fence will be responsible for its maintenance and upkeep.
An exception may occur, however, if both neighbors have their yard enclosed by a fence and the fence panels on the property line between the properties are shared.
Should I Talk to a Lawyer about Tree and Shrubs on Boundary Lines?
Trees and shrubs along a boundary line (as well as disputes concerning them) are very commonplace, but they carry more legal responsibilities than most property owners are aware of. Few disputes are unresolvable or serious enough to require legal action and neighbors can often come to an understanding without legal intervention.
However, in cases where you are unable to get in contact with a neighboring landowner to discuss an issue, or when a neighbor is refusing to pay for foreseeable damages caused to your property, it may be in your best interest to contact a real estate lawyer.