Navigating Disputes Over Property Boundaries and Encroachments

Property disputes are a common yet complex aspect of real estate law in California. Whether it’s a disagreement over property boundaries or issues with encroachments, these disputes can be intricate and emotionally charged. 

That’s why it’s so important to understand your rights and options in a property line dispute before taking action. Let’s break down how property boundary issues arise and what you can do if you and your neighbor disagree about where the boundaries lie. 

Why Property Boundaries Matter in California

Property boundaries in California are defined as the legally recognized lines where one property ends and another begins. These boundaries are crucial in real estate as they determine the extent of the land or structure that an owner has rights to. Understanding and establishing these boundaries is essential for real estate owners, especially to avoid or resolve disputes.

How Property Boundaries Are Established in California

There are a number of ways that official property lines may be established under state law. The most common methods for drawing boundaries include:

  • Deeds: A deed is a legal document that transfers property from one owner to another. It typically contains a description of the lot, which includes its boundaries. The description in the deed might be in a “metes and bounds” format, which uses physical features and measurements to describe property lines, or it might reference a plat map or survey.
  • Surveys: A property survey is conducted by a licensed surveyor who physically measures the land and determines its boundaries. Surveys are often used in conjunction with deeds, especially when descriptions are unclear or disputed. New surveys might be conducted when a location is sold, subdivided, or developed or when a boundary dispute arises.
  • Historical Use and Agreements: In some cases, historical usage of the land or agreements between neighbors can establish informal boundaries. However, these may not always align with legal descriptions.
  • Governmental Records: County records and plat maps can also be sources for determining real estate boundaries. These records might include information from previous surveys or legal descriptions from deeds.

When these methods align, the place where one plot ends and the next begins is clear. However, when various documents disagree on the precise line between properties, boundary disputes can arise.

Examples of Common Boundary Disputes

There are many reasons why neighbors may disagree over the specifics of their property lines. Some of the most frequent types of disputes are caused by:

  • Overlapping Property Lines: This occurs when the legal descriptions of adjacent properties suggest that they overlap. Such disputes often arise due to errors in legal descriptions, outdated surveys, or incorrect recording of property lines.
  • Unclear Deed Descriptions:  Sometimes, the language in a deed is ambiguous or vague, failing to delineate boundaries clearly. This can lead to disputes if different interpretations lead to different conclusions about where boundaries lie.
  • Adverse Possession Claims: In some cases, a property owner may claim a piece of land that they have been using but do not legally own under the doctrine of adverse possession. This can lead to disputes if the legal owner challenges the claim.
  • Easements and Right of Way: Disputes can also arise regarding easements, where one property owner has the right to use a portion of another’s land or structure for a specific purpose, such as a driveway or utility line.

All of the above problems can be grounds for a legal battle between neighbors on their own. However, in most cases, disputes regarding unclear descriptions or overlapping property lines only arise when prompted by another much more common dispute: encroachment. Let’s dive into these boundary encroachments in more detail. 

Encroachments: Identification and Impact

In California real estate law, encroachment occurs when a structure or object intrudes onto the property of another without permission. This intrusion must be physical and tangible, and it typically crosses over a boundary. Encroachments can create legal disputes between owners and can affect property rights, value, and use.

Common examples of encroachments that could lead to problems include:

  • Buildings: A part of a building, such as a room, balcony, or even the foundation, extending onto a neighboring lot.
  • Fences: A fence that crosses over the property line, either intentionally or by mistake.
  • Trees: Branches or roots of a tree encroaching onto a neighbor’s land, potentially causing damage or obstruction.
  • Driveways or Paths: A driveway or path that extends beyond the owner’s property line into a neighboring property.

Identifying Encroachments in California

You can often identify potential encroachments through a careful visual inspection of the property lines. This is more effective if you know where the boundaries are supposed to be.

If you don’t know where the boundaries are, there are other steps you can take. Discussing property lines with neighbors can sometimes help identify encroachments by helping you build a mutual understanding of the boundaries.

If that’s not possible, examining the property’s deed and local property records can provide information on legal property boundaries. This can also help you collect evidence of conflicting sources regarding the exact property line. 

When all else fails, the most definitive way to identify an encroachment is through a professional property survey, which accurately maps out the boundaries. If you’re involved in a serious dispute, your attorney will likely recommend this to help you resolve matters most effectively. 

Impacts of Encroachments

Encroachments like these aren’t just annoying. They can also have substantial impacts on owners’ abilities to use or sell their property. For example, a fence that’s partially on your land can prevent you from accessing land you own, physically preventing you from fully enjoying or developing your land. Similarly, a building that’s partially on your yard blocks you from using that area for your own purposes. Meanwhile, trees can cause physical damage to your property if they are not addressed. 

In addition, encroachments can complicate real estate transactions, as they often need to be resolved before a sale or refinancing. All of these problems may make a property less desirable to potential buyers, thus reducing its market value. As a result, encroachments often lead to legal disputes. 

Legal Framework Governing Boundary Disputes and Encroachments

Before filing a lawsuit regarding a potential encroachment, it’s important to understand how these disputes work in California. Several crucial laws explain real estate owners’ rights and responsibilities regarding their property lines, including:

  1. California Civil Code Sections 829 and 841: According to Civil Code Section 829, “The owner of land in fee has the right to the surface and to everything permanently situated beneath or above it.” Section 841 goes into more detail, explaining the rules and requirements for building a fence between properties that form the basis of many encroachment claims.
  2. Easement Laws: Civil Code Section 845 explains how easements work in California. Easements can affect property boundaries, where one party has a right to use a portion of another’s land for a specific purpose, such as access or utilities. Disputes can arise regarding the existence, scope, or termination of these easements.
  3. Adverse Possession Laws: The Code of Civil Procedure Sections 318, 325, and 328 outline the concept of adverse possession in California. These laws allow a person to claim ownership of land they’ve openly and continuously occupied for a statutory period (typically five years) under certain conditions, even if they don’t hold the title. This can lead to boundary disputes if one party claims ownership over a piece of land traditionally considered part of a neighboring plot.
  4. Trespass and Nuisance Laws: There are a variety of regulations dictating when someone can enter another person’s property without their consent. These laws come into play when encroachments are considered either a trespass (an unlawful intrusion) or a nuisance (an interference with the enjoyment of property).

In addition to these state-wide laws, every municipality has its own local zoning laws and ordinances that may impact your claim. Some of the most important of these can include:

  1. Zoning Regulations: Zoning laws dictate how properties in different areas can be used (e.g., residential, commercial, industrial), which can influence boundary disputes, especially if an encroachment involves a violation of zoning restrictions.
  2. Setback Requirements: Many localities have setback rules that require structures to be a certain distance from the edge of a lot. Encroachments can sometimes violate these setbacks, leading to legal issues.
  3. Building Codes and Permits: Local building codes and permit requirements ensure that structures are built legally and safely. If a building that encroaches on another lot lacks the proper permits, this can exacerbate the dispute.
  4. Tree Ordinances: Some local governments have specific ordinances regarding trees, especially in urban areas. These can address issues like tree trimming, maintenance, and responsibility when trees encroach on adjacent properties.
  5. Historic Districts and Preservation Laws: In historic districts or under preservation laws, additional regulations might govern how properties can be altered, impacting potential boundary adjustments or the resolution of encroachments.

Understanding both the state laws and local regulations is crucial for effectively navigating and resolving boundary disputes and encroachments in California. 

Resolving Boundary and Encroachment Disputes

When a real estate boundary dispute arises, it’s important to handle it carefully to find a resolution that is amicable, legal, and meets your needs. Here’s what the dispute resolution process often looks like:

1. Communication with the Neighbor

Before doing anything else, it’s worthwhile to approach your neighbor in a friendly and non-confrontational manner to discuss the boundary issue. Sometimes, disputes arise from misunderstandings that can be cleared up with a simple conversation.

Exchange any information you have regarding the property boundaries, such as deeds, previous survey results, or any relevant historical information. Try to come to an agreement or understanding about where the boundary lies based on the information available.

2. Seeking Legal Advice

If the dispute cannot be resolved through initial discussions, consult with a real estate attorney who specializes in boundary disputes. They can provide legal advice based on the specifics of your situation.

Your attorney can also review deeds, surveys, and other documents to determine the legal standing of your claim. Most importantly, they will help you gain an understanding of your legal rights and obligations regarding the disputed boundary.

3. Mediation and Negotiation

If both parties are open to it, your attorney may recommend using a professional mediator. Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps both sides discuss their issues and find a mutually agreeable solution for fixing the encroachment. 

You and your neighbor, possibly with legal representatives, can negotiate directly to reach an agreement. This can involve compromises or mutually beneficial solutions, like adjusting the boundary in a way that’s agreeable to both parties.

4. Litigation: When It’s Necessary and What It Entails

Litigation should be considered a last resort, typically pursued when all other avenues have failed, and the legal rights or significant value of the property are at stake. However, in some cases, it’s necessary to resolve the disagreement and regain fair use of your real estate. 

If litigation is necessary, your attorney will help you start your lawsuit by filing a legal complaint in a court with jurisdiction over the property. The litigation process can be lengthy and will involve gathering evidence, presenting arguments, and possibly expert testimonies, such as from surveyors or real estate law experts.

The court will make a decision based on the presented evidence, which can include enforcing the legal boundary, awarding damages for any losses incurred, or issuing injunctions against the offending party.

Litigation can be expensive and time-consuming. It can also negatively impact neighborly relations, so it’s important to weigh these factors before proceeding.

Throughout this process, it’s crucial to keep detailed records of all communications, agreements, and legal advice. Additionally, maintaining a cooperative and respectful approach with your neighbor can significantly improve the chances of a positive outcome.

Resolve Your Property Line Problems With Skilled Legal Counsel

Navigating property boundary and encroachment disputes requires a thorough understanding of the law, strong negotiation skills, and, sometimes, litigation strategies. Engaging a lawyer early in the process can save time, resources, and stress while ensuring your property rights are protected and upheld. If you’re involved in a property line dispute, don’t navigate these troubled waters alone. Contact Peterson Law, LLP, for a consultation, and let us help you find a resolution that protects your property and peace of mind.