This Article is designed to be of general interest. The specific techniques and information discussed may not apply to you. Before acting on any matter contained herein, you should consult with your personal legal adviser.
Trees, views, fences, and boundary disputes are common problems faced by homeowners. What are the rights and responsibilities of neighbors regarding these issues?
Good neighbors communicate, resolving problems to their mutual benefit without resort to the legal system. Mediation (offered by many communities or private providers) may result in a practical solution both can accept.
Our legal system descends from British common law. Statutes are passed by legislators to control specific situations; `common law’ has been developed by judges who interpret statutes and situations not specifically addressed by statutes, generally using theories of fairness for the best long term benefit of society. Many of the rules discussed here were developed over the last 7 centuries, and are a little surprising in the modern world.
BOUNDARY LINE DISPUTES
Our neighbor just had a survey: our house/fence /driveway is really one foot on his property. What can we do?
The common law doctrines of adverse possession and prescriptive easements sensibly allow continued use of another’s property to the same extent that it has been occupied/used for at least 5 years. [This is commonly known as “squatters’ rights.”]
Additional requirements are that the possession by the non-owner be open, notorious, and hostile. For the “squatter” to obtain actual ownership, he must also pay the property taxes on the occupied land.
Alternatively, if it can be proven that both neighbors (or the prior owners) had agreed that the fence was the boundary line, after 5 years, the common boundary theory makes it so.
The boundary line fence fell down in a recent storm. Who is responsible?
Good neighbors will agree on splitting the cost of the repair. Civil Code §841 requires that owners contribute to maintain fences between them, unless one of them chooses to let his land lie unfenced; if he later fences his property, he then is responsible for payment of a proportional share of the value of the fence.
1)“My neighbor’s tree overhangs my property. What are my rights?”
Traditionally, a property owner had full right to all of his property, from the center of the earth to heaven. This made sense at the time of the Magna Carta when British common law began, but has been sensibly limited with the advent of airflight.
Although you may cut tree limbs and remove roots from your neighbor’s tree where they cross over the property line, you cannot do so if it will damage the continued viability of his tree.
2)“The recent storms knocked down my neighbor’s tree limb onto my property, causing damage to my house/car/lawn furniture.”
Whether the tree limb had overhung the property does not matter. The neighbor is only responsible for negligence: If he was careless, he is responsible; if the damage was from an act of God, the neighbor is not responsible.
If a tree limb appeared precarious and the owner failed to maintain the tree after warnings, he is responsible for resulting damage when a storm causes the limb to fall. If the tree was well maintained and a storm knocked it down onto your roof, the neighbor is not responsible.
3) His tree has grown wider, encroaching onto my property [or pushing aside my fence].
This is a continuing trespass and the neighbor must remove his tree (regardless of how long it has been encroaching).
[A boundary tree is one planted on the boundary. It cannot be removed without mutual agreement.]
4) His leaves keep blowing onto my yard. And they blocked my gutters causing damage to my house.Tough. There is no liability for leaves which are natural products. [Common law developed in an agrarian society.]
My neighbor’s tree has grown large:
– my view has been ruined
– my natural sunshine is blocked
– my air circulation is affected.
In California, there is no right to view/sunshine/ air circulation, unless a local ordinance has been passed. Several Bay Area cities have various local ordinances.
My neighbor is building an addition which will:
– ruin my view
– harm my property value
The local zoning and building departments control these issues. If the neighbor meets their requirements, generally nothing can be done.
My neighbor’s rain water runoff damaged my property.
Natural runoff is not actionable. However, natural runoff never exists in urban areas. Any grading or building alters the natural runoff and the owner is responsible for damage.
My neighbor has too many pets.
Unless it is a health code or noise ordinance violation, it is probably tough luck.
My neighbor parks:
– his ugly boat/RV
– 15 cars/broken cars
on public streets in front of my house.
Tough. Local rules apply, if any exist.
There must be a written agreement to enforce any agreement for sharing expenses for a shared driveway.
Local laws control noise. Police might quiet a noisy event under criminal disturbance of the peace laws; private (civil) remedies exist only for a continuing nuisance.
My neighbor painted his house purple.
There are no limits on bad taste unless CC&Rs are recorded locally on the land records.
My neighbor’s weeds are 6 feet high; his house is decrepit. It’s an unmaintained eyesore.
Health Codes, local ordinances, and nuisance laws may prohibit these conditions.
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