Homeowner, Know Thy Boundaries: Good Fences, Good Neighbors, & Expensive Disputes

June 28, 2022 |

fence dispute

You’ve had that shed, garage, or patio for years. You know, the one that goes right up to your fence with the neighbors. Then, someone wants to do a remodel – you or that new neighbor whose dog barks all day. It’s only then that you find out the previous owners messed up the property lines when they built the fence. Despite the fact that the fence has been there for decades, you now have a dispute, often acrimonious, about which neighbor really owns the property.

Turns out, good fences don’t just make for good neighbors. They can also make for expensive legal battles. It might be tempting to think that as the “real” owner of the property you are entitled to have that property returned. However, California courts are not always kind to homeowners who get too greedy in property disputes.

In Romero v. Shih, new homeowners discovered that a neighbor’s wall encroached on their property line. The misplaced wall enclosed an 8’ x 150’ area and reduced the lot size by approximately 13 percent. Notably, neither the new homeowner nor the encroaching neighbor were the original property owners, so neither party was responsible for the mistake. Nevertheless, the homeowners took an aggressive position and demanded complete removal of any and all encroachments or $300,000 in damages.

California law recognizes a number of legal doctrines that apply to these kinds of boundary disputes, including: (1) equitable easements, (2) irrevocable licenses, (3) the agreed boundary doctrine, and (4) adverse possession.

An equitable easements preserves the holder’s right to use someone else’s property. In the case of property encroachments, a court balances the hardships between the parties to determine if an easement is appropriate. If it grants the encroacher an exclusive equitable easement, it may also order them to pay the true property owner damages related to continued and exclusive use of easement.

A property owner may intentionally or implicitly grant an irrevocable license to their neighbor by allowing them to expend time, money, or labor improving property that later becomes the subject of a dispute.

The Agreed Boundary Doctrine sounds like the perfect solution to a property line dispute. The doctrine requires a party to establish three elements: (1) an uncertainty as to the true boundary line, (2) an agreement fixing the line, and (3) acceptance of the line for a sufficient period of time. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court has severely restricted the application of this doctrine. You must prove there was uncertainty about where the true boundary was at the time the line was fixed and that the owners set the line to settle a dispute.

An encroaching party might make a claim for adverse possession when they have occupied the property for five years and meet the statutory requirements for establishing their right to the property. However, the California requirement that the adverse possessor must pay taxes on the property prevents most innocent homeowners in a boundary dispute from making a successful adverse possession claim.

In the Romero case, the Court granted the neighbors an equitable easement that allowed them to keep using the property until the block wall was no longer maintained. If the wall was ever removed, the property would revert back to the homeowners. The homeowners walked away with nothing. That was due, in part, to their unwillingness to compromise. The plaintiffs’ position was that they were entitled to the entire 8-foot strip back, and they would not settle for less. Although the neighbors probably needed just two feet for the length of the property to ensure they could use their driveway, they received the entire 8-foot strip. The homeowners could also have accepted the trial court’s offer to establish an exclusive equitable easement, which would have required the neighbors to pay for their use of the property. Instead, they took an all or nothing approach and ended up with nothing.

Real property issues are complex and require careful evaluation of your options. If you have a similar issue or need a consultation, please reach out to authors or any attorney at Boutin Jones to help you evaluate your various options.