What are Property Line Disputes?
The term “property line dispute” (also known as “boundary line dispute”) can refer to a broad array of disputes over the ownership of land. Typically, property line disputes arise from one of two sources: encroachment, or a problem with the recorded deeds.
Encroachments: Encroachment occurs when one party’s recognition or use of the property line differs from the property line’s legal location. As fences are built, or trees are planted, it is easy to lose track of the legal property line. Changing ownership over time can compound this problem, since new owners don’t have the historical knowledge to realize that their property is being encroached upon.
Encroachments are often very contentious because the encroaching parties can claim ownership via “adverse possession,” even if their deeds do not actually entitle them to ownership of the property. If your neighbor has been using a section of your land for a long period of time without your permission under certain conditions, then he may be entitled to claim legal ownership of your property. If this sounds like your situation, you may want to read our article on adverse possession.
Deed Problems: Less commonly, property line disputes can occur due to flaws in the recorded property descriptions. These issues can occur at many stages of the process—for example, deed problems can arise due to a seller or buyer’s erroneous description during a sale, or due to a municipality’s clerical errors in recording. Regardless of the cause, the problem usually presents itself as overlapping ownership, where two (or more) owners both appear to own the same strip of property.
Because deed errors are not readily observable, they can often go undetected from the time of purchase (when the error is made) to the date when the property is sold. Such errors can make a property virtually unsaleable by scaring off potential buyers, lenders, and title companies.
Fortunately, these deed problems are often easy and less contentious to resolve because adjoining property owners are in agreement over where the property line is supposed to be. If that is the case, the adjoining owners can fix the problem with a simple property line agreement under RCW 58.04.007(1).
However, there are a number of factors that can cause a deed problem to mushroom into a contentious property line dispute. For instance, if neighbors have an antagonistic relationship, or there is no historical or established boundary, then determining the appropriate boundary can become a difficult process.
Preventing and Discovering Property Line Disputes
To avoid or discover property line disputes, you need to know the exact boundaries of your property. Your deed has a legal description of your property’s boundaries, but these are just words on a page until they have been translated into a verified map. The most accurate way to determine the borders of your property is with a survey. If you have reason to suspect that a property line dispute is on the horizon, we would strongly recommend that option. We have great relationships with several local surveyors that we would be happy to recommend.
However, if your interest is more casual, many municipalities offer free, publicly-accessible map tools that can help you get a sense of whether a neighbor is encroaching on your property (or vice versa). In Pierce County, this tool is called PublicGIS, while Tacoma’s version is called the Tacoma DART Map.
In the following picture, you can see an example in Public GIS of a building (along River Road in Puyallup) that appears to encroach on the neighbor’s property:
Google Earth’s historical images confirm that the offending building was knocked down between 6/2016 and 5/2017:
Looks like someone noticed the problem.
How a Real Estate Lawyer Can Help You
Beyond guiding you through the above process, a competent and experienced real estate lawyer can negotiate on your behalf from a position of power and knowledge, and then pursue further legal action if necessary.
Typically, if a dispute cannot be negotiated to your satisfaction, the next step is a lawsuit to quiet title. The purpose of a quiet title action is to resolve competing claims of ownership by “stopping the mouth of the person who has asserted or who is asserting a claim to the plaintiff’s property.” McGuinness v. Hargiss, 56 Wash. 162, 105 P. 233 (1909).
At the Brink Law Firm, we have successfully dealt with numerous property line disputes, both in relationship to our personal investment properties, and on behalf of clients. To schedule a consultation or case evaluation with a us, please call 253.620.6666 or contact us online.