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Who Owns the Fence?

Written by M. Anthony Carr on Thursday, 12 April 2007 7:00 pm
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Property line issues have suddenly cropped up in the emails I've received in the past few weeks. It appears that homeowners are more aware of their property lines (specifically if a neighbor is violating it) during the spring and summer months than at other times. As we get out there and trim limbs (from the neighbor's big oak tree), mend the fence (which is actually the neighbor's), and try to clean up unsightly encroachments on the line, we become aware that the guy next door hasn't kept up with his property and now the problem is personal.

Keeping up with local fence laws, good neighbor regulations, even your local home owners' association rules can keep relations between you and your neighbors a lot more healthy.

One reader wrote that he spent "a weekend helping [my neighbor] take down and erect a new fence. After that he asked me to pay for half the fence, stating that all his other neighbors on the other sides of his property had pitched in to pay as well for their respective sides."

He was now worried that he had just signed up for some sort of legal liability if someone got hurt on the fence, the fence got knocked down by a tree, etc., now that he "owns half" of the fence.

Local jurisdictions have funny rules about fences, trees, etc., and who's responsible for them in case of damage or destruction. That's when I go to FindLaw.com to do some real estate research.

On this particular issue, they actually have a whole section on dealing with neighbors and the property lines under their real estate section. As far as the fence is concerned, "Unless the property owners agree otherwise, fences on a boundary line belong to both owners when both are using the fence. Both owners are responsible for keeping the fence in good repair, and neither may remove it without the other's permission," according to the site.

The part of this story that has the reader upset is that he wasn't asked to pay for the fencing until after the neighbor had already picked out the wood, style, etc., and paid for it, thus locking him into a certain price range and style of improvement to the property.

Keep in mind, your local laws may be different. Visit the local building code office to find out your responsibility before hammering away at your neighbor's fence or expecting your neighbor to help pay for a replacement fence.

Another reader has a problem with a backyard property that's nearly 100 years old and just looks really bad. "Our issue is that the neighbor that shares the other side of this wall has 2 different constructions that are not only viewable from our yard, but also have additional roofing or siding that attaches to our side of the wall."

In essence, the neighbor just kept tacking on to the existing aged structure that was already there. Both the residences had purchased these properties with these structures in tact -- so if it's that old, is it violating the law or not? Is there a statute of limitations on really ugly fencing?

Again, FindLaw points out a couple of laws you may have on your side to keep badly constructed or really ugly fences from continuing to plague your community.

"As long as a fence doesn't pose a threat of harm to neighbors or those passing by, it probably doesn't violate any law just because it's ugly. Occasionally, however, a town or subdivision allows only certain types of new fences -- such as board fences -- in an attempt to create a harmonious architectural look. Some towns also prohibit certain materials -- for example, electrically charged or barbed wire fences."

"Even without such a specific law, if a fence is so poorly constructed that it is an eyesore or a danger, it may be prohibited by another law, such as a blighted property ordinance. And if the fence was erected just for meanness -- it's high, ugly and has no reasonable use to the owner -- it may be a "spite fence," and you can sue the neighbor to get it torn down."

What's not talked about here is the fallout from one neighbor forcing another neighbor to rebuild, repair, or tear down an existing structure. In a subdivision environment with quarter-acre plots and less, we would like to think that all neighbors would keep up their properties to a certain standard. If they don't you have to make a decision on whether a clear view out your kitchen window is worth the relationship that may be damaged through the process.

However, it never hurts to ask, point out the law and see how they react.

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