Spring is a great time for outdoor projects, like replacing an old fence or putting up a new one. A new fence is a beautiful thing. It is also the greatest source of boundary disputes and ruined relationships with neighbors. Every spring I am consulted by people who have started to take a fence down or put one up only to have a neighbor come completely unglued. And I’ve talked with just as many people wondering if their neighbors have the right to take down a fence that’s been there for 16 years or – worse – infuriated because their neighbors are building a fence on what my clients believe is their property. Your home should be your place of rest, relaxation and safety. The last thing you need is your neighbors glaring at you over the fence or a lawsuit.
Here are some tips to avoid having your new fence be a source of friction between you and your neighbors.
1. If you are considering removing an existing fence, research who owns the fence. Don’t assume it’s yours.
2. Verify where the property line is. Old fences are rarely built on the property line. Neighbors would often agree on where the line is and then just do it. So a fence might be built on one side or the other of the line or it might stray back and forth across the true property line. Unfortunately, if a fence is not located on the actual property line, you have what is called an encroachment and you now have a potential title problem. The only way to know where your property line is for sure is to look for survey pins and if you can’t find them, have a surveyor survey just the line where you want to install the fence. If you don’t want to incur the cost of a survey, you and your neighbors can agree on where to put the fence and then do a fence agreement and easement to document your agreement and remove the risk of future title issues. See an attorney for this as doing it right is complicated. Frankly, it might be less expensive to pay to have a surveyor locate the line.
3. Talk to your neighbors who will be impacted by removing or installing a fence before you do any work. Providing a heads up is not only a courtesy, but will help ensure you either have buy-in (“Hey, great idea – that old fence is really an eyesore”) or identify you have a problem before you undertake the time and expense of installing a new fence. The neighbors might even agree to share the cost of the fence or contribute some labor.
4. Consider mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods to resolve disputes with your neighbors. Running into court will only inflame the situation and cause your relationship to deteriorate further.
5. Check city or county requirements to see if you need a permit or setback to build the fence.
6. If your neighborhood has restrictive covenants, you may need approval from your homeowners association. You can request a copy of restrictive covenants from your title company if you don’t have a copy.
My advice here can all be boiled down to three main principles: Don’t make assumptions, do your research, and communicate. Good fences can make good neighbors, but only if you are willing to do some “fence building” with your neighbors first.
Jessica Jensen is the senior attorney with Jessica Jensen Law of Olympia. Her holistic, general practice firm focuses on business, real estate and land use, wills, trusts and estates, family law and alternative dispute resolution. She may be contacted at 360-705-1335 or www.jessicajensenlaw.com.