By Lisa Marie Conklin

Aug 3, 2023

(Getty Images)

You might have the prettiest and most desirable home in the neighborhood. But if you’re dealing with a known (or unknown) property line dispute, it could scare off buyers who want to avoid dealing with sticky boundary—and neighbor—issues when they take ownership.

Here’s what you should know about property line disputes and how to resolve them before you list your home to sell.

What are property lines?

Property lines are legal and physical boundaries that define where property begins and ends. Some property lines are visibly marked, while others are invisible.

Knowing your property limits helps prevent encroachments, trespassing, and potential conflicts with neighbors when you make improvements like installing fencing and landscaping or building a garage.

Types of property disputes

Encroachment in real estate is when one property owner impinges on a neighbor’s property rights.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a feud between the neighbors.

“Many people have no idea that their garages, driveways, fences, or even their pools may have crept over boundary lines,” says attorney Nina B. Ries, principal at Ries Law Group in Los Angeles.

More often than not, property disputes come to light when remodeling or landscaping improvements require a survey to identify property lines. But they also pop up during the due diligence period for purchasing a house.

Some neighbors can live with a minor issue like an overgrown azalea bush creeping across their property line, while others seek an easement.

Encroachment vs. easement

The difference between an encroachment and an easement is crystal clear. An encroachment is the unauthorized use of the property. An easement is something both parties agree upon, giving one party the legal right to use a piece of property for personal needs.

In real estate, it might be a shared driveway you must use to access your garage or perhaps a path in your yard to the public beach if you have beachfront property.

Easements are generally permanent and can be perceived as good, bad, or ugly, depending on how the buyer sees them.

An easement for a driveway might not be a big deal. But an easement could be a deal breaker if, for example, it’s with the seller’s neighbor that ensures the neighbor’s lake view. This would mean the buyer wouldn’t be allowed to plant a tree, build an addition, or do anything that could block the view.

How a property line dispute can derail a sale

Even if you’ve been perfectly content to let your neighbor’s garage extend a foot into your property line, a buyer might not. And when there’s an easement in place, like a shared walkway to the beach, a buyer might see that as an infringement of privacy and check your home off the list.

“For these reasons, if a buyer learns that part of their home or garage, a fence, a pool, or trees or landscaping is on their neighbor’s property (or vice versa), they may rightly decide to abandon all hopes of purchasing that house and instead buy a property that does not expose them to this risk,” says Ries.

How property line issues delay sales

Sometimes boundary issues are discovered during the due diligence period for the purchase or sale of a property.

That happened to a home seller in Chicago who was unaware of the property line issue. The title company discovered another entity owned part of the seller’s property. The seller was the original owner and bought the home directly from a developer who procured it from the City of Chicago.

“The city still owned part of the property, including the location of the garage and part of the home’s kitchen,” says Diane Vanna, the buyer’s agent with Baird & Warner in Chicago.

The oversight was never cleared up when the seller took possession in the late 1960s.

“So the closing was delayed for about two weeks while the issue was researched and a solution was proposed,” says Vanna.

Ultimately, the title company decided no one could claim the property and insured the property sale via a title policy.

How to settle property line disputes

Hire a surveyor: Even if you’re sure you know the exact location of your property’s parameters, it’s still a good idea to get an accurate description to avoid surprises beforeyou have an interested buyer.

“If the survey confirms there is an encroachment and there is no record of an easement authorizing the encroachment, the parties should try to reach an agreement through informal negotiations,” says Ries.

Hash out the details with your neighbor and have a real estate attorney document the agreement.

Seek legal advice: If you can’t agree on boundaries, seek legal advice from a real estate attorney. This attorney will help you uncover all of your legal options and take the appropriate actions to protect your interests.

Or you can hire a professional mediator, who is generally less expensive than an attorney and will strive to resolve the dispute non-contentiously.

File a lawsuit: Litigation should be a last resort when settling property line disputes. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and stressful. Plus, judicial intervention could delay the sale of your house for months or even years.