Understanding Property Boundary Laws

by Leigh Morgan
hand professional architect, engineer or interior hands drawing with blueprint on workplace desk in office center at construction site, contractor, construction, engineering and business concept

You can't let people stomp all over your boundaries...and that goes for the boundaries around your home, too. Property lines indicate where your property begins and ends, making them one of the most important measurements in any homeowner's life.

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What Are Property Boundary Laws?

Property boundary laws are the laws governing disputes related to the boundaries around a piece of residential or commercial property. In real estate, a boundary is an imaginary line or a natural object that defines the perimeter of a parcel. For example, your parcel may be bound by a stream on one side and imaginary lines on the other sides.

Boundaries help determine the precise location of your land, which is helpful for preventing disputes and avoiding liability in the event of a serious accident. Each state has its own unique set of property boundary laws, so what applies in your state may not apply elsewhere.

What Are Some Examples of These Laws in Various Jurisdictions?

Many states have laws regarding adverse possession and prescriptive easement. Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that allows someone to acquire a valid title to land owned by someone else. For example, New Mexico allows for adverse possession when an individual occupies someone's property for at least 10 years without the true owner taking action against them.

Generally, the individual must meet these conditions to prevail in an adverse possession claim:

  • Continuous possession of the property
  • Possession infringes on the true owner's property rights
  • Obvious/open possession (not secretive)
  • Exclusive possession

Prescriptive easement is an easement associated with "open and notorious use" of an owner's land. The use also must be adverse (against the owner's interests). In simple terms, an easement is the right to use someone else's property for a specific purpose. For example, an individual may have the right to fish or hunt on a neighbor's property.

Prescriptive easement is a bit different from a voluntary easement, which involves getting a property owner's permission to use their land. It's prescriptive because it arises from adverse use of someone else's property. For example, New York law allows for prescriptive easements when an individual has been engaging in open and notorious use of another person's property for at least 10 years.

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What Is Property or Fence Encroachment?

Property encroachment is when one property owner violates another owner's rights by crossing over property lines. To qualify as an encroachment, the crossover must occur during an attempt to build or extend a feature of the encroacher's property. For example, it's common for encroachment disputes to arise when a person tries to build a fence on land owned by a neighbor.

A few extra feet may not seem like a big deal, but property encroachment leaves less of your property available for your enjoyment. You may not have enough room to play kickball with your kids or fit your whole family into your yard for a summer cookout.

What Is a Property Dispute?

A property dispute is a type of legal dispute involving real estate. For example, you may have a disagreement over where your property ends and your neighbor's begins. This type of dispute can affect your ability to plant trees, install a swimming pool or put up a fence.

What Type of Lawyer Do You Need to Call If You Believe Your Property Rights Are Being Infringed?

If you're involved in a property dispute, it's important to contact a real estate attorney. A boundary lawyer can help you keep trespassers off your property, prevent neighbors from using your land for unapproved uses or determine the exact boundaries of your property. Before you contact an attorney, gather the following information:

  • Property survey: A survey maps the legal boundaries of a parcel. If you have a survey of your property, be prepared to show it to your attorney during your initial consultation.
  • Details about the dispute: You may have just a few minutes to convince an attorney to take your case. Make things easier for yourself by writing down the pertinent details, such as why you believe your neighbor is infringing upon your property rights.

Your attorney may be able to negotiate a settlement, but you should also be prepared for a civil trial in case the other party refuses to settle.

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