Our homes are often the biggest purchase we will make in our lives. So it’s no wonder that when we feel it’s being threatened, we’re quick to become protective.
Perhaps that is the reason why, so often, neighbours find themselves in disputes about property boundaries and what does or doesn’t belong to them.
Property boundaries are well known for inspiring bitter conflicts between neighbours and regularly lead to expensive court cases, but is this a foregone conclusion?
It doesn’t have to be if you take action to resolve the issue quickly. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the steps you can take to minimise boundary disputes and their costs.
How Do Boundary Disputes Arise?
All too often, the court is called upon to resolve a dispute of little material value because two neighbours refuse to work together to resolve the issue amicably. This may be because one party has become embittered about the problem over a period of years, or because the other is offended by the notion and feels it is petty.
Either way, property boundary disputes have a way of flaring tempers quickly. This results in those involved forgetting that the boundary is a problem common to both parties, and so is best resolved through cooperation.
Instead, it is treated as an all-out war that only costly litigation can solve.
While every property boundary dispute is unique and must be treated as such, there are some common causes that they originate from. These include:
- Disputes about the exact location of the boundary between two properties.
- Trees or hedges growing onto another’s property.
- Changes to party walls (walls which are used by both properties).
- Structures encroaching the boundary line.
- Responsibility for repairs and/or maintenance.
- Objections to extensions.
- Refusal for land access.
Depending on the circumstances, these disputes may result in significant damages to one of the parties or relatively minor ones. Therefore, you should think long and hard about how much this dispute is worth to you and how much you’re willing to spend fighting it.
Let’s look at an example.
You move into a new property and realise that the back garden fence cuts off one square foot of land that belongs to you. On the other side of the fence, your neighbour has used the space to plant a flower bed.
This square foot of land certainly has value and belongs to you, but your neighbour has been using it for an extended period of time and is probably unaware of the issue.
In this scenario, the value of the land is unlikely to be anything like what you’d potentially spend in legal costs to secure it. The same can be said from your neighbour’s perspective.
Since there has to be a loser in litigation, is it really worth the time, cost and stress to go to court over such a relatively small dispute? Yes, you may win, but doing so would undoubtedly destroy your relationship with someone you’ll see regularly. You would also need to disclose the dispute to a purchaser if you were to subsequently sell the property.
Is it worth it?
There’s no right or wrong answer. The example is only used to illustrate the point that a lot of thought should go into how far you’re willing to go to win your side of the argument and how much you’re willing to compromise.
There are many cases where tens of thousands of pounds are spent in legal fees because two parties won’t come to the table to agree a compromised (but far more cost-effective) solution.
How to Resolve Property Boundary Disputes
One of the reasons property boundary disputes can result in so much friction is because the two sides often don’t open the lines of communication they need early enough.
This has much the same result as calling the police on noisy neighbours without asking for them to turn the music down first. Yes, this may solve the problem of the noise once, but it immediately closes the door on working with your neighbour to reach a compromise (such as no music after 9pm) for the future.
Therefore, the best thing to resolve a property boundary dispute is to raise the issue with the other party in a way that encourages cooperation. That goes for issues with the actual boundary, such as overgrown trees.
Of course, not everyone has a neighbour that is willing to work with them, but regardless, you should try to resolve the situation amicably before turning to a more traditional legal strategy.
Look for Land Registry Records.
Whether you’re working with your neighbour or not, your next step should be to gather as much information as possible about your property and the properties surrounding it. This can be done by consulting title deeds and information obtained from the Land Registry.
The best case scenario is that these records will clearly define where the boundary lies, but be prepared for the possibility that the boundary information is vague.
Even if it is vague, looking at the register gives you a great starting point for negotiating with your neighbour where the boundary should be placed.
Once you’ve reached a solution, you can ask your neighbours to sign an agreement documenting their acceptance and hire a surveyor to formally confirm the boundary location and submit it to the Land Registry.
Taking Matters into Your Own Hands
In some cases, it may be that you can solve your problem without needing to involve your neighbour.
One example would be where a tree is overhanging onto your property. In these cases, you should notify your neighbour that the tree needs trimming as your first option. If they then don’t take action, you’re usually within your rights to remove the overhanging parts.
However, you’ll need to return the sections you cut as these will still technically belong to your neighbour and you’ll need to take care not to damage any parts of the tree on your neighbour’s property.
You’ll also need to double-check the tree is not subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), which may make it illegal to interfere with.
This can be a fairly blunt tactic and may result in a further dispute, so it’s important to seek professional legal advice before doing anything.
If you can’t reach a compromise with your neighbour or your neighbour is unwilling to cooperate it may be time to seek a legal solution.
Before you put on your best suit and step into court, though, consider using mediation. Mediation allows parties to come together to look for a resolution with the help of a neutral mediator.
Often, this fresh, impartial perspective can break deadlocks and help reach a compromise. It’s also typically much cheaper than litigation.
If you do have to go to court, it’s time to seek specific legal advice. However, we will leave you with this…
Litigation is often favoured because it provides finality. Someone wins and someone loses. However, there have been cases of disputes over the same boundary going to court again.
Many of these cases are heard in the County Court, where records are only retained for six years. Therefore, if a boundary dispute raises its head again after six years, you may find that the record of the previous judgement can no longer be used.
Therefore, it’s worth petitioning to the court for an order to record the boundary judgement at the Land Registry. That way, the judgement is preserved for the future.
Boundary disputes can take a lot of time and money to resolve if relationships break down. Therefore, acting quickly is a crucial factor in avoiding stress and keeping legal spend low.
This, of course, includes working with your neighbours but it also means ensuring you understand your legal position right from the beginning. For that reason, you should seek legal advice as soon as you suspect a dispute may arise.
Our dispute resolution solicitors can help you with the first step of this process. Get in touch today to learn more.