Disputes between neighboring property owners are relatively common in Washington. These disputes can arise for a variety of different reasons, and they can arise under a broad range of circumstances. As a property owner, if you believe that someone is infringing upon your property rights, or if you are being accused of infringing a neighbor’s property rights, it will be important to engage experienced legal counsel to help you achieve a favorable resolution.
Common Types of Legal Disputes between Neighboring Property Owners
From disputes regarding the placement of fences and outbuildings to disputes regarding access rights, boundary disputes can take a variety of different forms. Broadly speaking, the majority of these disputes can be broken down into four categories:
- Lot line disputes
- Fence, landscaping, and outbuilding disputes
- Access disputes
- Adverse possession claims
1. Lot Line Disputes
Lot line disputes frequently arise in the context of real estate sales. They can also arise when a property owner obtains a survey for purposes of refinancing or moving forward with a construction project. Typically, the survey will indicate that the lot line is not where previously believed, and this will lead to a dispute as to where the line truly lies.
When neighboring property owners disagree over the location of a lot line, there are a number of steps that can be taken to accurately define the boundaries of each neighbor’s property. The original property records can be obtained from the appropriate records office, and then these records can be used to obtain an accurate survey. Once the true boundary line is known, then the relevant parties can move forward with their proposed transaction or construction projects.
2. Fence, Landscaping, and Outbuilding Disputes
Boundary disputes can also arise when one neighbor claims that another’s fence, landscaping, or outbuilding crosses the boundary line. This is essentially a form of lot line dispute, but it involves the additional challenge of deciding what to do with the item (or items) that have been improperly located – if this turns out to be the case.
When dealing with fences, landscaping, and outbuildings that are either fully or partially on the wrong side of a boundary line, neighboring property owners have a few different options. One option is for the offending improvement to be removed (or moved to the owner’s property). Depending on what the offending improvement is, this may be more or less feasible as a practical matter, but property owners are under no obligation to allow existing improvements to remain on their property.
Another option is for the property owner on whose land the improvement has been improperly placed to grant an easement or license to the owner of the improvement. Easements and licenses are used to give one person the right to use another person’s property. Easements and licenses can both be limited to a specific purpose (e.g., to allow only for an existing improvement to remain), and they can require a one-time fee or continuing payments over time.
A third option that will be available in some circumstances will be to sell the portion of the land where the offending improvement is located to the owner of the improvement. Depending on where the properties are located, this type of subdividing may or may not be permitted.
3. Access Disputes
A different type of boundary dispute involves the need for one property owner to enter or cross a neighboring owner’s property. For example, a rural property owner may need to cross a neighboring property in order to access a road, or a business may need to use a neighboring property to expand its parking.
With access disputes, the first step is usually to review the existing property records for both parcels. Does an easement or license already exist? If so, this may resolve the issue. If not, then the parties can negotiate a mutually-agreeable resolution if they are both amenable to doing so; or, if necessary, one or both parties can seek relief in the Washington courts.
4. Adverse Possession Claims
The fourth type of boundary dispute involves a claim for adverse possession. In Washington, a party can claim ownership of a piece of real property if it used the property openly, continuously, and without the owner’s consent for an uninterrupted period of 10 years or longer. If one neighbor uses another neighbor’s property in this fashion for the requisite period of time, then it can claim ownership of the property under Washington’s adverse possession law.
With regard to boundary disputes between neighboring property owners, a key aspect of adverse possession is the requirement for the neighbor’s use of the property to be non-consensual (or “hostile”). If the parties have an understanding, or if the owner of the property is aware of the issue but chooses not to do anything about it, then a claim for adverse possession will not arise.
What If a Neighbor Is Using My Property without My Consent?
You are involved in a boundary dispute – a neighbor is using a portion of your property without your consent, and you are ready to do something about it. What should you do?
Whether you have a survey of your property or you need help locating the land records for your property, your first step is to speak with a local real estate lawyer. Your lawyer will be able to review the property records and determine whether: (i) the records conclusively establish your property rights; or, (ii) there is an omission, inconsistency, or ambiguity that needs to be resolved. With this information in hand, your lawyer can then help you evaluate your options with regard to either allowing the user to continue (i.e., through the grant of an easement or license) or seeking to eject your neighbor from your property.
Do You Need a Lawyer for a Boundary Dispute in Washington?
If you have questions about how to resolve a boundary dispute in Washington, we encourage you to get in touch. One of our dedicated real estate lawyers will be happy to speak with you one-on-one. To schedule a confidential consultation at your convenience, please call us directly or inquire online today.