Property boundary disputes are a common source of litigation in Pennsylvania and can arise in a variety of ways. These disputes can, and often do, arise innocently. For example, a neighbor may be mistaken as to where a property line is located, or language in the deeds about the boundaries may be ambiguous or conflicting. On the other hand, however, a landowner could intentionally encroach on a neighbor’s land, then, after using it for years, claim ownership of it through adverse possession.
Encroachment is a threat to property ownership interests and, if left unchecked, can potentially lead to a loss of title to land. With this in mind, property owners should be cognizant of the location of their property boundary, consider marking the property lines with a fence or landscaping, and know how to best respond if encroachment is discovered.
Ways to Protect Yourself Against Encroachment
Marking Your Property Lines
Marking your property lines with a fence, sometimes called a “division fence,” or landscaping is a good way to block potential encroachment by neighbors. Under Pennsylvania statutory law, regulation of division fences falls to local governments. In Philadelphia, fences are regulated under § 14-706 of the city’s zoning and planning code. Importantly, where allowed, a zoning permit is not required for a fence if the fence design complies with certain conditions.
Alternatively, a boundary line can be marked by trees or other landscaping. If boundary trees belong to both neighbors, neither can cut them down without the other’s permission. If the trees are at the edge of one’s property, a neighbor may trim encroaching trees up to the boundary line but cannot cross unless the tree limbs present an imminent and grave threat of harm. For certain types of lots, Philadelphia zoning code § 14-705 provides regulations for trees and landscaping.
Determining Property Line Location
A property survey is a recommended part of the due diligence process when purchasing real estate and, if not conducted at that time, should be done prior to adding a division fence or landscaping. A property survey will show where the property line is, whether there are any existing encroachments or irregularities, and whether the deed accurately describes the property.
Buying Enhanced Title Insurance
Purchasing title insurance is strongly recommended when buying real estate and is typically mandatory when taking out a mortgage. Buyers should consider obtaining an enhanced title insurance policy, which, unlike a standard policy, covers encroachments such as those by a neighbor’s fence or structure. Furthermore, an enhanced title policy will cover adverse possession, where a non-owner can gain ownership of land that they have used in the manner and amount of time defined by state law.
Resolving Encroachments on Your Land
Adverse Possession & the Doctrine of Consentable Lines
Encroachment on your property should be handled before you risk losing ownership of the land being encroached on. Under the law of adverse possession in Pennsylvania, when someone possesses and uses land that they do not own, in the required manner and amount of time (10 years for single-family lots smaller than a half-acre and 21 years for all others), they may be able to gain ownership of that land. Similarly, Pennsylvania recognizes the doctrine of “consentable lines” for settling property boundary disputes. This doctrine holds that when adjoining landowners, by mistake or compromise, have established a mutually respected boundary (differing from that in their deeds) over a 21-year period, that established boundary becomes the new property line. An important factor for both adverse possession and consentable lines is that, even if there were separate owners over the requisite period of time, the requirement can still be met if the use or established boundary existed continuously throughout that time.
The first step to protecting your property from adverse possession and consentable lines is to have a survey done when buying the property to identify any existing encroachments. Subsequently, throughout your ownership of the property, it is smart to always be mindful of the property boundaries to enable prompt discovery of any new encroachments. As the record owner, it is essential that you assert your property rights and confront any encroachments without delay.
Navigating the Resolution Process
If you are facing encroachment on your property, the first step is to gather evidence of the encroachment and then speak to your neighbor about eliminating the encroachment or, if desired, coming to an agreement for express permission to use your land (which, it should be noted, will eliminate the possibility of adverse possession but not consentable lines). Should your neighbor ignore your request to remove the encroachment, it may be necessary to file an action in ejectment against them.
Before attempting to resolve an encroachment, it is prudent to consult with a real estate attorney who can help you take all appropriate measures to ensure a successful resolution of the dispute. As a leader in real estate law in the Philadelphia region, Rabinovich Sokolov Law Group stands ready to help you navigate any property boundary issues you may face. Contact us to learn more at 215-717-2200.