What are property line and boundary line disputes?
The terms “property line dispute” and “boundary line dispute” mean the same thing. They refer to a broad array of disputes over the ownership of land. Typically, property line disputes arise from one of two sources: encroachment, or a problem with the recorded deeds.
Encroachment occurs when one party’s recognition or use of the property line differs from the property line’s legal location. As fences, garages, and houses are built or landscaping is planted, it is easy to lose track of the legal property line–especially in the old days. Changing ownership over time can compound this problem, since new owners don’t have the historical knowledge to realize that their property is being encroached upon.
Encroachments are often very contentious because the encroaching parties can claim ownership via “adverse possession,” even if their deeds do not actually entitle them to ownership of the property. If your neighbor has been using a section of your land for a long period of time without your permission under certain conditions, then he may be entitled to claim legal ownership of your property. If this sounds like your situation, you may want to read our article on adverse possession.
Less commonly, property line disputes can occur due to flaws in the recorded property descriptions. These issues can occur at many stages of the process—for example, deed problems can arise due to a seller or buyer’s erroneous description during a sale, or due to a municipality’s clerical errors in recording. Regardless of the cause, the problem usually presents itself as overlapping ownership, where two (or more) owners both appear to own the same strip of property.
Because deed errors are not readily observable, they can often go undetected from the time of purchase (when the error is made) to the date when the property is sold. Such errors can make a property virtually unsaleable by scaring off potential buyers, lenders, and title companies.
Fortunately, these deed problems are often easy and less contentious to resolve because adjoining property owners are in agreement over where the property line is supposed to be. If that is the case, the adjoining owners can fix the problem with a simple property line agreement under RCW 58.04.007(1).
However, there are a number of factors that can cause a deed problem to mushroom into a contentious property line dispute. For instance, if neighbors have an antagonistic relationship, or there is no historical or established boundary, then determining the appropriate boundary can become a difficult process.
Preventing and Discovering Property Line Disputes
To avoid or discover property line disputes, you need to know the exact boundaries of your property. Your deed has a legal description of your property’s boundaries, but these are just words on a page until they have been translated into a verified map. The only accurate way to determine the borders of your property is with a survey. If you’re lucky, there may be a survey on record with your local county auditor. If not, we would strongly recommend getting your property surveyed.
However, if your interest is more casual, many municipalities offer free, publicly-accessible map tools that can help you get a sense of whether a neighbor is encroaching on your property (or vice versa). In Pierce County, this tool is called PublicGIS, while Tacoma’s version is called the Tacoma DART Map. Most large municipalities in Washington have an equivalent map resource, but many of the more rural municipalities don’t.
In the following picture, you can see an example in Public GIS of a building (along River Road in Puyallup) that appears to encroach on the neighbor’s property:
Google Earth’s historical images confirm that the offending building was knocked down between 6/2016 and 5/2017:
Looks like someone noticed the problem.