After writing my first article on lot line disputes, I received a number of phone calls from homeowners seeking legal advice. Most of these people were involved in a dispute with a neighbor regarding an allegedly encroaching wall, fence, or other structure. Since these people faced many of the same issues, I thought it might be helpful to list below a few of the suggestions I gave to them.
Summarize the background facts of the dispute in writing
The first step to solving a dispute is to understand the facts and circumstances leading up to it. Yet, many people who call me for help do not have such an understanding, and do not recall many of the key dates, details, or people involved in the dispute. So, I recommend that people immediately summarize the facts leading up to the dispute in as much detail as possible. That way they can be sure that they will always have access to those facts when needed. More importantly, taking the time to list and understand the reasons a dispute occurred will often point to the best method of resolving it.
Consider acceptable resolutions to the dispute
Many people faced with a dispute do not spend sufficient time considering possible solutions. It is not uncommon for someone to call me complaining about an unreasonable neighbor, and asking me how they can “win” the dispute without having thought through what “winning” actually means to them. For instance, a “win” could simply mean paying a nominal sum for a lot line adjustment to account for a slightly encroaching fence. Or, it could mean agreeing to move a small structure that a neighbor contends is partially over a lot line.
While some people consider nothing less than complete capitulation from the other side a “win,” the reality is that most disputes do not end that way unless litigation in court is involved at great cost to both sides. Rather, most boundary disputes are resolved through a mutually agreeable change of some sort to one or both of the properties. The sooner a party to a dispute determines an acceptable solution, including how much money they are willing to spend to achieve that solution, the sooner that party can work towards that solution in a manner that is efficient and affordable.
Consider making an early effort to resolve the dispute informally
Since most boundary disputes are resolved by agreement rather than by court order, reaching out to your neighbor, and attempting to come to a resolution quickly is often a good idea. The longer a dispute festers, and the longer the parties avoid speaking to each other, the harder the dispute can be to resolve. With time, a person’s view of a dispute can become hardened, and the person can become less and less willing to discuss a reasonable solution. On the other hand, most neighbors appreciate sincere communication and efforts to reach a resolution, and may be more willing to compromise if you make the first gesture.
If you cannot resolve a dispute, consider contacting an attorney promptly
Some disputes are too complex, and some adversaries are too unreasonable, to handle without the help of a lawyer. If you face such a situation, make sure to first follow steps 1-3 above. A good lawyer like Jody Kriss will want to know the key facts, dates, people, and other details involved in a dispute, to give you an initial evaluation. Likewise, the lawyer should ask you what your goals are, how you would like to see the dispute resolved, and whether you have had any prior settlement discussions. However, do not delay. Make the call to the attorney as soon as possible. Legal claims in California must be filed within specified statutes of limitation. If not timely filed, the claims can be forever barred, and the party left without any legal recourse.