What Is an Encroachment?

Encroachment Explained

Two carpenters building a wooden fence between residential properties
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An encroachment in real estate occurs when one property owner violates a neighbor's property rights by building or extending a structure onto their neighbor's property without permission. 

Learn about how encroachments occur, how to avoid them, and how to deal with them if they arise between neighbors.

Definition and Examples of Encroachments

An encroachment is an intrusion on someone's property rights by a neighbor. This can occur when one homeowner builds something on, or overhanging, a portion of their neighbor’s property, either intentionally or unintentionally. 

For example, one property owner may purposely or unwittingly expand their garden or erect a fence beyond their property boundaries into their neighbor's yard. In major cases, someone may expand their home or garage or build a new structure on their property that's partially on their neighbor's property.

Encroachments can be a major source of contention between neighbors, and they can even cause liability issues for the property owner whose land has been encroached.

How Encroachment Works

When you buy a home, you'll typically request a survey of the property. This process, which is performed by a professional, establishes the official boundaries of the property. A homeowner also can request another survey at any time, which can come in handy if there's a dispute between neighbors.

As the survey establishes your property lines, anything that your neighbor builds on or over your line may be considered an encroachment. This can happen intentionally or unintentionally, but in either case, it's done without permission. 

An encroachment can be as simple as allowing a tree to grow beyond your property line or as serious as building an actual structure that goes past your property's boundaries.

In many cases, an encroachment can be resolved by simply communicating with your neighbor. In more significant cases, though, it may involve a court case and a judge forcing the removal of the offending structure.

Types of Encroachment

There are two types of encroachment that can occur between neighbors: minor and major encroachments. 

Minor Encroachment

A minor encroachment is something that typically doesn't affect the neighbor's property rights by much. For example, a garden or a fence may overlap property lines by just a few inches. These situations often can be resolved by communicating with your neighbor and coming to an agreement about what to do.

Major Encroachment

A major encroachment can impact a property's value as well as the owner's liability. For example, say a neighbor's tree has branches that overhang your property and a child gets hurt climbing them. You may need to file a liability claim against your homeowner's insurance policy, even though the tree is planted in your neighbor's yard.

More permanent structures that are built beyond property lines can also affect your property's value if you decide to sell it in the future.

While some major encroachments may be resolved informally, legal proceedings may be required to get the offending party to remove the encroaching structure in these cases.

Encroachment vs. Easement

In cases where a property owner gives their neighbor permission to extend or build structures or other things on their property, this is called an easement instead of an encroachment. 

The only difference between the two is that the neighbors communicated beforehand and came to an agreement. In many cases, the property owner requesting the easement will compensate their neighbor in some way for the intrusion.

Is an Encroachment Worth It?

If you're considering building or extending a structure on your property or allowing a garden or tree to grow beyond its current boundaries, it's important to check your property lines to avoid encroaching on your neighbor's land. 

While it may be tempting to do so without permission, your neighbor has the right to protect their property rights, including by going through the court system. If you're not careful, you may need to pay legal fees plus the cost of removing the encroachment.

So if you think you might encroach on your neighbor's property, speak with them about it beforehand and request permission—and make sure to get the easement in writing. If you don't receive permission, change your plans to avoid violating your neighbor's property rights.

What Encroachments Mean for Your Property

If a neighbor encroaches on your property boundaries, it could hurt your property value when it comes time to sell your home. It could also cause liability problems for you if someone gets injured: While it was built by your neighbor, the encroachment is on your property and, therefore, your responsibility. 

As a result, it's critical that you know where the property line is between you and all of your neighbors. If you notice an encroachment, speak with your neighbor about the issue and request that they remove it—unless you don’t mind keeping it there. 

If your neighbor refuses, consider consulting with an attorney to get an idea of how you can proceed.

Key Takeaways

  • An encroachment occurs when someone builds or extends a structure beyond their property lines onto a neighbor's property.
  • Encroachments can be minor or major, with some major ones requiring a court case to have them removed.
  • It's important that you have a property survey done to remove all doubt about where your neighbor's property ends and yours begins.
  • If you think you might encroach on your neighbor's property, ask for a written easement, which can prevent future disputes.
  • If you have a dispute with your neighbor over an encroachment, consider enlisting the help of an attorney.