When property owners face off with another property owner, there is often trouble. Some neighbors clash over a fence on the line of their property. Others fuss about a dirt road that one claims to own and another claims the right to drive on. An HOA’s interests can clash with a homeowner’s interests. A tenant of a rental property can have fighting words with the owner of the property. A historical conservation society can disagree with a homeowner over property rights. Back in 2017, even the governor clashed with the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy over tree planting rights.
Whether it is the government, an organization such as an HOA, or another private individual threatening your rights as a land or homeowner, you want to protect your property rights.
Let’s look at how to handle property clashes and come out with your rights protected.
Contracts: Open to Interpretation
Contracts are a way to help people get along. We often sign residential contracts or deeds declaring what we own and what our rights are. It is important before signing a contract of any kind to know what it says. If you have trouble interpreting the language or don’t understand a law that is referred to, make sure to speak with your attorney and get counsel, especially if it is a large contract involving property or home.
Many residential squabbles between neighbors can be prevented when the land is surveyed correctly and any easements or responsibilities for things like shared fences and driveways are worked out before the purchase. If there is anything unclear or up to interpretation in a contract, there is a likelihood for misunderstandings to occur.
Always keep good records of what you have done and any conversations that have taken place about property details that are unclear. Write down what has been said by your realtor, any attorneys, your neighbors, and any land surveyors.
If you eventually end up in a courtroom, you can say that you tried to work the situation out before purchasing the property. If you have made a good faith effort to get along with your neighbors and clear up misunderstandings and you can prove it, the judge will often see this as favorable to your position.
An issue commonly faced when you own property is whether you have encroached on someone else’s property. An encroachment is when a structure or some other physical object illegally protrudes or invades someone else’s land. If your tree falls on your neighbor’s property or your tree roots upend their soil, you are encroaching on their property rights. A fence or a septic tank can also be encroachments.
Encroachments generally must be removed, but sometimes the court will decide an encroachment does not have to be removed if it will seriously harm the person’s land. In this case, the person who is encroached on can sue for damages instead. Damages awarded are the difference between the market value of the land before and after the encroachment. (1)
Boundary Line Encroachments
A fence can also be an encroachment but if it is on the boundary line, the laws are murky. According to Texas Law, “a common dispute among neighbors is who owns and who is responsible for maintaining the fence between their properties. Texas does not have a specific state law that addresses boundary line fences. Cities or property owner associations will often try to regulate things such as fence height but for disputes involving ownership or maintenance will often need to be settled in court if the neighbors can’t come to an agreement on their own.”
There are also questions about who can eat the fruit that falls from a tree onto someone’s else’s property. Generally the best approach to these types of situations is to sit down with your neighbors over a cup of coffee and discuss what you all think is fair and work it out together.
An easement is a legal right to use someone else’s land. Often, in a contract for purchasing a piece of land, there will be an agreement that you will use the neighbor’s driveway to get to your driveway. The Real Estate Center at Texas A&M published “Easements in Texas” that illustrates this common problem that landowners face in TX.
“Mark and John had been farming and ranching in a particular community for more than 50 years. Several years ago Mark purchased some grazing land in a remote section of the county. There was no public access. However, John orally had permitted Mark to cross part of his property in order to reach the land. The agreement was never written nor recorded.
Recently, John died and his heirs sold the land to some people new to the area. The buyers were not told of the oral agreement and threatened to bring legal action to terminate Mark’s passage over their land. Without the easement, Mark must curtail his cattle operations.”
If there is language in a contract about an easement, make sure you understand what the easement entails before purchasing property. If you are dealing with an easement situation now, talk with your neighbors and try to work out a solution. If that doesn’t work, contact an attorney for detailed information about what your rights are in the situation you find yourself in. Easements are not usually black and white types of situations. Often a judge will rule that an easement stands “as is” if a neighbor has let it be used that way for a long period of time.
Disputes with Organizations
Just because an organization with power has declared something is right or wrong doesn’t mean that their opinion will stand up in a court of law.
An example of a homeowner who triumphed over an authoritative organization happened not long ago in San Antonio. The case went to the Texas Supreme Court. TexasRealEstate.com reported on a case in 2018 where the “Texas Supreme Court unanimously sided with a San Antonio-area homeowner who was renting out his property on a short-term basis. The homeowners association for the neighborhood claimed that this was a violation of the deed restrictions limiting property use to “residential purposes.” However, the justices ruled that short-term rentals are residential uses.”
If you are dealing with an interpretation of a contract involving a historical society, a town’s zoning rights, or an HOA, you may feel outmanned and over your head. However, with knowledge of the law to back up your claims, you may be able to work with an association or town government by discussing what you believe to be right. If they are unwilling to negotiate with you, it is in your best interest to seek out an attorney to work with you and find a solution.
Go In With Eyes Open
To prevent misunderstandings, it is crucial to talk to realtors, neighbors, and any interested or invested organizations or government before purchasing land or a home. Understand what kind of situation you are walking into before buying. If you are planning to have a fruit stand in your yard, talk to the town and find out what the zoning rights are and how much the town expects to receive from you in fees and taxes for the fruit stand. Find out if you have to get approval from neighbors before you can open a fruit stand. Talk to potential neighbors about what you are thinking to get a feel for how your venture will go beforehand.
If you wait until after you buy the property to get answers, you may be out of luck. You may find that the city requires neighbors’ approval at a town meeting or that the town charges $300 per month to open a business within city limits. You may have neighbors who are out to ruin your reputation because they don’t want a fruit stand in their neighborhood. It always pays to understand as much as you can before jumping into a large purchase.
Seek Wise Counsel
An attorney experienced in real estate law can help you better understand what issues you are facing and help you make sure that you have someone on your side to stand up for your property rights as an owner. No matter if you are just considering a purchase and are confused about the contract or you are in the midst of a battle with a neighbor, finding good counsel from a knowledgeable attorney can make all the difference in how you see your situation and what you can do about it. Sometimes, we just need a helping hand to work our way through a dispute or misunderstanding. Jarrett Law is here to help see you through your real estate purchases and any arising disputes. Contact us today for a consultation.
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