How to deal with neighbors that encroach on your property

You've finally bought a little patch of Mother Earth that you can call your own. Then you discover your neighbor is encroaching. Perhaps his fence is two feet over the property line, or the dying limb of his sugar maple is overhanging your garage, or his barking dog is keeping you up all night. How can you deal with such encroachments?

First, let's clarify a couple of terms. An easement is a right of access that has been agreed-upon by the property owner, in writing, or mandated by a government decision. Perhaps the first owner of your house granted your neighbor access to a dock on your property in perpetuity, or the city has retained an easement to access power lines that run across the back border of your property. If the easement is recorded, you don't have much recourse.

An encroachment is tresspass without permission, and you can do something about it. If your neighbor has taken a few feet of your land when building his fence, you can take steps to take back your land. A caveat, however; make sure you know where your true property boundaries are. For example: the back edge of my property is fenced, and the fence has a four-foot jog where two abutting properties meet. When I moved in, my neighbor told me that one of those landowners had moved his fence to take four feet of my land before I moved in, and I intended to require him to move it back. To my chagrin, when the property was surveyed, I found that the previous owner of my house had, in fact, taken four feet of my neighbor's property.

If you are confident about the borders of your property, you could approach your neighbor and politely request that he honor these lines. Property owners often become unreasonably confident that the customary boundaries reflect their title, though, so sharing the survey information could help greatly in this discussion. Also, modern surveying techniques are much more accurate than older methods, so in comparing property titles there may be some overlap. These inaccuracies are usually settled by dividing the land in question.