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When A Good Fence Is Bad News

by Gabby Hyman
Repair-Home Columnist

"Good fences make good neighbors," poet Robert Frost writes in the "Mending Wall." But when the fence encroaches on your property, your neighbor suddenly doesn't seem so good. Homeowners have spent pretty pennies on new fencing only to find they have to move it or take it down when their neighbor sues over suspected encroachment. Beware: some home improvement and fencing contractors will assume you have done your research and will install or replace a fence or wall without asking for your survey.

Since the Middle Ages, laws have been enacted around the globe to ensure that no one could be relieved of their property without due process. During the reign of Henry VIII, Britons saw the passage of a 1535 act requiring all land titles and transfers to be legally recorded. Today, most American states have their own specific title and boundary provisions, but the requirement for conducting a land survey that is attached to title transfers and records remains.

Surveys, Property Lines, and Fencing

Fencing matches between feuding neighbors go back to days of cudgels and stone throwing, hence it makes sense that if you're buying a new home or adding a fence where none existed that you should call in a survey contractor. All a surveyor can do, ultimately, is render a decision after evaluating perhaps decades of re-drawn lines and contradictory deed calls. But the courts rule that a survey matters.

A less-than-a-foot-spat can lead to an expensive, maddening, and emotionally draining knife fight between "good neighbors." In Western Springs, IL, one homeowner sued his neighbor over nine inches of land. The neighbor's new driveway placement meant that he had to step on the litigant's lawn to exit his vehicle.

Executive director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, Curt Sumner, told CNN Money that one homeowner sued her survey contractor, for mapping a fence line without accounting for a rear addition to the house.

Surveys can cost a homeowner $500 or more, but they ultimately may be worth it. You may not think you have a contentious neighbor, but feelings--and neighbors--change over time. And, yes, there is a fencing style known as a "good neighbor fence." It's called that only because its style and finish looks the same from both sides.

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About the Author
Gabby Hyman has created online strategies and written content for Fortune 500 companies including eToys, GoTo.com, Siebel Systems, Microsoft Encarta, Avaya, and Nissan UK.