How to take care of a property line dispute before selling your home

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If you’re looking to sell your home, you have two key factors on your side: record-low mortgage rates and record-high sales prices. That’s a formula for landing a good deal — but, a property line dispute could slam the door on your opportunity to cash in on the surge in real estate activity.

Do you have a complete understanding of where your property begins and ends? If not, you’ll want to do some homework before listing it.

How a property line dispute might ruin a sale

Real estate transactions involve a mountain of paperwork, and in many states, one of the documents in that sky-high stack is a disclosure form or statement. That disclosure is a crucial part of establishing trust with prospective buyers, because it lets them know that you, as the seller, are not aware of any material defects with the property or other red flags, including property line issues.

If there are problems that you are aware of, you’ll have to note that through the disclosure, as well.

When selling a home in Illinois, for example, the seller has to indicate awareness of a boundary or lot line dispute, often referred to as encroachment, on the disclosure. If you check the box next to a boundary dispute, you can bet the buyer’s lawyer or real estate agent will ask for an explanation before proceeding to next steps.

“There are a number of common scenarios where property disputes are more likely, such as if neighbors share a driveway, live on a private road or have irregular-shaped lots with shrubs planted around the property line,” explains Diane Tomb, CEO of the American Land Title Association (ALTA).

If the property in question is accessible only via a private road located on another person’s property, for instance, this can create headaches when it comes time to sell.

“If the seller or their predecessor never received an easement for the road, the neighbor can shut off access at any time,” says Tomb. “This is more common in areas that were once rural or in exurbs, but also can happen in cities if parking is located in an alleyway.”

Some forms of landscaping might literally blur the property line as well, which can have ramifications if the buyer is looking to remodel.

“Occasionally, as trees age or are replaced, they can encroach or make the property line appear to be different to the eye than on paper,” says Tomb. “If the buyer is planning renovations or an addition that must be set back a certain amount from the property line, they may back out of a deal if the survey shows the property line is actually closer to the house than originally thought.”

What to do if there’s a property line dispute

1. Have a friendly conversation

If you’re facing a disagreement about what belongs to you and what belongs to your neighbor, Tomb recommends trying to find a friendly resolution.

“The best scenario is that the neighbors both see the issue and agree to resolve it,” says Tomb. “For example, one neighbor can give the other an easement or deed for the impacted land.”

2. Hire a surveyor 

Many lenders and insurance companies ask borrowers to get a survey to verify the boundaries of the property. Since the lender is technically paying for the property, and the insurance company will have to cover the costs if a covered event happens on it, both parties will want to know the exact parameters of the property before committing to financing and coverage.

Rather than waiting for that time to come, you could proactively hire a surveyor. According to HomeAdvisor, a property survey typically costs around $500, but the surveyor can charge an additional $20 to $25 per hour for a boundary line adjustment or a legal boundary line description. The cost may also depend on your location.

3. Ask for help

If that friendly conversation turns out to be less-than-friendly, you’ll likely need to seek legal assistance.

“Property line disputes tend to be costly and usually require a lawyer,” says Tomb. “Often by the time a dispute is discovered, the neighbors are already fighting and the only way to resolve it is to go to court in a quiet title action.”

Paying even more for legal services may not be an expense you want to incur, but it can help you avoid a potentially even bigger cost: missing out on the opportunity to sell.

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