Whose Fence is it Anyway? How to Resolve Fence Problems with Your Neighbor

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Living in a city often means living in tight spaces. Portland is no different, especially with the possibility of an increase in additions and new construction, thanks to the city’s new Residential Infill Project (RIP).

Homeowners install fences on their properties for a variety of reasons: to keep pets and children safe, to serve as a tidy perimeter for landscaping, and to maintain privacy. It’s been said that good fences make good neighbors, but fences can also cause antagonism when disputes between neighbors arise over property boundaries.

Here, we’ll sort through Oregon fence laws and local codes and restrictions and offer some useful tips for resolving fence conflicts peacefully.

What Causes Fence and Boundary Conflicts Between Neighbors?

Previous negotiation—Your neighbor may have negotiated with the previous owner of your new home to install a fence slightly inside your property line. (For more information on the legalities of this and whether you have any recourse, see #2 below.)

Incorrect survey—Sometimes, despite having taken the steps to ensure proper fence location, mistakes can occur. This can be due to human error or equipment malfunction. If you disagree with a previous or even a current survey, there are some steps you can take. Multnomah County outlines their suggestions here.

Unintended boundary crossing—Your neighbor may have taken steps to locate the boundaries between each of your properties, yet unknowingly crossed into yours because they received a faulty survey report or because they attempted to “eyeball” the boundary.

So what should you do if you encounter one of these scenarios?

Three Steps for Neighbor Fence and Boundary Resolution

  1. Be neighborly

    Avoid assuming your neighbor intentionally encroached on your property. If your initial reaction is to get angry, take some time to think through how you’ll broach a conversation with them. Have a plan and stay calm. Likewise, if your neighbor claims you’ve crossed their boundary, be civil and agree to discuss further. Then do some research so you can pick up the dialogue again, armed with all the required information and possible solutions.
  2. Understand the law.

    An important step in preparing to approach your neighbor about boundary violations is to have a firm grasp on laws and regulations involving fencing. To make sure you’ve covered all your bases, check with your HOA, city, or county. Curious on who to talk to? Figure out what jurisdiction you’re in. If you live in the Portland area, go to PortlandMaps.com and put in your address – it will tell you. Before negotiating or agreeing to any changes, you may consider consulting a lawyer. A lawyer will be more familiar with all the nuances of the laws and guide you toward the best course of action.

    Portland Fence Rules and Regulations

    No one wants to be the neighbor who usurps a piece of their neighbor’s property, so if you’re the one installing a fence, be sure you know the laws in Oregon.

    In general, you can install a fence on your property if it’s within or along the property line. Setbacks determine required distances from property lines for fences and other structures on residential property. Be sure that you are firmly aware of where your property lines are, or you may find yourself in the middle of a property line dispute due to your fence installation.

    If your neighbor’s new addition to their house gives them a full view of your back yard, you might want to build a fence high enough to maintain your privacy. It is important to be aware that wooden fences over a certain height require a building permit from the City of Portland. You will need a permit for the any wooden fence over 7 feet, any masonry/concrete fence over 4 feet, or a chain link fence over 8 feet.

    Aesthetics are subjective. Your neighbor can’t dictate your style and color choices, unless, of course, you live in an HOA—then you’ll need to abide by the CC&Rs. However, if your fence needs a paint job or is starting to sag or rot, you could get hit with a code violation. For more information, check with the Portland Bureau of Development Services or the governing body in your area. Be aware that in some instances, these code violations have been weaponized against neighbors. OPB published this report in 2021 to reveal what can happen and how it negatively impacts homeowners.

    If your neighbor hasn’t broken any laws but something about their fence bothers you, you can always attempt to have a civil conversation. Introducing the topic can be hard, so here are some good tips from the Emily Post Institute to help you get started.

    Adverse Possession: Property Lines in Portland Real Estate

    Sometimes, neighbors make agreements to “fudge” a little on property boundaries. For example, Neighbor A might need wider side access to their home, or maybe a tree grew along the property line, making it impossible to install a fence. So, Neighbor B might agree to accommodate. The conflict can come down the line when Neighbor B sells the home, and the new purchaser discovers the encroachment when having a land survey done.

    If the fence was installed more than ten years prior, the owner who installed would be protected under Oregon’s law of Adverse Possession. It’s possible to reclaim land from a neighbor, but according to Portland-based real estate attorney Phil Querin, “the principles of adverse possession supersede the survey.” In this case, the property line would need to be adjusted to reflect the current use of the land. In Portland, you can accomplish this through a property line adjustment application and a fee. A proactive way to avoid any dispute down the road is to be sure to have everything in writing. You may still face a conflict, but now you will be better prepared.

    Partition/Boundary Fences = Shared Expenses

    In some cases, neighbors agree to share expenses to install a partition or boundary fence directly on the property line. If you’re purchasing a home with such a fence, check with the owner about the agreement with your potential new neighbor. Be aware than in this case, you’ll be responsible for half the cost of painting and repairs. Once again, the best plan is to have a conversation with your new neighbor before making any assumptions.
  3. Get help.

    In addition to issues around fences, conflicts between neighbors can also arise from trimming a neighbor’s tree and building structures up against the property line. If you don’t get very far with a friendly conversation, you may want to seek out the help of a mediator. A mediator will act as a neutral third party to help resolve the dispute. Below are some contacts for Portland and surrounding areas.

    Portland – Neighborhood Mediation Services: They can connect you with a trained local mediator to either give you tools to solve the issue on your own or set up a mediated conversation with your neighbor.

    Beaverton and parts of Washington County – Center for Mediation and Dialogue

    Gresham and East metropolitan Portland – East County Resolutions: a free source for mediation services. 

If your neighbor is unwilling to try to resolve your fence or boundary issue – even in the presence of a mediator – the next step may be a lawsuit. You will want to contact a local attorney who specializes in real estate law. Even if you do not follow through with the lawsuit, talking to a lawyer can provide you with all of your legal options. It is important to consider that once you initiate a lawsuit, your relationship with your neighbor will likely be strained beyond repair, so it would be wise to exhaust every other option first.

Work with a Top Real Estate Agent

Why are we writing articles about fences? Licensed since 2003, and having overseen 2,000 plus home sales in that time frame, I’ve come across a fence problem a time or two. We write to assist the public on real estate market issues. Nothing is worse that finding out there is a boundary issue in the middle of a home sale. It is best to resolve these issues in advance, before putting your home on the market or before closing your sale. If you’d like to talk with an experienced real estate agent today, chat with our bot or reach out to our top 1% buyer’s team or our top 1% seller’s team. We can assist with all of your real estate needs. Call us today at 503-714-1111.

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