Whose Fence is it Anyway? Resolving Problems with Neighbors.

portland fence disputes

With all that’s weighing on fences, it’s no wonder they’re a frequent source of conflict! In Portland, homes are constructed in some pretty tight spaces, and losing even a few inches of land to a neighbor can feel untenable. The appearance and upkeep of fences is also important, not just for aesthetics but also because fences are relied on to keep pets and children safe.

In this article, we’ll attempt to untangle Oregon fence laws, as well the local codes and restrictions that affect their design and use. We’ll also provide home owners and buyers with some practical tips for resolving fence conflicts peacefully.

When Fences Turn Contentious 

As Portland grows and adds more housing (every lot in Portland can become a six-plex in 2021), it follows that fence and property boundary conflicts will also become more common. New infill rules allow construction of multi-family units on lots that were previously restricted to one single-family home. They also allow homes to be built on narrow lots. Whether existing homes are being torn down to build new homes, or lots that have been vacant for decades are going under construction, the boundary between your home and your neighbors’ might not be as clear as you think it is. 

Fence problems can also come up between existing homes when one of those homes changes hands. As real estate agents, we’ve seen it all, from new neighbors constructing an eight-foot fence without a permit to title searches that find that property boundaries aren’t where existing homeowners thought they were. In some cases, property boundaries may change to reflect established fences or other boundaries that have been in place a decade or more. 

Four Steps to Fence and Boundary Resolutions

We’re not lawyers, but in helping thousands of people buy and sell real estate across the Portland metro area, we’ve become pretty well versed in the laws around property lines and fences. That said, this article should not be taken as legal advice. Our approach to solving fence and boundary disputes can be summed up as: Talk it over, know the law, and get help when you need it.

1. Stay civil.

The first step in resolving any conflict with a neighbor, whether future, current or past, is to keep calm and avoid taking action when feeling hot under the collar. Give the other party the benefit of the doubt that they may have acted without knowing the laws or your preferences. Good fences may make good neighbors, but good neighbors don’t always make good fences.

2. Understand the Law

Before you talk to your neighbor, familiarize yourself with the applicable rules and regulations, whether they come from your county, city or HOA.

Portland Fence Rules & Regulations

As a general rule, fences are legal as long as you (or your neighbor) build them on your own property, or along the property line if it’s a legal partition fence (see #3 below). For personal fences, setbacks govern how far from the property line a fence or other structure can be built. Fences over seven feet high require a permit in the City of Portland.

Ugly fences, yours or your neighbors, are not strictly forbidden. However, peeling paint and rotting wood could be considered a code violation. Check with the Portland Bureau of Development Services or the governing body in your area.

Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) often have rules governing fences. Check the CC&Rs before you build one. 

Of course, if something about a fence bothers you and there’s no rule on the books about it, it doesn’t hurt to talk to your neighbor anyway. 

Property Lines: Adverse Possession in Portland Real Estate

When real estate changes hands, occasionally a survey is done that finds a property line in an inconvenient places – like inside the neighbor’s fence. However, discrepancies like these aren’t always because of a “land grab” by the neighbor. A prior owner may have negotiated the fenceline with the neighbor because for legitimate reasons – perhaps a tree grew along the property line, or the neighbor needed a wider access to the side of their house and was willing to give up something else in exchange. 

In situations where the property owner was simply not aware that they put their fence too far over into the neighboring lot (which can happen if a survey was done incorrectly, or if they were simply “eyeballing” the property line), Oregon’s law of Adverse Possession applies. This law states that if a property owner (the “averse possessor”) has used and occupied the space they claimed for more than 10 years, and if they were not aware that they were on the neighboring property when they claimed that space, they are allowed to keep it. 

Those who wish to reclaim land from neighbors can get a survey done to determine the original property line, but according to Portland-based real estate attorney Phil Querin, “the principles of adverse possession supersede the survey”. If that fence (or treeline, or other marker) has been in place more than ten years, the property line most likely needs to be adjusted to reflect the current use of the land. In Portland, this is accomplished through an application for a property line adjustment, along with a fee. 

Shared Fences = Shared Expenses

If your property, or a property you’re considering buying, has a fence on the property line, it’s considered a “Partition Fence”. The cost of building and maintaining these fences is required to be split between the neighbors whose property it divides. 

When buying a home with a partition fence, find out from the owner what the agreement is with the neighbor. If the fence is in poor condition, recognize that you will be responsible for half the cost of fixing it up once you take ownership of the home. 

4. Get Help 

There are many more issues that may arise around fences and boundary lines, from trimming a neighbor’s tree to building structures right up to the property line. If simply talking to the neighbor and pointing out the applicable law doesn’t help, mediation is a good next step.

In Portland, Neighborhood Mediation Services is the place to start. 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.

In Beaverton and parts of Washington County, these services are available for free through the Center for Mediation and Dialogue

For Gresham and East metropolitan Portland, East County Resolutions is your free source for mediation services. 

If your neighbor is unwilling to continue the conversation about your fence or boundary issue, even in the presence of a mediator, a lawsuit may be in order. Contact a local attorney who is experienced in real estate law.

November 23, 2020

Stephen FitzMaurice

Stephen FitzMaurice, Realtor is a top 5% real estate agent in the U.S. A Principal Broker in Oregon, Managing Broker in Washington, he has been licensed since 2003 for residential real estate sales. Call his team in Oregon at 503-714-1111 or in Washington at 360-345-3833.

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