When Fences Don’t Make Good Neighbors in Florida

How to deal with neighbor property disputes in Florida

By Steph Weber | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on June 26, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Brendan A. Sweeney and Jessica Saiontz

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For many people, owning a home is a dream come true. But when neighbors encroach on your turf, it can become the stuff of nightmares.

“Property rights are very personal,” says Brendan Sweeney, a real estate attorney at Sweeney Law in Fort Lauderdale. “People become focused on their property lines and obsess about them.”

Fueled by high emotions, the disagreements can steamroll into “litigation on steroids.”

Know Your Boundaries  

If you suspect a neighbor is violating your property bounds, review your deed. “Your deed clearly describes your land,” says Jessica Saiontz, a real estate attorney and civil litigator at Rubinstein & Associates in Miami. “Talk to your neighbor about ways to solve it amicably, because you don’t want tension if you can avoid it.”

One of the worst things a client can potentially do is engage in self-help, like go rip down the fence yourself. That’s usually not good.

Brendan A. Sweeney

Keeping a cool head when addressing the issue, either in person or in writing, offers the greatest likelihood of a speedy, cost-effective path to resolution. But if the boundary line remains unclear or the situation is taut, “don’t make an educated guess—hire a surveyor,” she says.

Ideally, a survey was completed before purchasing the property and can provide a quick reference point to settle any questions. If it wasn’t, they cost as little as $300, a far cry from the tens of thousands some property owners might spend in court to prove their point.   

Using Mediation to De-Escalate the Dispute

With property disputes, de-escalating and settling the conflict out of court should be the goals. However, while friendly conversations and a survey should compel any “reasonable” neighbor to move an ill-placed fence, it may not be enough to sway the other kind.

“A common thing I hear is, ‘It’s my yard, I can do what I want, don’t tell me what to do,’” says Sweeney. “If the fence has been there for a long time and a new person moves in and realizes it’s on their property, the neighbor will say, ‘well, the fence has already been there, so it’s ours now,’” but that’s not how it usually works, he adds.

Your deed clearly describes your land. Talk to your neighbor about ways to solve it amicably, because you don’t want tension if you can avoid it.

Jessica Saiontz

The pent-up frustration from boundary battles can push people to make rash decisions. “One of the worst things a client can potentially do is engage in self-help, like go rip down the fence yourself. That’s usually not good,” says Sweeney.

If you’ve reached an impasse, an attorney can intervene and send a “soft” letter or make a call to counteract the animosity. They may also move right to mediation. “Sometimes it’s an informal mediation, where I talk to the homeowners, all three of us together. Other times, we bring in an actual mediator to de-escalate the emotions involved, and they can knock these cases out in about an hour or two,” he says.

“I Was Here First”: Adverse Possession

Encroachment woes frequently spark concerns about adverse possession, in which a boundary-crossing neighbor can legally take ownership of land.

In Florida, Saiontz says adverse possession applies only when the encroachment has been “open, continuous, exclusive, adverse, and notorious”—OCEAN for short—for at least seven years straight.

Essentially, the neighbor must prove they’ve used the property for that length of time without objection from the current landowner. All of which highlights the importance of speaking up ASAP about unclear boundaries.

Waterways and Trees

Most property disputes involve fences, but Florida’s abundance of lakes and waterways creates more boundary challenges.

For example, says Sweeney, “Someone built a dock and put pilings that make it hard for their neighbor to get the boat in and out,” raising questions about water rights. Unfortunately, instead of following the regulations of the city, county, or homeowners association (HOA), often “people don’t obtain a permit and just build a dock [or fence] and see what happens.”

As for tree branches and roots crossing property lines, a neighbor can trim—at their expense—part of a tree that enters their yard, says Saiontz. In Florida, when a tree is blown down by a storm and damages a neighbor’s property, the tree’s health determines the responsible party.

“If a healthy oak tree on your property falls through your neighbor’s roof during a hurricane, you are not likely liable for the repairs. But if weeks before the storm, your neighbor notified you of a dead tree on your property that poses a hazard, and you did nothing, you are likely legally liable for the damage,” she says.

Even worse, your failure to act could cause your insurance carrier to deny the claim.

If you are unsure what your property rights are, or if you’ve reached an impasse in resolving a property boundary dispute with a neighbor, consider speaking with a Florida real estate attorney for legal advice.

To find a lawyer who can assist with boundary issues or other real estate disputes, search the Super Lawyers directory by legal issue and location. Consider looking for a real estate lawyer or civil litigator, preferably with experience in alternative dispute resolution.

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