Legal Know-How: Taming the Neighbor’s Trees

Sellers have the right to trim the trees and shrubs on their property—even if the foliage is growing in the neighbor’s yard.

December 1, 2005

Droopy branches, decaying limbs, and invading plants from the neighbor's yard can make your client's well-maintained property look dark and overrun. Fortunately, there’s a practical solution.

In every U.S. state, homeowners have a common law right to prune the limbs, roots, and branches from a neighbor's yard that intrude onto their property. That legal right is referred to as a self-help remedy, and allows property owners to take action rather than go to court.

Pruning is defined as the selective removal of plant parts to meet specific goals and objectives, such as removing branches that are diseased or broken, pose potential injury, or are blocking sunlight. However, this right doesn't mean homeowners can wield an ax at everything they don’t like next door.

Here are some guidelines for prudent pruning to share with your clients so they can stay within their legal rights. To protect yourself from liability, remember to stress that you are not a landscaping expert or a lawyer—and never offer legal advice.

  • Know the boundaries. Find the property boundary line on a surveyor's map. One of these maps should have been made or provided to the owner at the last closing. Dig out the document and study it before starting. Look for the metal posts or rebar at the corners that correspond to the map.
  • Stop at the line. Prune trees, shrubs, hedges, and plants that are encroaching from the neighbor's yard, but stop at the boundary line. If your clients go past the line, they’re trespassing. Use proper pruning methods or contact a professional service.
  • Don’t hurt the tree. Proper pruning should not harm the tree or cause portions of it to die. You can’t, for example, prune 90 percent of the tree—even if it’s all on your property—and expect the tree to survive. Most trees can handle reasonable pruning without difficulty.
  • Anticipate potential problems. Tree problems are hard to predict. A weakened tree could come down in a breeze and cause enough damage to keep the house off the market. Before they take action, encourage your clients to find out whether there is a structural problem with the tree they want to prune. An arborist can help.
  • Let the neighbor know. Any structural problem, such as a split in the trunk or dead limbs, can endanger your client’s property. If such a problem is suspected, the neighbors should be told immediately both verbally and in writing. Documenting this problem puts them on notice. Pictures, an arborist’s report, or a cost estimate for rectifying the problem can further document the situation. If damage or injury does occur, the neighbor could be liable for the repairs to property and medical bills.
  • Clean up the debris. Clear away all of the leaves, sticks, and yard debris that come from the neighbors’ trees. If the debris is on your property, the neighbors are not responsible for cleaning these up.

Finally, encourage your clients to practice good neighbor relations as they tidy up their yards. Chatting with neighbors and telling them about the need to clear up the yard for a sale might start a joint clean-up effort.

Your clients can ask if the neighbors want to share a tree service that could come and prune both yards at one time. The mutual communication and cooperation with neighbors can pay off when the tidy landscaping increases the appeal of the home when it hits the market.

Learn More: Online Resources

Spot Landscaping Red Flags
A sharp eye will help you alert buyers to potential problems with a home’s environs, but experts warn not to assert expertise. (REALTOR® Magazine Online, August 2005)

Tree Care Industry Association
Get tips for caring for trees and use a search tool to find tree care professional in your area.

National Gardening Association
The nonprofit organization’s goal is to help people become better gardeners by providing tips, articles, and how-to guides for an array of projects.