Neighbor wants to replace wall separating our gardens, what do I do?
May 10, 2016 6:22 AM   Subscribe

My NYC townhouse has a garden in the back. The garden has a wall around it, which has been there for decades. Two nearby trees has caused it to bow out of alignment toward my neighbor's garden, though not dramatically so. My neighbor claims in a letter to me that the wall will one day collapse into her garden, and wants us to share the cost of replacing the wall, before that happens, with a fence. She also said that if I don't agree to do this, I better make sure that my insurance covers the possible damage to her property that a collapse could cause. I think my neighbor (who is wealthy) just wants a new fence for aesthetic reasons so it matches other fencing on her property, and that the wall is fine -- and I have some questions for the hive-mind...

I had a mason (who was doing work on neighboring properties) inspect the wall, and he agreed that the wall is not about to collapse (despite the bow) unless someone deliberately does something to weaken it to cause it to collapse. Unfortunately, he was not willing to put this in writing; he said I will need to hire a civil engineer to do an inspection and give me a written report.

I would like to find out if my insurance does cover the garden wall, but I don’t know if it's wise to tell my insurance broker about this situation and get a recommendation for a civil engineer from them (will it affect my insurance rates?)

Beyond that, how do I go about finding a civil engineer for this sort of thing? My ideal outcome here is to avoid having to pay for an expensive new fence I don't want, by proving that the wall is safe -- but any advice on my situation and what to do would be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think my neighbor (who is wealthy) just wants a new fence for aesthetic reasons so it matches other fencing on her property, and that the wall is fine

What you think of your neighbor is irrelevant. The wall is leaning into her yard. She has put her concerns in writing to you. Even if the wall doesn't fall, the wall is leaning into her yard. People have a right to trim tree limbs that reach into their airspace; I wouldn't challenge this person's right to not have a stone wall weakened by tree damage leaning into her yard.

In your situation, I would pay a lawyer to review my homeowners' insurance before paying a civil engineer (ka-ching!) to assess the wall.
posted by headnsouth at 6:54 AM on May 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

You haven't actually said who owns the wall. Have you looked into it?

If you own the wall, and like the wall (a wall sounds nicer than a fence, to me), then consider hiring someone to un-bow it/re-stack the bricks, which might actually be cheaper than hiring a civil engineer and would surely be cheaper than half the cost of tearing down the wall, hauling it away and putting up a fence.

If, once the wall is un-bowed, she still wants a pretty fence, she can put one up on her side of the wall.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2016 [16 favorites]

Look on Home Advisor or some other home improvement listing site for Structural Engineer. They exist and they usually will inspect something and prepare a report for about $300-1000. They will usually not assess risk but they will probably be able to say "This is what is wrong with the wall and this is what it would take to fix it."

Either way, why not offer to let the neighbor do whatever she wants with it as long as she pays for it?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2016

What's your goal? Not paying money? Not incurring liability? Not having to replace the wall you like with an ugly fence?

You're not getting out of this without paying money (either for an inspection or for a repairs or for a new fence). If your goal is to keep the wall and not have to buy your neighbor a fence, look into having the wall repaired. If your goal is to do nothing, then you don't need to bother paying for an inspection and you can just accept the risks of having an upset neighbor and believe the report that the wall is sound, barring sabotage.

As noted above, presenting your neighbor with a "certificate of wall soundness" will not satisfy her complaint which is two-fold: one, the wall is bowing (however slightly) into her yard which possibly both makes her nervous and annoys her by being unsightly or encroaching or whatever; two, she'd prefer a fence. I think the first complaint (your wall is encroaching into her yard) is your problem (to some extent) and the second is not (except for the adage that good fences make good neighbors).

In your shoes, I'd find out who owns the wall, then I'd repair the wall. If repair is not possible, I'd replace it. In close quarters, I also prefer walls to fences and replacing things damaged by tree growth is part of owning property.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:52 AM on May 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

If your trees are pushing your wall further into her property, then you are at fault even if you think it's petty of her to be pissed over a few leaning inches. This is the kind of shit that starts feuds. Just fix the wall.
posted by corb at 8:48 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming the ownership of the wall is essentially joint and you don't mind it being replaced with a fence, I'd tell her that you've been advised that wall is still structurally sound and not likely to collapse on its own any time soon. If she would like to replace the wall with a fence then you have no objections, but you are not in a position to financially contribute.

Out of interest, is the wall collapsing actually likely to cause damage to her property? What would be in its path, should it collapse? Because if its just going to collapse into her garden and crush a flowerbed, I really wouldn't be that worried about her threats. If it might damage structures or trees, that's more serious but you really do need to check your insurance policy. If your garden wall is covered, IMO, its worth getting a report on the structural safety of the wall because if it does come down due to freak accident of nature or whatever, you'll want that to prove to your insurance company that prior to freak incident, it was in good repair (they wont necessarily agree or listen but better to have than not).

All that being said - if the damage to the wall was caused by trees nearby and those trees are causing the wall to bow towards her garden.... that makes it sound like the trees are yours? (its interesting that you don't specify which side the trees are on) Have the trees been dealt with to prevent further damage to the wall?
If your trees caused the damage, you should either split the cost of the new fence or get the wall repaired. How long ago did it happen? If your garden is covered by your insurance policy and some freak of nature or whatever caused your trees to bow the wall (rather than negligence), your insurance policy should cover the repairs to the wall
posted by missmagenta at 8:57 AM on May 10, 2016

I'm a neighbor on the downhill side of a collapsing wall, and I don't use the garden right next to it any more because it's dark and threatening. (Engineers and contractors have agreed. Neighbor doesn't see the problem - literally.) I find this a pretty serious loss of the quiet enjoyment of my property.

If the wall is over the property line, I think it's on you to fix it. If it isn't yet, and you think it isn't going to collapse, well, check with your insurance company that you'll be covered if it does and tell your neighbor so. In writing.
posted by clew at 3:22 PM on May 10, 2016

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