Buying a strip of our next-door neighbor's lot
November 3, 2021 9:22 PM   Subscribe

Due to a surveying error, our 100+ year-old house in Seattle was built right on the property line of our next-door neighbor's lot. His house is ten feet or more from our house. Between our houses there is no fence, just some plants that are trimmed about once a year. Would it make sense to purchase a strip of our next-door neighbor's lot so our house is no longer on the property line?

We are on good terms with our neighbor. He's lived in his house over 50 years, and a few years ago he signed an easement with us so that no fence could be built within 3 feet of our house and to allow maintenance of our house from his lot. But he's getting elderly, and who knows what future neighbors might be like.

If we buy a strip of his lot, 5 feet wide along the house (~50 feet + another 5 feet on each end), there will be a legal 5 foot setback of our house from the property line. The lots' lengths are a 100 feet, but we don't want a strip the entire length as he would lose part of his front and back yards; the space between the houses isn't used for anything.

Is this a prudent thing to do?

On the other hand: It's been a while since I looked up the regulations, but regardless of our house's proximity to the property line, even if our neighbor's house is torn down and replaced, any new house still must be at least feet away. So maybe this is completely unnecessary?

Obviously, we'd need an attorney and surveyor to do this. Anything else we should consider?
posted by Sock, Sock, Sock, Sock, Sock, Goose! to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
I think you need to ask a lawyer in Seattle about this right now. If your house has been there that long, there may be certain rights and such that you don't need to buy that property. Or maybe you do! But I think you need to ask a lawyer now, not just to do it.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:27 PM on November 3, 2021 [17 favorites]

IANAL, but looking at Seattle building requirements, any new building must be five feet from the side property lines. You have an easement to protect you already (assuming it's registered on title), and the easement travels with the property, so your access to that five feet is protected. However, if you have a good relationship with your neighbor, he may consider 'flipping' the easement and ownership, for a reasonable amount. Can't hurt to ask, and won't endanger your current easement (again, assuming it's registered on title).
posted by liquado at 9:40 PM on November 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Your problem may arise when you try to sell the property. I’ve looked at properties where a surveying error or property line dispute was disclosed, even with an agreed easement and friendly neighbors, and noped right out of any such situation, and I’m betting many other buyers would feel the same way. So yes, I’d say buying the strip in question makes good sense for long term home value purposes. I know it’s Seattle (used to live there) and the idea of a property being slow or difficult to sell is unfamiliar, but it could be a real millstone many years from now.
posted by spitbull at 2:46 AM on November 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

What is your evidence that the line is incorrect? If you're looking at online maps overlaid on satellite photos, they're not accurate within a meter or so in my experience. Also, if the city paid for someone to go around and put new boundary pins in they might not have been super accurate about it.

You may want to start with hiring a surveyor yourself; they cost a couple hundred bucks but a good one will remove all question of the line's position. However, once they officially mark it, you'll probably have to take action at that point if you're right that the property line runs through your house.

As spitbull mentioned, it could affect when you sell your house -- but if your neighbor is going to sell their house, it will affect them too because your home is 'encroaching' on their property. I tried to buy a property that had encroachment (a neighboring business expanded their building a foot over the line) and I couldn't find a lender who'd give a mortgage on it.

So, if your house is proven to be in the wrong place, it is in both yours and your neighbors' best interest to work with a real estate lawyer to get it fixed. It's mostly a bunch of paperwork but you want to make sure it's correct and not add more mistakes on top of an existing mistake.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:07 AM on November 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's worth talking to a lawyer about cleaning this up, for sure. And I agree with others that you should not make any assumptions about a survey error or the location of the property line without engaging your own surveyor to draw a map and stake the property. It's possible that your house was built right on the property line on purpose! The house may predate whatever zoning rules are now in place about setbacks etc. Often, buildings that preexist the zoning rules are "grandfathered" and are not required to comply with new rules - there are tons of 1800s houses where I live that are built right on the lot line, which is not allowed anymore, but they are exempt. If your house is (a) fully within your property, even if right on the line; and (b) exempt from the setback rules because it is older than those rules, then it is possible you don't need to do anything at all. Also, if you are talking about city lots, there may be restrictions on subdividing them - there may be a minimum lot size that prevents your neighbor from peeling off a portion of his lot.
posted by Mid at 6:56 AM on November 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: That last point from Mid is something I came here to make. Zoning rules tend to include things related to property size. For example, in my city, lot sizes under a certain size have different rules about whether they must replace any large trees that have been removed under permit. The lot size can affect the size of an addition or garage footprint that can be placed on the site.

One area of concern would be that with your house right on the property line, I'd wonder if the neighbor had to adhere to any other kind of setback than one set by the parcel? My house is also right on the property line on one side. The gap between my house and the neighbor's is roughly ten feet which is the exact setback if the line were split evenly between our homes. If they decided they wanted to build onto their house in this gap, I'm not sure what would be allowed per zoning. A 5' setback from the property line would put their house exactly 5' from mine if they built to the max setback. Of course, that is not in the spirit of the code which wants at least 10' between homes to avoid fire spread from house to house. Perhaps there is a line item somewhere which spells this out.

In any case, this is very common where I live. And my house is grandfathered in as "existing, non-conforming" and there's nothing that must be done about it. I think the bushes separating the two homes is a lovely solution to providing a semi-private walk-way and access to your property. My neighbor has left this area open but they could put up a fence but I would be allowed access to monitor and care for that wall of my home. They have planted things right up next to the house. It's our garage wall so this doesn't feel like encroachment or a taking.

I agree with those above, though, that having your own survey before you go in and fret over things is key. It's not clear to me in your message about anything that must be done. Or anything that actually requires action. If your relationship with your neighbors is good and your understanding of the property lines and what that means for you is clear and if you are not being prevented from having access to that side of your house.... I wouldn't mess with it.

Plus, I think your property taxes would go up with the sale of the land. Something to consider! Make sure you know the full ramifications of that.
posted by amanda at 7:39 AM on November 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

You have an easement that's been in place for years. The houses have been like that for 100+ years. I'd file this away under "soemthing you might have to do down the road, but save your money for now". Maybe build a pizza oven so if new neighbors come, you can befriend them with pizza.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2021

Best answer: The zoning law allows even new structures to be built closer to the property line if you have an easement to the neighbor's property. Which you apparently do. This easement requires new structures on his property to be sufficiently far away from yours. You have nothing to gain. He, on the other hand, would be better off if you paid him for land he can't really use anyway.
posted by flimflam at 10:17 AM on November 4, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all. I took advantage of my workplace's free 30 minute phone consult with a lawyer benefit and the gist of the conversation was that with the easement we should be fine without purchasing the strip.

In addition, searching through my email, I dug up this from my neighbor about the property line issue:

Way back then folks were dealing with a piece of property that was out in the country and being sold by lots as per "pick out what you want to buy". (Properties on the south side of XXth were "short platted" meaning they had all been set as 25foot wide lots of which you could pick as many to purchase as you desired to). Meaning the larger piece of which ours comes from was being chopped up into lots of whatever size folk wanted to purchase. It was like if you drove out into the country (our area) and saw a sign "land for sell" and chose a piece to your satisfaction. As they did this with the properties along the north side of N. XXth, there was an 8 foot piece that didn't get picked up as ever being as per the property record (tax) people down town. During the Depression when eager to get any penny they could, the City went out and checked all properties and discovered that strip of land which was on the east side of my 40 foot lot. No one had been paying taxes on it. They didn't like that! The piece was thought to originally been on the west side of your added-on lot and had been used as an alley to get between XXth and lands north which had not been developed (until the 1950's I'm told). The Sxxx's who lived across the street from us described driving through that alley, through the lands north and angling over to get to XXXX. Anyway, the City offered the 8 foot strip to Hxxx who owned my house at the time and thus it was added to my lot. It's currently my driveway. Both of our properties thus evolved from a major fuckup of understanding where property lines were. I got the situation settled when I hired the surveyor to shoot my property lines and legally record it. I also inherited the beautiful rodies that are between our houses which were planted by the owners of your house back then. The asshole who owned your house when I bought mine wanted to remove them since his Grandmother had planted them. I told him NO WAY! What a mega-jerk. We thus currently both share them and their beauty! We also share a common property line set of markers on the back common corners of our adjoining lot and the front corner as per the lead plug in the sidewalk. All is clearly and neatly marked and logged into the City records!

So, my neighbor had a survey made a few decades ago, but the attorney suggested it might be worthwhile to get a new one with the new updated technology that is more accurate.
posted by Sock, Sock, Sock, Sock, Sock, Goose! at 9:38 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

You may have already covered this, but, just in case, an easement usually needs to be recorded with the appropriate clerk/deeds office to be effective against later owners of the land. I.e., if you want the easement to continue after the neighbor sells his property to someone else, the easement needs to be recorded so subsequent purchasers have notice of it.
posted by Mid at 5:05 AM on November 11, 2021

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