California Property Line Laws: Fence & Tree Trimming

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It’s one thing to love thy neighbor. But in California, where the houses are usually close together, it’s good to have privacy too. Property lines laws provide guidance for boundary fences, private nuisance laws and tree trimming.

Where Is the Property Line?

The property line, also known as the ​boundary line​, is the defined point where one property owner’s land ends and the neighboring land starts. Find the property line on a property deed or the survey provided at the time of purchase. Observing the property line tells you where you can place fences and other items without encroaching on neighboring land.

California Property Line Fence Law

Property line laws are contained within California Civil Code. Sometimes, neighbors dispute the placement of the property line. The first step in resolving a dispute is typically to have a survey carried out to establish exactly where each property begins and ends.

Under California law, a presumption exists that the owners/occupiers of neighboring properties derive equal benefit from the boundary fence, and therefore, they should be ​jointly liable​ for the reasonable costs of constructing and maintaining it. But this is not an absolute rule, and it can be challenged with additional evidence, such as a written agreement between the two parties stating otherwise.

Under California Civil Code 841, neighboring landowners share equal responsibility for the costs of construction, maintenance or replacement of boundary fences. Before one neighbor begins work on a fence, he must give the other neighbor at least ​30 days’ notice​. He is also required to provide a description of the existing issue with the fence, plus how he proposes to remedy the issue, how long the work is likely to take, and the estimated cost.

Spite Fence Law

The spite fence law, which refers to ​any fence or structure that stands over 10 feet tall​ and is put up in order to ​annoy the neighbor​, is also contained in section 841. A “spite fence” is considered a private nuisance, and it can give rise to civil action. If someone has an issue with the height, material or appearance of his neighbor’s fence, he should first check with his city neighborhood association to determine which local rules apply.

Tree Trimming in California

California has very strict laws as to tree trimming. A person ​may not cut down or damage a tree on her neighbor’s land​ under any circumstances. Under section 833 of the California Civil Code, if a tree’s trunk stands completely on the land of one person, that person is the sole owner of the tree even if the tree’s roots spread into the neighbor’s land. However, if a tree’s trunk is partly on one property and partly on the neighboring property, the property owners/occupiers share ownership and responsibility for the tree.

A property owner may trim any branches or roots of a neighbor’s tree that extend onto her property, but not if doing so causes harm to the tree. The law dictates that a person must act ​reasonably​ and avoid negligently damaging or killing the tree. Some cities limit the types of trees that can be cut down or pruned, so check with the city neighborhood association for guidance.

Tree Trimming Damages

If someone’s tree is negligently damaged by another person, the ​tree owner may recover actual damages​, typically the cost of the tree and the cost of a replacement tree. The law also allows for additional damages if the tree was harmed deliberately. Under section 3346 of the California Civil Code, a person can sue for ​three times​ the amount of actual damages.

Additionally, inflicting deliberate harm to a tree is a ​crime​ in California under section 384a of the California Penal Code. Violation of this section is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

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