Yesterday, I received a text message from a neighbor at one of my listings, "There's a rope tied around the electrical wires in front of your property that's been there for years. Can you please remove it?" (He's right, it is unsightly, but no, we can't touch the PG&E wires due to liability but will certainly put the company on notice.)
Last week it was a repeated demand to prune some trees at yet another listing. Evidently the expanding foliage has been bothering the neighbor across the street for years. "These were small shrubs when he moved in ten years ago," she complained, "now they're BIG!" (Yes, they are. Plants have a tendency to grow and the Homeowner's intention WAS to screen his property.) She'd approached me more than once, then my assistant, then our gardeners, but wasn't getting the desired result. (I'm sorry, but the Seller wants them left alone.)
sOften it's a fence dispute, an unrecorded easement, lot-line discrepancies, or the most obvious offender of them all, a deck the neighbor simply doesn't like . . . . Whatever the point of contention, you can bet it's going to rear its ugly head as soon as the "For Sale" sign goes up in front of the house.
Why your neighbors believe I have the authority to chop down trees or remove decks is beyond me. (I don't.) I can politely ask the Seller on your behalf, I can alert the utility companies, I can ask my gardener to prune back the growth a wee bit, and I can make appropriate suggestions, but ultimately, I am there to represent the Sellers' interest. In other words, I take my marching orders from them.
While it's in everybody's best interest to work collaboratively, a 'For Sale' sign is not a free pass to get everything done that's been a thorn in your side for the past decade - nor is a 'Pending' sign, which is EXACTLY when many neighbors decide to bring up the "encroachment issue" they are sure exists. Couldn't you have raised the question weeks earlier? (Yes, you could, and should have.)
Problem solver? Yes. Before & After Specialist? Yes. Skilled negotiator? Yes. Realtor? Yes.
Mediator? Arborist? Surveyor? Contractor? Tax Advisor? Lawyer? Therapist? NO! (Well, maybe therapist.)
Do you have a legal right to your view?
In many municipalities, you absolutely DO, but not at your neighbors' personal expense. Which is why I tell my Buyers to take photos of their view when they move in, to make friends with their neighbors right away, to hire a tree specialist every few years, and to pay the tree men semi-annually to have the trees trimmed. The reality is that the offending Homeowners have no incentive to do the work for you if it doesn't benefit them as well. In fact, they are likely paying their own tree-trimming costs for trees that block their view further downhill.
With respect to Sellers, the savvy ones let their neighbors know BEFORE the sign goes up that they intend to sell; that workmen and vendors will be on the property, that parking may be impacted during both preparation and the Sunday 0pens, that it may be inconvenient and oh BTW, "Is there anything I need to be aware of as I bring my house to market?"
AND then, may I suggest (plead, urge, insist) that if the request is semi-reasonable, you grant it. It's a small price to pay to keep your neighbors out of your transaction. The marketing period isn't the time to polarize the neighbors or get into a power struggle.
As to decks, fences, garages, ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) and other exterior improvements, it's ALWAYS foolhardy to add these on without applying for the proper building permits. Believe me, nothing feels worse than being in escrow, only to have the neighbor pop up with "You know, they never got a permit for that deck and you need to let prospective Buyers know that I intend to file a complaint." (Gee, thanks for sharing.)
Finally, it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads my columns regularly that I'm a bit of a control freak so do I hate it when my neighbors' MASSIVE OAK drops pollen and leaves all over my neatly groomed and meticulously landscaped yard? (I absolutely do.) But those trees next door didn't show up overnight; they were there when we bought our home and while I believe trees that size belong in a park - not a backyard - NO ONE CARES WHAT I BELIEVE! I live in a neighborhood, not on a ranch separated by hundreds of acres between homesteads.
AND even then, having previously owned a home on a fair amount of land where 14 parcels quite literally butted up to our property lines, there's always going to be something. That's simply the nature of living among others and sharing boundaries. We all must work to get along and that often involves compromise. Sometimes, it also means relinquishing control . . . (Ultimately, I don't control what my neighbors plant, nor do they control what I plant. Get the point?)
So my advice is to talk with your neighbors regularly, host potlucks, gather as a community, and work through these rather inconsequential items neighbor-to-neighbor, friend-to-friend. (Don't wait for the Realtor to show up.) I assure you that when everyone is on good terms, no one is going to block your request to add a deck out back or threaten to turn you over to the authorities when you do. Let's avoid those untimely text messages in the middle of your escrow.
Instead, they're going to root for your success which tends to increase their property values as well. And believe me, everyone cares about that!
How can I help you?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 12 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.