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What to Do If Your Neighbor’s Tree Hangs Over Your Property

When a neighbor’s tree hangs over your property it can be a nuisance—and even cause damage. But tread carefully before you trim it.
Cherry tree hanging over fence
Credit: SashkaB/Shutterstock

Sometimes it seems like living in a society would be much better if we didn’t have to deal with all these other people all the time. If you own a home, you know that your neighbors are both one of life’s great blessings and often the biggest pain in your ass. On the one hand, sometimes you wake up and they’ve shoveled the snow from your sidewalk, and when you go on vacation they check on your cat! On the other hand, things can get really tense when disputes crop up unexpectedly—like when your neighbor’s tree hangs over your fence.

At first glance this might not seem like a big deal, but those overhanging branches can cause problems. They mess up your property by dumping leaves everywhere; they can scrape your roof shingles, smack into windows during high winds, and get tangled in power lines. Underground, the tree's roots could be worming into your sewer and water lines. That tree might be pretty, and you might enjoy its borrowed shade on sunny days, but if it starts to be a problem, what can you do?

Tree law

America is not so much a large country as a collection of tiny countries standing on each other’s shoulders wearing a trenchcoat, so the laws governing trees and property will vary from state to state—you’ll have to do some local research if you’ve got a situation brewing with a neighbor’s tree. That said, there are three things that are almost certainly true about your neighbor’s tree:

  • It has value. Sure, it’s a tree, and apparently grows for free out of the ground as if by elven magic. But a tree on your neighbor’s property has monetary value. For one thing, your neighbor may have paid for the tree and had it planted. Then there are other benefits, like the carbon dioxide offset of that tree, the cooling effect of its shade, or fruit that it provides. The USDA Forest Service offers a free calculator that estimates the economic benefits of a tree, which isn’t definitive but gives you some idea of how someone might define its value.

  • It’s your neighbor’s property. If the tree’s trunk is entirely on your neighbor’s property, no matter how much it overhangs yours, it belongs to them just like anything else in their yard. If the trunk straddles or crosses the property line, it’s probably considered a boundary tree—community property. That means that you have as much say and responsibility for it as your neighbor, but you still can’t unilaterally make decisions about it.

  • You have the right to defend your property. If the tree’s branches cross the property line, you have the right to trim them, especially if they threaten to damage anything. But you can’t go past your property line under any circumstances.

That last bit might make this all seem very clear and simple: If the tree is causing havoc on your side of the fence, get out there and cut it back to the property line. While you have the right to do that, you should think twice for one simple reason: If you touch your neighbor’s tree and damage it, destroy its aesthetic value, or kill it outright, you could be held liable for the loss and the cost of treating or replacing it. This can run to the thousands of dollars—especially if it’s an expensive ornamental tree that’s part of a cohesive landscaping design.

How to trim

So you have to be careful if your neighbor’s tree is invading and needs trimming. Here’s your best approach:

  • Talk to your neighbor. That liability goes both ways: Since the tree is your neighbor’s property, if it damages your property you can hold them liable. Approach your neighbor and ask if they’ll help trim the tree or grant explicit permission to do the work on your side, releasing you from liability—they might be incentivized to do so if the tree is causing damage. If it’s a boundary tree, you’ll need to negotiate with your neighbor anyway to get anything done.

  • Call the power company. If the offending tree is near power lines, you can probably call your local utility and schedule a free tree trimming. Most utilities have arborists on staff, and they are more than happy to clear branches away from power lines to avoid damage. That being said, keep in mind that the utility may trim more aggressively than you want. Also, keep in mind that once alerted to trees near power lines on your (or your neighbor’s property), the utility can come and trim them any time they want without your permission. Electric utilities have an easement on all private property to allow them access for maintenance and repair.

  • Hire a professional. The more you distance yourself from the tree trimming, the less likely you’ll run into trouble. You’ll want a company that has a certified arborist on staff, because trees are living things and they come in a wide variety of species. An arborist can identify the tree and prescribe the right way to trim it without damaging it or leaving it vulnerable to disease.

A tree growing right by your property line offers a lot of free benefits—but also free problems. If the latter is starting to outweigh the former, be careful—trimming your neighbor’s tree can open up a can of worms.