Can You Trim Your Neighbor’s Overhanging Tree?

Real Estate

Trees can increase the value of your home.  According to the Arbor Day Foundation’s research, “83 percent of realtors® believe that mature trees have a ‘strong or moderate impact’ on the salability of homes”  Drive through Hancock Park or Beverly Hills and you will see right off that wealthy homeowners have been planting trees in their yards and Parkways for years.

However trees can cause some issues between neighbors and you could end up with a tree that is either a problem for you or your neighbor; invasive roots that can damage walls, driveways, etc, trees dropping debris, or limbs invading your yard, and of course blocking views.  Fortunately, California law is pretty clear on the areas of responsibility in regards to trees.

First off, the homeowner with the trunk of the tree in their yard owns the tree exclusively, even if the roots & limbs grow over the property line.  If only it was always so simple; trees with trunks standing partly on one owner’s land and partly on the land of the adjacent property belong to both property owners.

When a tree trunk is situated between two adjacent pieces of property, there is only a limited right to touch the tree.   The general rule of thumb is to obtain the approval from your neighbor before you start whacking away at limbs; you cannot cut down the tree on your own. This means that two people have legal rights with a tree that straddles two properties. 

But let’s say for example your neighbor’s tree branches are overhanging your property and you want sunshine in that area, not shade.  You may trim branches on your side of the property line, but you can’t touch branches on your neighbor’s side. You can trim the tree but you cannot damage the tree without consequences. If you cut the offending tree too much, and you end up killing the plant in the process, you’ll be liable to your neighbor and not just to replace a mature tree with a sapling from Home Depot. When a tree is a subject of “illegal trimming,” the owner of the tree has the right to recover the cost of replacing the tree or the loss of property value he believes he lost by the trimming encroachment. It is up to the court to determine what the appropriate compensation should be.

Another area of contention is tree debris.  For example, your neighbor’s tree sheds leaves into your pool, or pine needles fall onto your roof, filling your gutters.  The legal term for this sort of thing is “nuisance.” California law defines a nuisance as anything that “is injurious to health, or is indecent or offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property…”

But when it comes to tree debris, the law is on the tree owner’s side. Generally, you do not have the right to insist that your neighbor take responsibility for the natural growth and resulting debris of his reasonably maintained tree.

If your neighbor’s tree blocks your view, investigate if there is any “view ordinance” in your neighborhood. If so, it may be possible to get your neighbor to remove any growth that blocks the view that existed at the time of purchase.  If your city does not have such a “view ordinance,” there may be other options. Under California law, trees and hedges planted in a row to form a barrier may be legally considered a fence & if they exceed a height of 10 feet, they may be deemed a nuisance and could be illegal.

Most people love trees, but sometimes they can be the root of big problems. So next time you have to address a problem with a neighbor regarding trees, talk with your neighbor first, you should be able to avoid getting stuck out on a limb. But as I always say, it’s best to consult a lawyer before proceeding on any course of action that may rely on legal facts.