How Do I Tell My Neighbor She’s Ruining My Driveway?

published Nov 10, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Graphic: Apartment Therapy

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Dear Apartment Therapy,

Our next-door neighbor has a crumbling stone retaining wall that runs right along their property line (and our driveway). It causes dirt and debris to be washed all over our driveway every time it rains. These are old 1920s properties, so over time, a tree has grown on the corner of their retaining wall and the roots have broken through, depositing chunks of the stone in our driveway as well. It’s been this way for a while, but we’ve grown increasingly concerned that the tree is compromised and would come down on our house since it leans out over our driveway. Is our neighbor responsible for repairing the retaining wall and doing something about the tree? We can’t decide the best way to bring it up to her, or if it would be appropriate to offer to chip in on the repair cost. Appreciate your help! 

Up Against a Wall

Dear Up Against a Wall,

Ah, an old-fashioned neighbor dispute. During a time when there seems to be so much troubling this country of ours, it feels almost refreshing to focus my attention on a seemingly wholesome (and hopefully low-stakes!) conundrum. Thank you for writing in.

I don’t mean to downplay what’s happening here, of course. It is indeed a sticky situation. But before I get into your possible courses of action, I think the basics should be established. First, something on your neighbor’s property, a stone wall, is causing damage to your property. Second, the neighbor either hasn’t noticed or is willfully ignoring the damage their wall (and the tree) is doing to your property. Third, you say this has been happening for a while, which could suggest the neighbor doesn’t think you have an issue with it.

Now to dive into the best way to bring this up to your neighbor. I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt here, since she may, for one reason or another, not be aware of what’s happening or not know that you are upset. When broaching a subject like this, it’s worth taking care to make sure your neighbor doesn’t feel attacked or singled out. I think the best way to do that would be to send her an email or shoot her a text asking if she has time to chat about her stone wall. This way, you’re preparing her for the conversation, letting her know what you’d like to talk about and ensuring you’re chatting in person. Sometimes, people can get vicious behind a screen.

Then, before you talk in person (or over the phone, if you don’t feel comfortable with a masked chat outdoors) figure out how you’ll present your situation. Though property laws vary by state, you should know that you are in the right to ask her to repair the wall and trim back that tree.

“If the wall is truly owned by your neighbor, then your neighbor is responsible for any harm caused by the wall,” explains Stuart Lieberman, an attorney and partner with Lieberman Blecher & Sinkevich in Princeton, N.J. “So if the wall is causing injury or debris spill, then the owner of the wall should be held responsible.” 

It sounds so simple! And hopefully it can be. Your main objective during your conversation is to ask your neighbor to fix her wall. If she seems open to it, it’d be best to discuss a possible timeline so the problem doesn’t snowball. (It’s also in her best interest, since if more damage is incurred by her wall, she might have to pay for it!)

“The presence of the tree throws an interesting wrinkle into the analysis,” notes Stephen Zaffuto, a real estate attorney with High Swartz in Pennsylvania. “Is the growth of the tree’s root system a major cause for the deterioration of the retaining wall or is the wall deteriorating due to normal wear and tear and the tree is just a minor contributing factor? If it’s the former, and if you have some or all of the responsibility for maintenance of the wall, you may be able to hold the neighbor responsible for a larger portion of the costs to repair or replace the wall due to the damage caused by the roots.”

On your question of sharing the cost—it’s a generous idea, but certainly not necessary if the wall is on her property and not yours. I wonder if you should keep this in your back pocket as a last resort if your neighbor starts to get defensive.

“Sometimes these walls are on the property line and half the wall is owned by one property owner and the other half is owned by the other property owner. In that case, maintenance responsibilities, if not spelled out in some kind of joint agreement, can be more difficult,” Lieberman says. “Then it really is best to share common costs—and when neighbors get along, that is what happens. When they don’t, sometimes a judge needs to resolve these thorny issues.”

A lawsuit doesn’t seem ideal here, but I suppose the grounds for one are there. Again, I think this is a bridge you can cross when you come to it, though I doubt you will.

“These types of issues generally work out best when addressed in a friendly and respectful manner,” explains Zaffuto. “First, it is usually better for a variety of different reasons to maintain cordial relations with the next-door neighbors; and second, the cost of any type of litigation will generally be so expensive that there wouldn’t be much of a benefit  to any of the parties involved, even if you end up ‘winning.'”

Your course of action is this: beginning with a gentle ask, having a two-sided conversation, and if necessary, lending a helping hand. Good luck!