Real Estate Etiquette: Dealing With Your Neighbor’s Trees

Trees give us a lot: Oxygen, shade and shelter, to name a few.

But trees grow where they want to grow. Occasionally, that can get a little sticky when a neighbor’s tree is threatening something on your property or vice versa.

The first step is the easy one, hopefully. Head over to the neighbor’s place and have a chat. Discuss the tree and what you’d like to do about it. With a little luck, that’s all there is to it and good neighbors move forward.

But, things don’t always go so smooth. So let’s dig into the nitty gritty a bit and find out who’s really responsible for what.

John F. McGill, a lawyer with Austin’s Hancock and McGill, L.L.P, broke the issue down in a column for the Austin Board of REALTORS last year.

Trees add significant value to a property. And ownership is based on where the tree’s trunk enters the ground. If the trunk is on your side, it’s your tree. If the trunk is on the border with other properties, the ownership interest is shared, McGill writes.

So let’s say a neighbor’s tree is overhanging a shed in your backyard, the branches scratching the exterior as the wind blows. McGill explains that, in this case, you are responsible for the branches hanging over your property, even if the tree is owned by your neighbor.

But McGill says Texas law isn’t so clear about who is responsible when a neighbor’s tree is dying and a serious threat to your property.

“If a tree is unhealthy and in danger of falling and damaging property, the tree owner is well advised to be proactive by trimming or removing the tree,” McGill wrote. “Any damage caused on adjacent property by an unhealthy tree, is likely to result in liability or, at a minimum, the cost of defending a lawsuit brought by a neighbor who was damaged by the tree.”

City Protects Heritage Trees

Be cautious if you plan to remove a tree. The city requires a permit to remove or impact any tree that is 60 inches in circumference, as measured 4.5 feet above the ground. If you want to dig into the details, see the city’s law here.

Aside from following city rules, it’s important to use extreme caution when trimming a tree. That means being mindful of electrical and utility wires, other dead branches that may fall while you’re cutting and having properly maintained equipment. When in doubt, refer to OSHA’s safety tips about tree trimming.