Q. My out-of–state parents just left after a visit to our new home. My dad said that we need to ask our neighbors what they plan to do about some semi-dead trees in their yard that are close to our property line and in some cases leaning toward our house with limbs hanging over our property. Dad says we will be liable for any damage and removal costs if any of these trees fall on our house or onto our property. This doesn’t seem fair. We just moved into this neighborhood, and a confrontation with a new neighbor over trees isn’t the way we want to begin our lives here. If dad is correct, are we protected if something happens and we have pictures showing that the trees were close to our property, semi-dead and leaning?
A. Congratulations on your new home, and welcome to the complexities of homeownership. I am not a practicing attorney or an insurance agent, but I agree with your dad. In many cases, when a tree from a neighbor’s property lands on yours, it is your homeowner’s policy that will cover the costs of removal, damage and repairs, not theirs. If you can prove the trees were a potential hazard to your property and that your neighbor knew or should have known they were, the damage becomes your neighbor’s liability because he was negligent. It will be your burden to show that your neighbor was negligent. You must be able to show that the neighbor had a duty to prevent the tree from falling onto your property. Why did the tree fall and would a reasonable person have known it was going to fall onto your property? If you can establish duty, you then have to show that the neighbor breached this duty by failing to take the appropriate action. This breach of duty must then be shown to be the causation of the tree falling onto your property. Lastly, you must show damage. Examples of damage include: a broken fence, damaged lawn furniture, damaged bushes and personal injuries.
Pictures will not be enough to prove negligence. Taking pictures of the trees and documenting conversations with your neighbor regarding the trees might be enough, but probably not. A letter with pictures, a description of the problem, your concerns and request for action would be much better. Sending the letter certified would be best. You could meet with them and tell them the letter is being sent so they are not blindsided. They may be completely unaware that their trees are causing any concern.
This would be a good time to discuss the branches that are encroaching across your property lines. You are allowed to trim and remove overhanging branches but only to your property line. Before doing any trimming, you should give your neighbors notice and know what you are doing. You might prune in the wrong season and kill or harm the tree and end up liable for financial damages.
Discuss this situation with your insurance agent. This would be a good time to ask about premium increases when any claims are filed and review your deductibles. The tendency for carriers to increase premiums when claims are filed is a good reason to select a high deductible. A $1,000 or $2,500 deductible will reduce your premiums, and paying out-of-pocket for damages up to this amount will reduce the number of claims filed, therefore keeping premiums low. If you don’t already have one, ask about an umbrella policy. This type of policy is very reasonably priced and will offer added liability protection if you are found liable for damage to another’s property or injury to another person. An umbrella policy will help protect your home and assets if someone files a lawsuit and your homeowner’s liability coverage is not adequate to resolve the claim.
Holly Nicholson is a certified financial planner in Raleigh. She cannot answer every question. Reach her at askholly.com or P.O. Box 97128, Raleigh, NC 27624