Typical Suburban Lawn Care Supports Adverse Possession, Appeals Court Holds

by Rich Vetstein on September 4, 2019

A recent court ruling confirms a legal principle in Massachusetts which a lot of folks may be surprised to learn. Under the legal theory of adverse possession, if you mow your neighbor’s lawn and otherwise conduct typical suburban lawn care on that property openly and adversely for 20 or more years, you can claim legal ownership of that area. I’m not kidding, this is the law, and this principle comes up more than you think in boundary line disputes in Massachusetts.

Boundary Line Dispute In Newton

The case is Miller v. Abramson (Mass. Appeals Court Aug. 29, 2019) and is a good example of a classic adverse possession lot line dispute.

The Miller family lives in a single-family home at 11 Fellsmere Road in Newton, on a corner lot at the intersection with Ward Street. The Abramson family lives at 211 Ward Street in Newton. Fellsmere Road dead-ends onto Ward Street. As shown on the plan (left), the back of the Millers’ property directly abuts one side line of the Abramsons’ lot. The parties’ shared lot line is straight, running from Ward Street to the back of the Abramsons’ property. The area disputed by the parties forms a thin triangle, about 492 square feet in size, the base of which is along the Abramsons’ back lot line and one side of which is along the parties’ shared lot line. Since the Millers bought their property in 1986, a line of shrubs and small trees have formed a demarcation of the disputed area from the Abramson’s property. Since 1986 to the present, the Millers and their landscaping company mowed the lawn weekly and undertaken typical residential landscaping work within the disputed area.

Lawn Mowing and Typical Suburban Landscaping Can Constitute Adverse Possession

On appeal after the Millers prevailed at a Superior Court jury-waived trial, the Abramson’s argued that lawn mowing and landscaping was not sufficiently intense a use to establish adverse possession. As I have argued in other cases, the three judge panel confirmed that “typical suburban lawn care” can establish adverse possession so long as it was conducted for 20 or more years. The Appeals Court reasoned that “the context supplied by the surrounding landscape is significant in an adverse possession case — a use that is sufficient to establish ownership in a densely populated neighborhood may be inadequate in an isolated, wooded setting.”

So basically what the Appeals Court is saying is that the uses which would qualify for adverse possession depend on the type of property and the typical uses of land for that type of property. Here, in the single family residential setting, typical suburban lawn mowing, tree pruning and landscaping will be sufficient for a landowner to make a valid adverse possession claim. If the property is in a more open, heavily wooded area, more uses may be necessary, such as cutting trees and clearing the land. Conversely, if the property is in a dense urban area, uses such as paving a driveway, installing a fence, or the like may be enough. It depends on the situation, and every case is different.

Take-Away’s — Get a Plot Plan and Owner’s Title Insurance

As a prospective buyer, seller or real estate agent, how can you minimize the risk of adverse possession and boundary line disputes? The gold standard is to have a licensed surveyor undertake an instrument survey and run survey stakes along all lot lines. However, such a survey does cost upwards of $1,000 or more. Most lenders require a mortgage plot plan (around $125) at closing, however, these are not 100% accurate, but they will typically flag a potential encroachment. Owner’s title insurance with enhanced coverage does provide some coverage (subject to a cap) for boundary line disputes, so I always recommend that buyers get this. While buyers often pay the most attention to inside the home with their inspection, it’s a good idea for buyers to walk the property and try to scope out any potential lot line issues.

If you are dealing with a Massachusetts property line or boundary line dispute, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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