Finding Your Property Line Before Buying

Q: I am reading your book, Buy Close, Move In!, and it doesn’t say anything about property lines. I found out that the property line is actually half way through the yard on a property I want to buy because I went to city hall to check permits.

But now I want to back out and cancel the contract because not only does the property have an unpermitted addition but also half the yard I thought I was buying is actually the neighbors.

How can I get my deposit back on this case? It hasn’t been 17 days yet. I am in California. I think I might need a real estate lawyer for this reason, can you advise me on how to find a good real estate lawyer?

A: Your question regarding the property line question is quite interesting.

Most residential real estate is not sold by acre or by lot size. In fact, if you are buying a home or condominium, you usually don’t (and shouldn’t) rely on square footage measurements given to you but rather on your ability to independently gauge the size of the home and its suitability for your needs.

You mentioned that the property line is not where you thought it would be. The real question for you is what impact that fact has on your purchase. There are quite a number of homes that have backyards that are adjacent to parks, conservation areas and easements and other public land areas. In those instances, the backyard that you own may be smaller but from practical purposes, you get the benefit of a much larger area.

If your property line ends and someone else’s property begins and they have use of that area, that may affect how you use your backyard but those property lines are generally visible. In newer subdivisions, some backyards are not readily visible as developers create subdivisions with many homes backing up into a common area. The subdivision may prohibit the use of fences or other permanent materials that could be perceived as fencing so that all the homeowners have access and a view of the open area.

So we’re not quite sure what to tell you about the backyard issue. Some people want to buy homes with open areas and the actual lot lines may not matter to any of the homeowners. On the other hand, if fences are permitted, there is always the chance that your neighbor will put up a fence and most of your yard (and view) will be gone.

As for the permit issue, you will have to review the terms of your contract. If the California form contract you have requires the seller to deliver good title to the home to you and makes representations that the home complies with all local codes and laws, you may have a claim against the seller and may have the ability to back out of the deal.

Like most other states, California has a seller disclosure law that requires the seller to disclose to you any known defects relating to the property. If the construction of the addition was done improperly, the sellers might have to disclose that to you. We’re not aware if the sellers are required to tell you that they didn’t get permits for the addition and you should discuss that further with the attorney you hire to help you sort through your home purchase and home purchase cancellation.

As a final note, your ability to cancel will depend on the contract terms, any disclosure issue and one other. If the seller was required to obtain a permit to build the addition, in some places, local municipalities inspect the homes before they will issue any final document required for closing. If the local authorities are aware of the issue and won’t issue that document, the seller won’t be able to close on the purchase unless he is able to satisfy the local authorities on the construction and design of the addition.


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