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Common Real Estate Disputes in Massachusetts and How to Resolve Them

Common Real Estate Disputes in Massachusetts and How to Resolve Them

There are several types of disputes that can arise either during real estate transactions in Massachusetts or just as a result of owning property in the Commonwealth. These disputes often arise between property owners, neighbors, or parties involved in a transaction (buyers and sellers). Understanding these common disputes and knowing how to resolve them is essential for navigating real estate challenges effectively. In this legal blog post, we'll explore some of the most prevalent real estate disputes in Massachusetts and discuss strategies for resolution.

1. Boundary Disputes

Boundary disputes occur when there is uncertainty or disagreement over property lines between neighboring landowners. These disputes can arise due to unclear deeds, outdated surveys, or changes in property use over time. Resolving boundary disputes often requires:

  • Reviewing property deeds, surveys, and historical records.
  • Conducting boundary line surveys to clarify property lines.
  • Negotiating with neighboring landowners to reach a mutual agreement.

Resolution to boundary disputes will also be dependent on whether the land is recorded land (with the given county’s Registry of Deeds) or registered land (with the Massachusetts Land Court). Having your property registered with the Land Court can be beneficial because it provides a property owner with added security, since the Commonwealth has a rigorous certification process to ensure they maintain proper records. This results in an official Certificate of Title being given to the property owner. This not only helps with any potential Title issues or disputes down the road, but it also eliminates any ambiguity when it comes to boundary lines of property registered with the Land Court. The Land Court maintains all survey records, and if a dispute arises, they would send out their own surveyor to confidently dispel any questions of where a boundary line begins or ends. You can also order a survey plan of your property from the Land Court directly through the Mass.gov website.

Filing with the Registry of deeds (recorded land) is often considered faster and sometimes more flexible. This is because it does not undergo the meticulous certification process that property registered in the Land Court must go through. As a result, a more comprehensive Title search may be required to ensure there are no issues when it comes both to an Owner’s official Title, and the official boundary lines of a given property.

These types of issues can also be covered by a homeowner's Title insurance policy under certain circumstances. Should the boundary dispute arise from a defect in the Title, the Title insurance company will be liable for any expenses paid to resolve the boundary dispute,  up to the policy limits. For a full overview of Title insurane and the benefits that it provides to homebuyers, please read our full legal blog post here. 

2. Easement Issues

An easement is a nonpossessory right to use the property of another for a limited purpose without possessing it. The most common type of easement is a right of way used for ingress or egress, or often seen as a shared driveway where one estate grants another estate the ability to use the driveway to get to their land. The estate that benefits from the use of the easement is known as the dominant estate, while the estate that is burdened by the easement is known as the servient estate. Easements can be either in gross or appurtenant. In gross easements are granted to a specific person or entity. These are most frequently used for utility or railroad companies, where the company, and nobody else, is granted the right to use or access a portion of someone else’s land. For example, it could come as an easement in gross for the utility company to build a new telephone pole on your land, or a railroad company being granted an easement in gross to run tracks over someone else’s land. Appurtenant easements are permanent and are said to “run with the land.” This means that no specific person has the right to use the easement, but any subsequent owner of that property has the right to use it. The property right is attached to the land and will subsequently be transferred with the property when it is sold to any future owner. Appurtenant easements are typically evidenced by deed. These types of easements are most frequently seen as a right of way so a landowner can cross their neighbor’s land to access a public road, a body of water, a nearby walking trail, or some other amenity. The image below diagrams the parties to an easement.

Common Real Estate Disputes - Know the Parties to an Easement

Easement disputes involve disagreements over the use of a shared or designated portion of property by another party. Once an express easement is created, the owner of property on which the easement lies (the servient estate) cannot unreasonably interfere with the dominant estate’s use or access to that easement because it is a protected right. Common easement issues include access rights, maintenance responsibilities, and interference with property use (often referred to as scope issues). Resolving easement disputes may involve:

  • Reviewing easement agreements and legal documents.
  • Negotiating with affected parties to address concerns.
  • Ironing out maintenance agreements as to who is responsible for the costs of maintaining an easement
  • Seeking court intervention for enforcement or modification of easement rights.

3. Contract Disagreements

Contract disputes can arise during real estate transactions due to breaches of contract, misinterpretation of terms, or failure to perform obligations. Common contract disagreements include issues related to offers to purchase, purchase and sale agreements, lease agreements, or construction contracts. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for a breach of contract lawsuit is  six years after the contract was broken, as defined under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 260, § 2. Resolving contract disputes requires:

  • Reviewing the terms and conditions of the contract.
  • Identifying areas of disagreement and potential remedies.
  • Negotiating with parties involved to reach a resolution.

4. Adverse Possession

Adverse possession occurs when a person claims ownership of another person’s property through continuous and open use for a specified period. Title by adverse possession can be acquired only by proof of nonpermissive use that meets specific elements. Adverse possession may sound harsh, where someone comes in and uses another person’s land, and ultimately gets awarded possession of that land after 20 years of continuous use. But the policy behind the doctrine is to ensure the productive use of land which ultimately punishes any landowner that simply “sleeps on their rights.” In Massachusetts, adverse possession requires meeting strict legal criteria, including:

  • Open use that is visible and known to the property owner
  • Continuous for the statutorily defined period and exclusive use of the property. Meaning the adverse possessor is the only person using the land
  • Actual use of the land (often seen by building a structure or some other fixture on the land)
  • Notorious use – meaning the adverse possessor puts both the owner by record of title and the general public on notice of their use and ownership. This eliminates the ability for someone to intentionally hide their use and keep it secret in order to obtain ownership rights.
  • Hostile use – meaning the land is being possessed without the owner's permission.
  • Lastly, all of the above elements must be met for 20 consecutive years in Massachusetts. There are minor exceptions to this under MGL c. 260, § 22 which allows for “tacking.” Tacking allows the claimant to “tack on” the use and time of a previous adverse possessor to combine it with their time. Tacking requires that the predecessor also met all of the aforementioned elements, and for there to be privity between the previous possessor and the current adverse possessor.

It's important to note that certain types of land cannot be adversely possessed. This includes:

  • Government-owned land (MGL c. 7C, § 32)
  • Land recorded with the Massachusetts Land Court (MGL c. 185, § 53)
  • Railroad Property (MGL c. 160, § 88)

While adverse possession is similar to "squatting," the legal concepts differ. Squatting is the act of unlawfully occupying property without the legal permission of the true owner. Squatting derives itself from the legal doctrine of adverse possession and involves the unauthorized occupation of property. While adverse possession is a legal claim that the possessor would make to seek ownership rights through an action for quiet title after the above elements are met for twenty consecutive years. For a full breakdown of squatting and squatter's rights in Massachusetts, you can read our full overview here.

Resolving Real Estate Disputes: Seeking Legal Guidance

Navigating real estate disputes in Massachusetts can be complex and challenging. Whether you're facing boundary disputes, easement issues, contract disagreements, or adverse possession claims, seeking guidance from a qualified real estate attorney is crucial. An experienced attorney can provide legal advice, negotiate on your behalf, and represent your interests in court if necessary.

At Lane, Lane, & Kelly, our skilled real estate attorneys specialize in resolving real estate disputes and providing effective legal solutions. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and learn how we can assist you in resolving real estate conflicts with confidence.

This blog is made available for educational purposes only as well as to give you general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading this blog you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and Lane, Lane & Kelly, LLP.