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What do I need to know about buying a property with trees?

Buyers  |  1 May 2018  | By the settled.govt.nz team

Deco House

Some of the most well-known streets in the world are lined with trees – think The Mall in London, Champs-Élysées in Paris or Yaesu Sakura Street in Tokyo, with its stunning cherry trees – but as anyone who lives in a leafy area will tell you, trees can cause many issues.

Aside from their sheer beauty, there are many benefits to planting trees. They provide shade, offer protection from strong winds and filter water and air to reduce soil erosion and greenhouses gasses. But, they can also block views, damage fences and interfere with power lines. Wayward roots can disrupt pipes, branches can reduce sunlight, leaves can block gutters and windfall fruit can attract rodents.

Think about your neighbour’s trees

When looking at a property, it’s a good idea to think about the impact of your potential neighbour’s trees before making an offer. The people who planted them may not have carefully thought through their placement and how big they might grow, which is even more reason for you to think about what may happen to them in the future.

Large trees, larger roots

If the trees on a property you’re looking at, and those next door, are big and well-established, there’s a good chance that their roots may cause problems as well as their branches. Tree roots are out of sight, out of mind until they start to snake their way into retaining walls, foundations or drains – at which point they become difficult to ignore and expensive to re-route.

As roots get bigger, they can potentially weaken the soil below foundations or make their way through foundations causing problems, such as surface cracks, floor leaks and unstable foundations. Tree roots can also damage concrete or asphalt driveways and pathways, so it’s important to take a close look around a property to see if you can spot any visible damage, which may indicate mature root growth.

Trees: your rights and obligations

If you own a property, you can do whatever you like to your trees, within the bounds of the law that says you have the right to the ordinary use and enjoyment of your land. This is subject to any protection that may apply to your tree. If it’s protected (for example, because it is historic, considered to be significant or needed to prevent erosion), you may need to get resource consent before doing anything to it.

Remember, you can’t unreasonably interfere with your neighbours’ use and enjoyment of their land, which means that you can’t let your trees become a problem at their place (and vice versa).

You should also keep in mind overhead power lines when thinking about trees on your property. Property owners have obligations under the Electricity (Hazards from Trees) Regulations 2003 when their trees interfere with the electrical supply.

Be neighbourly

If the branches from the property next door overhang one you have recently purchased, take a moment to think before you start swinging your chainsaw at the branches crossing your boundary line. You’re likely to be living close to these people for some time. Do you really want to start out on a negative footing?

How would you feel if someone moved in next door to you and started hacking away at your trees without consulting you first? It’s a good idea to give your neighbours time to warm to you before tackling their trees. 

Legally, you are entitled to trim any branches or roots from a tree (or large shrub, or plant) that encroaches on your property unless they are protected, in which case you may need resource consent first. However, for the sake of being a decent neighbour, it would be a good idea to talk to the tree’s owners first. Don’t be tempted to take matters into your own hands and poison the tree, or trespass onto their property to chop parts of it off.

Get the professionals in

One way to resolve the situation is to seek advice from a professional arborist. Getting an expert to prune the tree in a way that doesn’t destroy it completely will be far cheaper than hiring a lawyer.

The New Zealand Arboricultural Association is the primary authority for tree care companies and individuals throughout the country and has a list of approved contractors you can work with.

If you can’t find a solution

In a scenario where a neighbour’s trees aren’t overhanging your property but present a risk to it (such as toppling over in high winds) and you can’t sort it out with a quick chat over the fence or with an arborist’s help, it may be time to seek help from the Disputes Tribunal or the District Court. If the trees are causing a nuisance – blocking views and/or light – and you’re unable to agree with the neighbour, you can apply to the District Court for an order to get the neighbour to trim or remove the tree.

When weighing up landscaping options on your property, it’s always useful to remember the adage: mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

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