“My Neighbors’ Tree Roots Are Causing Damage!” Advice on California Law for Lucy in Lodi

Lucy has smiled and waved at her neighbors for years, never realizing that they were actually inadvertently causing her big problems under the ground. Lucy writes:

“I always thought my neighbors and I were on great terms. We’d say hello after work and we’d watch each other’s houses whenever one of us went out of town on vacation. Unfortunately, our relationship has kind of soured as of late—and it’s all because of my neighbors’ old mulberry tree. It’s on her side of the property, but its roots extend into my yard underground.

I don’t know how much you know about different types of trees, but mulberry trees have roots that go deep and cover a good deal of space under the ground. In the case of my neighbors’ tree, the problem is that those roots seem to have gone right into one of the pipes for the plumbing system of my home, causing it to burst. In fact, I’ve been having standing water seep up into my yard because of it.

My neighbors, for whatever reason, have been less than accommodating about all this, saying they’re really sorry but they’re not going to do anything to help me out. I’m thinking maybe state law has something to say about this. So, my question is, what can I do about a neighbors’ tree roots causing damage in my California neighborhood?”

Sorry to hear you’re dealing with this problem, Lucy, and I know it might feel like this little soggy mess is unique to you. I can assure you, though, that this is actually an issue residential plumbing experts like myself come across all the time. There are two ways you’re going to have to approach it: from a legal perspective, meaning what can you do to encourage your neighbor to help; and from a plumbing perspective, which basically means how do you get those burst pipes fixed.

Legal Action When Neighbors’ Tree Roots Are Causing Damage in California

neighbor's tree roots caused plumbing damageLucy’s situation—wherein a neighbors’ tree has roots that have reaped havoc on her underground pipes—has been a fairly common one for homeowners throughout Northern California this year. See, the end of the drought meant we all got quite a bit more rain than usual, which made the ground soggy and easy for roots to shift around in, leading to several instances of them smashing through pipes.

Thanks to the increase lately in these pipe problems, it’s my guess that plumbers throughout the area have had to brush up on some of the legal issues that surround these types of situations in order to help their clients out. I know I have. And though the law is a bit murky, I have good news and bad news for Lucy—and anyone else with her plight.

  • The Bad News: Due to the Booska v. Patel case back in 1994, Lucy doesn’t have the right to force her neighbor to remove those roots, even if they’re on her property. Lucy is required to take into account the health of the tree first and foremost.
  • The Good News: If Lucy can, however, determine that removing or trimming back the roots won’t harm her neighbor’s tree, she has the legal right to ask her neighbor to have the work done for her.

Now, I’ve talked to a lawyer friend of mine about all this at length and he tells me that, while all that is basically true, case law allows for a bit of a gray area. Basically, it depends on how much harm the tree roots are causing. If the amount of damage is more substantial than the damage that trimming back the roots would do to the tree, it’s Lucy’s right to have her neighbor remove them. But if the opposite is true, she just has to deal with it.

There may also be local ordinances that conflict with that court decision, which was made in a court of appeals. So, ultimately, my advice to Lucy would be to work closely with a local plumbing expert who has handled this situation before. He or she should be well versed in both the local ordinances, as well as how much damage is being caused.

Plumbing Action When a Neighbor’s Tree Roots Are Damaging Pipes

The plumbing side of Lucy’s conundrum is a good deal simpler than the legal side, at least as far as I’m concerned. During the rainy winter, I talked about related issues like what to do when a pipe bursts and why common storm damage to plumbing can come as a surprise. Now, Lucy knew she had a burst pipe because water was rising up from underground into her yard. But for some homeowners, recognizing that a rupture has taken place may not be so obvious.

Here are some signs to look for if you suspect one of your underground pipes has ruptured or been damaged by tree roots:

  • Sign #1: Sink and drain backups – If you’re experiencing backups in your drains, bathtub, or toilet, it’s probably because your home’s connection to sewage lines is broken or blocked, possibly due to a ruptured pipe. Backups are a nasty business, as the sewage trying to leave your house is pushed back in. Call a plumber right away.
  • Sign #2: Higher utility bills Was last month’s water bill significantly higher than usual? This is almost guaranteed to mean water is seeping out of a burst, broken, or clogged pipe somewhere, raising your usage—and your bill.
  • Sign #3: Decreased water quality Contamination infiltrates your system when you have a break in the pipes, making it so that the water you drink and use to bathe begins to change colors and have an odd smell.

If you notice any of these problems, call a plumbing professional right away. A trained professional can use video equipment to determine whether a pipe has already been shifted or breached, determining beyond a doubt that it must be fixed.

Neighbors’ tree roots causing damage in California, or anywhere else for that matter, is a tricky situation, both legally and in terms of your home’s plumbing. The key to resolving the issue is to take action. It’s tempting to want to try and force your neighbor to make it go away, I know, but stay focused on what’s going to be most productive.

Get a plumber involved ASAP, and sort out the legal stuff next. Don’t just let bad feelings grow underground, breaking the relationship between you and your neighbor. Call an expert, then try to extend an olive branch and stay on good terms.

Get help with tree roots causing damage to your plumbing. Call the professionals at Bell Brothers today! They can also assess your entire plumbing and sewer system for efficiency—as well as your HVAC system, windows, insulation, and more. Get your pipes, and the rest of roots of your home, in perfect working order so your energy efficiency can blossom and bloom.

Image courtesy Unsplash user Enrapture Media