Reader Question: We bought a home a year ago built in the 80s. A problem has surfaced with the back block fence. The neighbors have a water feature and waterfall that abuts their side of the wall. The structure is leaking water and creating problems on our property. The soil on our side of the wall is continually mushy, and the wall is slowly disintegrating. We can see through some of the mortar joints in the blocks. What can we do?

Monty's Answer: When you purchased your home, did you notice the seepage when you inspected the property? Is the leak new, or has it recently intensified? Were you furnished with a seller condition report? There may be another party or two that share some responsibility. If you discover a real estate agent was derelict, or the seller was aware of the leak, it could help defray the repair costs. The circumstances play a critical role in applying the law and reason to rectify this situation.   

Seek to understand - then be understood

Once you establish the ownership, most neighbors will be engaging, reasonable and anxious to repair the leak in the wall. You want to ascertain if your neighbors know about the leak. Have you met the owners? Consider approaching them and explaining what you are experiencing on your side of the fence. It will not be a shock if they are not aware of it. The fountain could appear normal on their side. Ask them if their water bill is higher than usual. They may have wet soil on their side as well. 

Do either of you have a survey that can be used to find the survey stakes? The exact location of the wall is essential. Does it straddle the lot line or rest totally on one side or the other. Determining who owns the fence is the first step in seeking resolution because if the entire wall is on their property, it is their responsibility. If neither of you has a survey, consider asking a registered land surveyor to identify the corner stakes.

Simultaneously, ask three unrelated contractors for a bid to identify the source of the leak, the best solution and the cost to repair the leak and the wall. There are optional ways to go about the contractor selection. For example, a mason can fix the wall, and depending on the cause of the leak; it could be a plumber or a concrete contractor best suited to the task. If you want to farm the entire job out to one company, a landscape company will find the appropriate tradespeople. This article at http://bit.ly/2LCy4i6 offers more help.

An uncooperative neighbor

In the unlikely chance the neighbor snubs you and is uncooperative, obtain the survey and review your purchase documents. When you know the location of the wall, the decision will be easy if the wall does not sit on both parcels. If it does, gather the estimates and go back to the neighbors. If they remain uncooperative, consult with an attorney to consider your choices.

Richard Montgomery is the author of "House Money - An Insider’s Secrets to Saving Thousands When You Buy or Sell a Home." He is a real estate industry veteran who advocates industry reform and offers readers unbiased real estate advice. Find him at DearMonty.com.