DennisBeaverJanuary 07, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

You and I both know of a problem in our neighborhoods. It’s that vacant house on the corner — in foreclosure, abandoned by the family who used to live there. They could not afford to make the payments and simply moved out.

The swimming pool became a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and the house itself has invited graffiti and vandalism.

In virtually every American town, it’s the same thing. But it’s different when that vacant house has a direct impact on your home. It was indeed different for Ron Hall of Hanford.

“The people in back of me have left unexpectedly,” his e-mail began. “They were only in the house a couple of years and we never had any problems. Our two homes are separated by an old fashioned redwood fence located on my property. Unless kept properly trimmed, a massive growth of Oleanders on the neighbor’s side leans on the fence, and I am worried that it will collapse from the weight of those shrubs,” he wrote.

“Over the past many years, the people who lived there would have them trimmed every year or two, to prevent damage to my fence. In fact, the couple who just moved out did the same thing, having the tree trimmers perform the work from both my side of the fence and theirs.”

“This work needs to be done before spring, and it could easily cost over $500. I am retired and isn’t something that I am all that eager to pay for. Who is responsible for the costs involved? How can I find out who owns the house now? And equally important, if necessary, may I legally send a tree trimmer onto their property to perform the work required to save my fence?”

When I received Ron’s e-mail, I called him. Writing this column allows me to speak with so many interesting, genuine people, and Ron fit both categories well. Retired now after years at sea as a ship’s radio operator, he lives in the same home in which he grew up.

“My daddy built that fence. While old and worn it still stands. There is so much history that fence has seen. It is something I feel a need to protect,” he told me.

I understood those feelings. The longer we talked — especially about his life at sea — the happier I was that he took the time to e-mail me. He got an answer to his legal questions; I was allowed a glimpse into a solitary man’s interesting life. It was a fair trade.

“There are a number of ways to determine who own a vacant house,” Bakersfield private investigator Riley Parker told me. “And, for the average person, no out-of-pocket expense is necessary, just some time and shoe leather.

“Begin with a visit to the tax assessor’s office, or phone call. Provide them with the address, and they can tell you who currently owns the property. If it has gone through a foreclosure, the name of the bank or lending institution will be shown.

“Often customer service departments at title insurance companies will provide that information over the phone, and at no charge. This is a service they offer their customers — the real estate industry — but if you are polite, chances are they’ll help you,” he added.

“However, you could have a situation where the house was abandoned, or someone died or just moved out, and it is not in foreclosure. It could be tied up in an estate or legal dispute of some kind, with varying claims of ownership. These are far more complicated issues, and if it’s worth the added expense, a private investigator has ways of locating individuals and family members using proprietary data bases to find a wealth of information on virtually anyone,” Mr. Parker pointed out.

“Unless it is necessary to physically visit the property, in general, this kind of research would take less than two hours of the investigator’s time, with billing rates which range from $50 to $125 per hour. So, you really need to weigh if hiring an investigator is worth it,” he stressed.

Vacant homes can be little more than an eyesore to becoming temporary residences for squatters. Some lenders — notably, Wells Fargo Mortgage — have an entire division whose task it is to maintain their foreclosed properties, while far too many others do nothing. A few cities have passed legislation requiring the owner record to look after these public nuisances.

Of course, even if my reader locates the current owner — be it an individual or corporate-this does not mean anything will be done in time to save the redwood fence. Ron’s most appropriate remedy is what we call: self help. That’s quite literally, taking the law into his own hands, without waiting for a judge to give permission.

All sates allow homeowners to trim overhanging branches, but in a way which does not damage the neighbor’s tree. When we get into encroaching roots or huge limbs, caution is critical. California allows chopping off the offending roots if this does not injure the neighbor’s tree. That’s why it’s generally a good idea to consult with a certified arborist before grabbing your chain saw. Courts can award triple damages for hurting or killing a neighbor’s tree.

But Ron’s isn’t the typical “tree” case. While there may be some branches which overhang the fence, we’ve got “a hundred feet or so of shrubs leaning on the old redwood fence,” as he explained. “As those oleanders grow, as they do every spring and summer, there is a point where the fence will no longer support the weight and will break,” he fears.

While technically a trespass, in this type of situation, my legal opinion would be for the tree trimmers to go into the neighbor’s backyard in order to save the fence. Practically speaking, if they do a good job and harm nothing else, there is a valid reason to be on the neighbor’s property.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.