You’ve done your work to ensure your gutters are working properly and shuttling water where it belongs, but now your neighbor comes along and lets their gutters or downspouts drain or leak all over your property.
Causing at best annoyance and worst costly damage to your house over time including a flooded basement, damage to your foundation, a pond where your backyard used to be and ruined furniture.
Huge disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Laws differ wildly between state, local, county, and National levels. If you have any questions about the law please contact a lawyer or a local government official.
Know the types of water flow
There are basically two kinds of water flow: 1) surface and 2) water courses.
Surface water just flows without a defined water channel.
Water courses are defined water channels but it isn’t always the case that water that is flowing is a watercourse. Confused yet?
If the water is naturally flowing without any diversions that your neighbor has set up, there’s not much you can do in terms of forcing your neighbor to do anything about it.
If someone takes action to concentrate the flow of surface water, that is called collected surface water. That is where it gets interesting – because you do may, depending on local laws, have a responsibility to discharge the water so that it won’t cause issues for anyone downstream.
Know the laws in your state and local area
Every locality, state, and country has different laws. The primary details that will help answer the question “Can a neighbor drain water onto your property” revolve around:
- What is causing the water to flow where you don’t want it?
- Was it diverted deliberately by another party?
Other questions that will be relevant are:
- How necessary were the changes made by your neighbor?
- Was your neighbor aware of the potential damage their actions might cause?
- Was the damage caused to you greater than the Improvement they made?
If your neighbor is on a lower plane, for example, they generally have the right to block water from flowing onto their property.
Generally, if water naturally flows onto your property from theirs (via surface water), there is not much you can do in terms of forcing them to divert the water in any way. They won’t be liable generally if this is the case.
Okay, it also helps to know a few of the most common categories of rules that apply to water these scenarios in order to determine who is responsible for surface water run off:
Reasonable use rule
In force in some states, you have to prove that your neighbor took specific action that caused the water damage and whether the changes the neighbor made were reasonable or negligent.
Common enemy rule — worse for lower neighbors
In this case, it’s worse if you are lower than your neighbors. Each landowner has to protect their own land from surface water. So if your neighbor, in protecting their property, diverts more water to yours, it’s up to you to deal with diverting that extra water away. There may still be some recourse in relation to the negligence of the change your neighbor made.
Natural flow rule — also known as the civil law rule — worse for higher up neighbors
In this case, it’s worse if you are higher than your neighbors. It says pretty much the opposite of the common enemy rule – that if you change your land to alter the natural flow of water you might be liable for what happens downstream.
In some places, the laws may state that runoff from downspouts needs to remain contained on a property or be properly directed to a drain or sewer.
What steps should you take if your neighbors gutter drains on your property?
Now that you’ve got a super-quick primer on the laws around water flow between neighbors, here is a step-by-step look at what you should do in this scenario when a downspout or drain from your neighbor is draining unwanted water onto your property — in increasing order of seriousness.
First: if you have a good relationship with your neighbor talk to them
There might be a simple solution on their side depending on the situation. It’s always best if you have a good relationship with them to broach the topic in a friendly way, explain the situation, explain the issues you are having on your side, and see if there’s an easy solution they can Implement on their side.
Is there a way perhaps that you could both shoulder some of the cost of the work in order to benefit both you and your neighbor?
Second: Talk to your homeowners association (if you have one) or look into any utility or drainage easements on the lots
Go to various authorities to ask the question: “Can a neighbor drain water on my property?”
If you have a homeowners association they can act as a go-between for dealing with the neighbors and may be able to help with information about HOA rules and local laws around gutters draining into neighbors yards.
In order to look into any utility and drainage easement, go to your County Courthouse.
Get the plat for your lot in the subdivision you live in.
Contact the city building inspection department to check their policy on lot-to-lot drainage in your area.
Third: take steps to handle the diverting of the water on your property
So if an initial conversation with your neighbor, HOA and local government didn’t work out you may have to take it into your own hands and deal with diverting the water on your property.
You need to make sure that you divert the water responsibly. At this point after running through steps one and two above you should have a good sense of the common rules and laws that pertain to your state, local and neighborhood.
Make sure you keep those rules in mind so you don’t cause further headaches for yourself or any of your neighbors downstream of you as you figure out how to block water from your neighbors gutter:
How Do You Divert Rainwater Away from Your House?
Build a french drain
A french drain is a 4 inch perforated pipe surrounded by gravel, attached to solid pipe to transport water where you want it to go.
Make sure you get an accurate survey by utilities of any pipes or wires running underground near where you are going to dig the trench. Use landscape fabric to line it. Put the drain in the trench over a few inches of gravel with the holes of the pipe pointing down. Cover it over with gravel than cover over with the fabric. Cover it with soil and plant whatever you had planned there.
You’ll need some tools if you’re going to do it yourself – if you want to make it easy on yourself you might want to buy or rent a trenching machine. Figure out where you will deposit the dirt and clay that you excavate.
Be sure you clean off the pipe completely and very well on both sides otherwise the tape will just stick to the mud dirt or clay.
Build a berm or build up the grade of your ground level
This option involves basically raising the level of the ground in order to divert water away. A berm is a small, gradually sloped, raised mound area that helps redirect the water where you want it to go.
First, measure grades of your land and any pavement or concrete. you can use a laser level or wood stakes with string and string level In order to figure out the slope of your ground. then you build up the ground level using potting soil and mulch so that the angle of the ground is away from your house.
You can’t stop with just dirt and mulch though you should also plant grass or edge of the area with stone in order to keep the soil where it is
Build a dry well
This is an underground well that collects water and then allows it to seep deep in the ground. The water accumulates in the well and drains away into the soil.
Raise the level of your concrete with Slabjacking
If a problem is around concrete area you may want to try something called slabjacking. Unfortunately this probably An area will need to hire an expert. This involves drilling holes in your concrete and raising it up by injecting material below it.
Fourth and Last Option: Can you sue your neighbor if their gutter causes water damage to your property?
In some scenarios and dependent on where you live, yes, you can sue your neighbors if their gutter or downspout is diverted onto your property and causes damage to your house. However, there are some significant costs and headaches involved in pursuing this route.
If you feel you truly have no other choice after trying steps 1 through 3, start by documenting the water issue as thoroughly as you can with a description of the problem, dates when your neighbor did work, video, photos, and any other potential documentation you can pull together relating to this issue.
Check zoning ordinances, building related codes, and water and sewer codes to learn more yourself about the applicable laws.
Here’s a huge caveat with this route, unless there’s a lot of money involved – such as extensive and expensive damage or if the fix would be hugely costly – it really seems like you should avoid the legal option whenever possible.
While you may legally, ethically and morally be in the right, look at it from a financial perspective first. After all – for residential property, you need to weigh the cost of just a few hours of a lawyer’s time against the cost of just dealing with the problem yourself by diverting the flow.
Also consider the damage to the relationship with your neighbors.
If you still think this is the right action to take and after you’ve gathered all of your extensive documentation reach out to a lawyer that has expertise in property law and lay out your evidence. Or if you feel like you are ready at this stage send a certified letter spelling out the issue including your documentation to your neighbor.
Reminder legal disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. The information in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as legal advice.