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Water Runoff From Next Door Is Damaging My Property. What Can I Do?

Q: For 21 years, rain runoff from my neighbor’s roof has flowed downhill onto our property in Madison, N.J., where it floods our backyard patio and seeps into our basement, filling our sump pump (which runs most days) and soaking the basement walls, creating mold. The neighbor, a kind older woman, always seemed oblivious to the issue. She recently moved into an assisted-living facility and sold the house to one of her children. I’d like to approach the new owner about the issue, but I’m concerned about alienating the family. What is the best way to go about it?

A: Your neighbor’s runoff seems to be causing, or at least contributing to, your water issues. But for two decades you lived in the house without telling her about it, and she couldn’t fix a problem she didn’t know existed. Neither can the new owners.

“There is no duty to do anything if you don’t know about it,” said Alan S. Golub, a litigator and principal in the New Jersey office of the law firm FSKS.

You need to put your new neighbors on notice immediately. Introduce yourself and alert them to the problem. Keep the conversation polite, positive and friendly. Ask if they would investigate from their end. They might be able to redirect some of the water, reducing the impact to your property. Putting the conversation in writing is key, so follow up with a letter reiterating the discussion.

Before you can make specific requests, you need more information about your home. Start with the mold. Contact a licensed professional who can assess the extent of the damage and advise you on how to remediate it. Have the house and property evaluated by a waterproofing expert or a civil engineer to determine the source of your water issues and advise a mitigation plan. Contact your municipality to see if there might be a larger drainage issue in your area that needs to be addressed, like blocked storm drains.

If your neighbor’s runoff is indeed a significant source of the problem, go back a second time and communicate what you’ve learned, and ask them to make the necessary repairs. You could offer to share the cost — not because it’s your responsibility, but because it might help get the job done, and because neighbors sometimes do this for repairs that are mutually beneficial, like taking down a sick tree. Your town might also have drainage codes that could be enforced, so check those, too.

Because you waited so long to act, you may have weakened any potential legal claims against the neighbor. “You could be stopped from bringing your claim because you sat on your rights without enforcing them,” Mr. Golub said.

Regardless, litigation should be an avenue of last resort, as it is costly and will undoubtedly sour your relationship with your new neighbors.

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