Border crossing

When building a home, it is essential to know the correct boundaries of your property to avoid legal and financial problems

Building a house on the wrong property sounds too bizarre to be true. But it happens in Cayman more than you may think. 

Milne Samuel, a licensed land surveyor with Evans & Associates, has seen people build on the wrong land four times in his 20 years on island. The reason: the landowners don’t know the correct boundaries of their property.

“Quite often, people will pay a deposit and take a long time while paying off the land,” he says, adding that in the meantime, the land becomes overgrown and owners forget the exact boundaries.

Sometimes landowners are sure a particular tree or stake marks a boundary of a long-established piece of land, but they are wrong for one reason or another.

Milne says the longer it has been since a particular property’s boundaries were established, the more likely the boundary markers have become accidentally misidentified.

 In addition, some of the original Cadastral surveys completed in the early 1970s used objects like piles of stones or marked trees as boundary markers, which could have been destroyed over the years. Boundary beacons set in swampy areas often deteriorate and other beacons can be buried during property filling.

Since verifying and marking the boundaries of a property at the time of sale is not required by Cayman law, or even by the bank offering the mortgage, mistakes can and do happen.

Another common problem that can arise from not knowing the correct property boundaries is encroachment, either into a legal setback or onto another person’s property. 

Milne has seen both situations during his time in Cayman.

Encroachment into a setback is a matter for the Department of Planning, which could require the movement of a structure.

Encroachment onto another person’s property is more serious and usually requires drastic measures.

Milne says most mistakes are solved amicably, although there is no guarantee of a happy ending. In addition, fixing the mistake is often costly. For instance, if a home encroaches on someone else’s land, there are limited ways to rectify the situation.

“There’s no magical solution other than to buy the other piece of land,” Milne says. “The owner [of the encroached-on piece of land] can really name the price; they have got you over a barrel.”

If someone builds on the wrong lot, the landowner usually buys the other property or trades properties with the owner.  But these solutions require a willing seller or trading partner and Milne points out that, technically, the other property owner is not obliged to agree to the transaction.

Since buying a property is usually the largest purchase one will ever make, Milne believes it makes sense to protect that investment by having a licensed land surveyor establish the property boundaries.

“It’s kind of like if you were to buy a car and the seller says ‘Your car is ready, but I’m not telling you where it is’,” Milne explains.

In addition to locating the boundary markers, Evans & Associates provides a diagram with dimensions and a full report of the boundary history of the land parcel.

Confirming or establishing the boundaries can cost between $400 and $1000, depending on the condition and shape of the property. It may cost more if the land is covered in thick bush or has irregular boundaries.

Milne says that may seem like a lot of money, but it is a fraction of what it can cost if the boundaries of your property are wrong.