You’ve just bought a house in a great little neighborhood. Street full of restaurants with cuisine from Albania to Zimbabwe, gym around the corner, more indie coffee shops than you can shake a vegan, gluten-free stick at. Eminently rentable.

You go out to the garden and notice the fence, which you’d overlooked before for the sake of rhetorical convenience. It’s decrepit, hideous, and the rusty nails sticking out of it look primed to infect precious children’s hands. It separates your land from a couple of adjacent properties. So, who pays for the fence to be refurbished? You, your neighbor(s), everybody?

Often, there’s a written agreement dating back to the construction of the fence, spelling out who built it and whose responsibility it is. If the seller doesn’t have the contract, ask a Title company – it may already be recorded.

No contract? No problem, California has a rich property rights history and the procedures are clear. All adjoining landowners share responsibility for maintaining boundaries, since all presumably derive equal benefit from the “fence or similar divider” (get creative!). It’s obviously best to get together with your neighbors and hash out a plan, but legally, if you take the initiative, all you need to do is send a written notice with the appropriate info (including equal split of the costs) and you’re set.

Imagine you’re on the other side. You’ve been living there for a while, economy’s hit you a little hard so you’re cutting back, and some guy buys the place next door and slaps you with an insane bill to fix the fence. Civil Code’s got your back – mitigating circumstances can reduce or even eliminate the costs completely.

This is obviously a niche concern, but as always, there are lessons to be learned. A little research and common sense can save you a lot of money (e.g. if you’d shouldered the entire cost) and neighborly rancor. And it’s never a bad idea to call your lawyer, to make sure you’re taking all the right steps, and to smooth over any arguments with your neighbors. After all, America’s got a proud tradition of spite houses, and you don’t want to inadvertently invoke the wrath of someone with the time and skills needed to build a tall, skinny, angry house right up against your window.