When a garden fence fuels controversy: Our FAQs on the law of neighbours

Living side by side is not always a bed of roses and disputes often arise from one side of the garden fence. Good communication is the first step, our FAQ on the law of neighbours the second.


Father barbecues with his son in the garden and the neighbours are guests.

You can’t always choose whom you live next to, but we still have to get along somehow. Or, as the Swiss author Rosmarie Tscheer puts it: «We love our neighbours most when we rarely get to see them.» The so-called law of neighbours is supposed to help codify the conduct required to coexist peacefully. How close can the thuja hedge be to the border? Do I have to finish my barbecue by 10 pm? And is my cat allowed to sit on the neighbours’ garden furniture? Well, firstly, no single law contains all the answers. The umbrella term ‘law of neighbours’ actually encompasses multiple laws and regulations set out in the Swiss Civil Code, as well as in federal, cantonal and municipal ordinances and decrees. Additionally, rarely are there clear, generally applicable answers to this topic.

We don’t want you to spend endless hours reviewing the red tape! So you’ll find all the key regulations, rules of conduct and how they can be understood in our FAQ on the topic!

How far away from the property line do I have to keep my structures and plants?

Digging your carrot bed directly on the border is a no-no. And that cherry tree also has to be a minimum distance away. Unfortunately, there is no one uniform regulation governing these interval distances - they vary depending on the object involved and the respective canton. Your first port of call should be the zoning map of your municipality, which includes various key figures for your building, such as the floor area ratio or the minimum distance buildings have to maintain from the property line. Looking everything up once though, is not enough, given the very wide differences among the cantons. In Bern, for example, you can install a fir tree five metres from the property boundary, but if you live in Zurich, it is eight.

Knowing what you can and can’t do and the red lines to follow will help you build and plant correctly from the start and potentially save endless trouble. And here, your best bet is to ask your local authority for the lowdown on all the relevant regulations. In the blog article produced by Vertragshilfe, get more details on the legally prescribed minimum spacing in the principal cantons.

Hedges, trees and garden fence: who owns the dividing line between properties?

One of the biggest hurdles lying in the way of smooth neighbourly relations is the evergreen thuja hedge between the properties. Perennial bones of contention are not just distances from the border or when to hold barbecues, but also the border itself. Objects and installations, such as a thuja hedge, can serve as a dividing line and are not affected by the legal property line distance - after all, they mark the boundary. In this case, the object on the boundary becomes the joint property of the two neighbours. Since consent from both parties is needed to erect or modify border installations like this, you can shelve the idea of a two-metre-high wall on the border for the neighbours who get on your nerves. Moreover, as co-owners, both neighbours have to share the task of caring for the fixture. In other words, the cost and effort of constructing and maintaining the boundary are split down the middle.

What if I want to mend our boundary fence but my neighbours aren’t keen?

In principle, the consent of both parties is necessary in the case of joint ownership, which means that you cannot simply paint the fence your favourite colour without the other’s party consent. Keen on making a change? Talk to the neighbours and try to find a solution together. In a worst-case scenario, the court rules on such disagreements, but the high cost and stress involved in taking legal action makes it wholly impractical, unless there is a major dispute. And not only that. Court proceedings can often exacerbate tensions between neighbours. Mediation can be a great alternative, especially when the parties are unable to come to an agreement on their own but still desire a peaceful resolution. Mediation seeks to reach an agreement that benefits and pleases both parties - ultimately leading to peaceful coexistence.

What do I do if the neighbour’s tree protrudes onto my property, despite being planted at a sufficient distance?

Trees do not respect the law of neighbours, which is why their branches may end up stretching over to your property. If branches from the neighbouring property are hanging onto yours, it is advisable to first talk to your neighbours. In the best case, they will agree to remove them on their own. If your neighbour’s branches and roots massively damage your property, you can make use of the right to cut back. In other words, you may cut back your neighbour’s plants to the property line. However, you have to give your neighbours notice and a reasonable amount of time to resolve the issue. You can only act after this period has elapsed. Attention: The conditions for the right to cut back are highly restrictive. If the tree is cut down without sufficient reason, the offence of damage to property is committed. This will result in an entry in the criminal record and a potential claim for damages if a complaint is filed. So before reaching for the pruning shears and lopping off the unwelcome branches, it is always worth having a bilateral conversation with your neighbour first.

What is neighbourly consideration?

Neighbourly consideration is the central tenet of neighbourhood law and one of the key things that underpins your cohabitation and day-to-day dealing with the neighbours. One of the core elements is a ban on so-called “excessive impact”. Translated, this means that your life must not impact on your neighbours excessively. This includes noise, odours, smoke, blocking out light and other disturbances.

The definition of what equates to ‘excessive’ impact, however, is unclear and if neighbours are unable to agree on this point, a court would have to decide. The court has considerable discretion in this matter, and typically only intervenes when the impacts are clearly excessive. In addition, the impact and its extent must be proven by the applicant. Once again, mediation offers a good alternative to going to court as it allows both parties to know what to do (or not to do) in the following years without having to go to court over and over again.

To what extent are garden parties and barbecues permitted?

The best neighbours are those you greet from a distance, as they say in England. Better still are those who keep mum when you hold extended garden parties. But while firing up the barbecue, the air can get stuffy for some. Some like the smell of the meat and vegetables cooking on the grill, others find nothing worse. Here’s the good news for barbecue fans - there is no legal limit to how often you can barbecue. The same applies to inviting people over. The caveat, though, is that neighbourly consideration applies and excessive noise and smoke are prohibited. You must also observe quiet times. Given the vagueness of what constitutes “excessive”, it is worth having a chat about it in advance. That gives the neighbour a heads-up on what to expect. And you never know – maybe he or she will even pop over for a sausage!

Good to know: In Switzerland, courts have previously ruled against frequent barbecues with charcoal grills that produce a lot of smoke. Switching to a gas barbecue with less smoke could solve some neighborhood disputes.

When do quiet hours apply?

Within most Swiss municipalities, overnight quiet hours are from 10 pm to 6 am, during which time no noise is allowed, whether indoors or out. Normal living-room levels, however, are allowed around the clock. To maintain neighbourly peace, legislators have also introduced additional quiet hours. Noisy work like drilling is prohibited during midday (12 noon to 1 pm), overnight (from 7 pm to 7 am) and on Sundays and public holidays. That includes leisurely mowing your lawn on Sunday morning.

What neighbourhood rights extend to pets in Switzerland?

The German writer Ernst Heiter hit the nail on the head when he said: “The neighbour’s dog always barks much louder.” Each of us have different feelings about how long dog barking appeals and when it becomes unbearable. So all dog owners out there also have to observe the neighbourly duty of consideration. Animal-friendly training is a must, since excessive barking would violate the duty of consideration. And neither the dog nor its excrement belong in the neighbour’s garden. Things look quite different for cats, since they enjoy a special status. Since cats, unlike dogs, cannot be domesticated, fewer rules apply. Unfortunately, this means neighbouring cats can roam through your garden, argue loudly with other cats and use your flower bed as a toilet.

Do height limits apply for trees in the garden?

Unlike the borders between plots of land, there is no vertical cut-off point in the neighbourhood: trees can be left to grow as high as they like, provided no-one is harmed. Are those overhanging branches making your dwelling damp? Is the dense crown of the tree robbing your seating area of sun? In cases like this, you can demand that your neighbours cut back the tree. But beware: when the view of the mountains or lake vanishes, this does not count as damage. Unfortunately, if your neighbour’s tree grows high enough to block your beautiful lake vista, you have to just live with it.

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