9 tips for dealing with nuisance neighbors
Let's face it, your neighbors are in a unique position to help create peace in your life or to crash it. Here's how to cope when you've got the worst kind of neighbor.
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The Internet is full of message-board rants and blog posts that make comic mincemeat of our neighbors. Aside from such vents, it often seems as if there's no remedy for the nuisance neighbor. It's just hard living near, sigh, other people.
But there are practical solutions — as long as you act before anger eats up your senses. So take a breath, have a toddy and consider these nine suggestions from the experts before stomping next door. (See "12 nuisance neighbors: a rogue's gallery.")
1. Clearly, the easiest way to avoid problems is to assess the neighborhood before you move. Ask your real-estate agent if the previous owner had any difficulty with neighbors. The National Association of Realtors' code of ethics requires that any condition that affects the desirability of the property be disclosed to buyers. Independent sellers may or may not disclose neighbor nuisances. Legally, such disclosure is determined at the state level. All but five states have mandatory disclosure laws, and some include psychological or noise factors. Contact your local or state Realtor associations. You can find them by searching the directories at the National Association of Realtors Web site. Visit the neighborhood at different times during the day. Ask people in the area about the neighbors. It can feel uncomfortable to be suspicious, but a little snooping could prevent a lot of misery later.
2. Meet your neighbors before there's a problem. It's a lot more difficult for someone to continue with disturbing behavior if they've been over for dinner, says Les Blomberg, director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, which helps tackle noise issues.
3. Too late to grease the skids? Already moved in and the problem with the stranger next door has begun? OK, first, stop and take a breath. Don't – repeat, don't – approach in a state of anger. This always applies, but it's even more crucial if you haven't already established a relationship.
"What you should not do is go stomping over there when you're really, really angry," says Betsy Coddington, executive director of Resolutions Northwest, a neighborhood mediation program in Portland, Ore. "What you can do is think about what you want to say. Think about a way you can say it that won't make the other person immediately defensive."
Choose a good time to talk – later, when you're calm. Ask the neighbors when they have time to discuss, for instance, the tree. When you do talk, leave the blame out. "Talk about how it affects you, rather than saying, 'You, you, you,'" says Coddington. This alone can make a big difference.
4. Don't assume your neighbors know how their behavior affects you. Emily Doskow, a lawyer and co-author of "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise," thinks this is the No. 1 reason that problems escalate.
"People fail to give their neighbors the benefit of the doubt," she says. "They say, 'My neighbor knows that that bugs me!' But maybe your neighbor doesn't know that. Always, always give them the benefit of the doubt."
Doskow knows a woman whose neighbor snapped when she called about a problem tree.
"She thought about getting mad, but instead she baked some brownies," Doskow says. She knocked on the door and said, "We may have gotten off on the wrong foot." The neighbor apologized for her previously cranky mood, and the two amicably discussed how to resolve the issue and have gotten along since.
"Let her be an example to all of us; we could all try harder," Doskow says.
5. OK, being friendly hasn't worked and you need backup. In that case, start locally. The less threatening the better. Remember, an angry neighbor can easily make things worse for you. And you probably don't want to end up in court, which can get expensive fast. The code is this: litigation last.
6. If you're a member of a homeowners association, talk to a board member for advice. Associations can restrict privileges or impose fines, and unpaid fines can potentially lead to a lien being put on the home.
7. Find a mediator. Most cities now have a mediation center, and there's at least one for every state. Search for a mediation center at the National Association for Community Mediation, or ask at city hall.
At Resolutions Northwest, nearly 80% of people who receive a request to enter negotiation agree to participate. The parties meet in a neutral place with a volunteer for about 90 minutes, usually just once. Mediators don't provide solutions, but ask questions to help both sides see the other's perspective. Eight out of 10 reach a resolution, and nearly all report being pleased with the process.
"A lot of people just don't feel comfortable approaching their neighbor directly, or they've tried and the neighbor just isn't responsive," Coddington says. "They're not confident enough in their approach to make sure they'll have a civil conversation rather than getting their neighbor mad right off the bat."
In one simple case, tenants heard what sounded like bowling balls on the floor upstairs. They went upstairs and knocked, but were unable to contact an adult. Rather than get mad, they called mediators, where a session revealed that the mother upstairs was now using a wheelchair. The two were able to work together to find a noise-muffling solution for the floor.
"It was just a matter of getting that information out, which isn't always easy to do when you're in a high emotional state of anger," Coddington says.
8. If mediation isn't an option, check local laws. Most nuisance issues – noise, parking, fences, animals – are handled at the city or county level. The municipal planning office can direct you to the right place. If the nuisance neighbor is not in compliance, a local official can make contact or possibly start legal action.
9. Research your own legal options and alternatives. The legal site Nolo.com has articles and resources on its neighbor pages. VideoJug.com, an advice site, has a section containing advice videos on neighbor law. It is possible to file a nuisance suit. Requirements vary, but in general the nuisance must be substantial and continuous, and violate a law.
We moved to another state and bought a house this summer. Shortly after we moved in, I was walking my dog and we were attacked by my neighbors' dog, because they had left their gate open. Their dog injured my dog (not seriously, but I was still upset). My husband tried to speak to them for 4 days straight and they refused to answer their door every time! I blew it off because we had only been in the neighborhood for a couple of weeks and it seemed to be an oversight on their part with the gate. (They made a point of keeping it shut after that.)
About a month or so ago, they started leaving the gate open all the time, and their dog was running loose through the neighborhood. It hadn't been a problem until I was out walking my dog and we were attacked AGAIN by their dog (we were nowhere near their house at the time). This time, I called the police. Animal Control came out, and they've been keeping their dog in the chain link kennel that was in their backyard the entire time (where the dog should have been instead of running loose to begin with).
I'm afraid that in a month or two, they will revert to form and the dog will be running loose again. If that happens, I will be calling Animal Control and reporting them for having an Animal At Large, which is what they call a dog running loose. I hope that maybe if they get cited enough, they will leave the dog confined so that he can't hurt someone. I just hate being afraid to walk my dog in my own neighborhood without carrying a golf club to protect us.