How to Avoid a War with the Neighbors

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Hispanic referee between arguing neighbors
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By Devon Thorsby

A disagreement between neighbors can escalate quickly. One minute you're mowing your lawn, the next you're plotting revenge on the homeowner next to you for parking his car on your freshly cut grass.

"You hear about neighbors chasing each other down with spades and all sorts of weird things," notes Nick Hall, director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Harris County, Texas, which offers mediation for civil disputes, including neighborhood problems.

It doesn't serve you well to pick a fight with the people who live on the properties surrounding yours, and especially not when you've just moved in. But it can be all too easy to start off on the wrong foot with a neighbor, and it can haunt you for years to come. (Another strategy: Check out the neighbors before you buy the house.)

While you don't have to be the next Lucy and Ethel, you and your neighbors should be able to get along amicably enough to avoid major disagreements when it comes to what you each do with your properties. Follow a few simple guidelines to get on your neighbor's good side from the start.

Introduce Yourself

You're not required to bring a casserole, but a knock on the door and friendly handshake will go a long way. It's harder for your neighbors to make assumptions about you when you approach them with a friendly greeting -- and it's not as easy for them to hate you when they think you're just so darn sweet.

"Don't have the first contact with your neighbors be when you need something, or when you have a complaint," says Stuart Watson, a staff mediator at Resolutions Northwest, a center for dispute resolution in Portland, Oregon. "Build some kind of relationship first, so that when you do want to remodel your garage into a spare rec room ... you're not coming up to somebody you don't know with demands."

If you're moving into a community with a homeowners association or other kind of neighborhood group, Hall says it's a good idea to attend the first meeting you can and start the relationships early. You can even go as far as offering to organize a community event. "Everyone likes potlucks, so why not do a block party or a street party and invite everyone?" Hall says.

Know the Rules

Everyone wants to think they're right, but before you do anything to your property, be sure you're following the neighborhood or municipal rules when it comes to construction, noise and other hot buttons for cranky neighbors.

Reading up on the community's regulations should happen even before you buy the property, says Brad Aldrich, senior attorney at Aldrich Legal Services in Plymouth, Michigan, who specializes in real estate law, among other areas. Especially if the home you're buying is part of a homeowners or condo association, be sure any construction or landscaping you do on your property doesn't put you in the wrong.

"Forget bothering your neighbor -- if you wanted to put in a pool, but for whatever reason your local homeowners association didn't allow pools ... you're not going to be able to put one in," Aldrich says.

Being familiar with regulations and local ordinances, like setback requirements from the property line for any structures, could help you know if your neighbor is infringing on the rules as well.

"We get a lot of people call in and say, 'I've never owned a home before, and I don't know if my neighbor is doing something wrong,'" Aldrich says, adding that familiarity with regulations can help you avoid speculation, so any issues are based on fact and written rules or laws.

Let Them Know of Any Changes

Whether you're planning to redo the landscaping or put an addition on the back of your home, it's a courtesy to give your neighbors advance warning of any construction on your property.

Renee Bove, a staff mediator with Watson at Resolutions Northwest, says many of the neighbor disputes that come to mediation reach a heightened level simply because one person didn't communicate well with the other. "Oftentimes, it's just a simple misunderstanding that somebody had a pretty good intention that kind of backfired and had a negative impact. And they don't talk about it, so it takes a life of its own," Bove says.

For example, warning that you plan to put up a tall fence because your dog can jump high will probably go over better than erecting a privacy fence without any notice.

If it Would Bother You, Don't Do It

The rule of treating others the way you want to be treated still applies as a homeowner. If you keep your neighbors in mind when you make decisions, you're far less likely to tick them off.

An example: You don't want excess water runoff on your property, so don't assume your neighbor will think any differently if you direct your drain pipes at his foundation. Yet, Aldrich says water runoff is a common cause of neighbor disputes.

"If the natural topography of the land is that water runs off into an adjacent property, that's really not the other property owner's fault -- it's just the way the land is," Aldrich says. "But if that property owner were to put in a sump pump and then route the water line to where it dumps directly on the neighbor's property, well then, that is an act of the one property owner where it does negatively impact the neighbor," Aldrich says.

In Portland, Bove says a growing topic of dispute involves using a home for Airbnb stays, whether it's the whole house or individual rooms. The new home rental trend "just brings a lot more traffic and new people into a neighborhood that can be disconcerting for other neighbors," Bove explains.

It can be useful to have a conversation with your neighbors before listing your home for rent, and, ensure you are not infringing on any laws, guidelines or regulations.

Count to 10

Being a good neighbor doesn't mean you have to let everyone walk all over you (or your land). If you believe your neighbor is encroaching on your property or your ability to live peacefully, you shouldn't have to suffer.

But keep in mind, people have a tendency to dig in their heels when they feel their property is being threatened, so it's best to tread lightly when addressing issues.

"If you give someone a ticket, or if you go to court or to trial of some kind, you're going to make even bigger enemies of the neighbors," Hall says. "And yet, [you're] going to have to continue living together in the same neighborhood."

Bove uses the example of a homeowner parking a few inches in front of a neighbor's driveway during a personal emergency. Seeing the car blocking part of the driveway, but not knowing why, the neighbor assumes it is an intentional slight.

"They just didn't take a moment to come from a place of curiosity: 'Hey, I noticed your car was in my driveway a little bit. What was happening for you?'" Bove says.

In the event you simply can't resolve a problem on your own, mediation is often an effective way to ensure both parties are heard, and put some rules down without taking it all the way to court.

Watson estimates mediation through Resolutions Northwest resolves about 80 percent of the disputes brought to them, with a solution made that day. But the number of parties that come out of mediation feeling it was a positive experience is even higher, he says. "Even in those more rare times when they don't come to some kind of agreement, it was helpful for them to be able to have a discussion and to feel their concerns were heard."

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