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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Surviving Bad Neighbors


We all know what I’m talking about – the nosy neighbor who feels compelled to report every single thing she (it’s usually a woman) finds offensive to the condo association, the home owner’s association, the code enforcement officers, or even the police. She is constantly knocking on your door to tell you it’s time to mow your lawn or that she doesn’t think the purple pansies you planted fit the “scheme of the neighborhood” or that you have a box on your doorstep. She peers in your windows to see if she can complain about something inside your home, and if you have visitors, she’s watching them and you.
But she’s not the only bad neighbor. What about the neighbor whose fence is falling down and won’t repair it? Or the family that thinks playing their music at 11 or louder all hours of the day and night is their God-given right? Or the garage band that doesn’t use mufflers on their instruments and can’t carry a beat if someone put a handle on it for them? Or the neighbors who stand in the middle of the street blocking traffic and won’t move because “they aren’t going anything illegal” and it’s their “right to stand in the street if they want to”? How about the neighbor who lets their rambunctious dog roam the neighborhood and poop where it would – preventing you from letting your children play in your own yard? Or the neighbor whose cat digs up your garden and poops in your child’s sandbox?
These are just a few of the bad neighbors we encounter. Living in a condo, apartment, tenement, or a large subdivided house is worse than living in a single family home simply because your neighbors are that much closer to you.
What do you do when your neighbor dumps their trash in your yard, peers in your windows, plays their music too loud, vandalizes your car or house with shoe polish or eggs? What do you do when it’s the president of the HOA or condo association who’s harassing you and making threats or spreading lies about you?
How do you survive a bad neighbor?
There are steps you can take that don’t involve violence or vandalism.
First, you have to realize that bad neighbors fall into a few categories and how you handle them depends upon the category they are in.
First, you have the oblivious neighbor who genuinely doesn’t realize what they are doing is a nuisance and an annoyance.
Next, you have the neighbor who doesn’t realize their children are being nuisances. Point here: never, ever talk to the children who are being a nuisance other than to locate their parents. Address your concerns to the parents, not the children. Talking to or yelling at children can get you in trouble, even if the children are the ones causing the problems. Always, always, always, address any problems you have with ill-behaved, nuisance children with their parents/guardians.
Third, you have the busybody who thinks they are “helping” you. They may be drama queens (of any gender), and may be self appointed “police” of the neighborhood.
Fourth, you have the rude, brutish, just plain don’t care neighbors.
And lastly, you have the neighbors who are doing something illegal.
Each category requires a different approach.
Let’s start with general tips first, then move on to dealing with each category.
1. Know your neighbors. Don’t wait for a neighborhood welcome wagon to visit you. Lots of neighborhoods don’t have welcome wagons. Do it yourself. Go door to door and introduce yourself. Leave a nice card if no one’s home. Host an Open House or a Barbecue or a Block Party. This helps establish a congenial rapport so if a problem does arise, you’ll be better able to resolve it peacefully.
2. Bring problems up as soon as they happen (new puppy that barks all day or all night, a neighbor who keeps parking in your space, new drums for a neighbor’s kid…). Offer to help with things that are problems – pruning a tree whose limbs may threaten your property, halves in repairing or replacing a fence. And if a neighbor plans an add-on that will block part of your property or limit your access or invade your privacy, bring it up before the add-on is built.
3. Ask around to see if other neighbors are bothered. If it’s just you, maybe you’re too sensitive. If several of you are bothered, approaching the neighbor as a group may be more effective – and safer.
4. Be proactive. If you are having a party, let your neighbors know that parking may be tight and the noise level may rise but you’ll do your best to keep it down. Invite them if there’s room for it. Nothing defuses anger at a loud party better than being invited to attend said party! Deal with conflict on your own first before taking it to the next level. Unless you are truly afraid for your life, calling the police is a last resort in a neighbor conflict. If you are part of a HOA or condo association, ask if you can have community building speakers come in and talk about being good neighbors. Even if you’re not, maybe inviting such a speaker to a block party might be a good idea, or inviting the police to come and talk about neighborhood safety.
5. Be nice. If you do something that might annoy or offend a neighbor, apologize before they complain. Or if they complain before you get a chance to apologize, be quick to offer that apology. Bring your neighbor cookies or a bottle of wine or nice card if you have a conflict – after it’s resolved, usually but maybe even during it if it’s a long drawn out process.
6. If necessary, write a polite, detailed letter spelling out what you think the problem is and what you feel would be a fair solution. Do not get personal or threatening. Keep the tone dull and humorless because humor can be misinterpreted and used against you.
These tips will work excellently well with the oblivious neighbor and often with the neighbor who has rampaging children, and may help control the “helpful” neighbor. The best way to have good neighbors is to be a good neighbor. If you know your neighbors, you might learn that the sidewalk that didn’t get shoveled after a storm belongs to an elderly person with a broken leg or the overgrown lawn belongs to a single person who’s been very ill, or the family with the barking dog are as exasperated as you are only they don’t know what to do. A little niceness resolves these issues beautifully.
Neighbors who “police” your neighborhood, who threaten you with “turning you in” for violating rules that exist only in their heads, who harass you to force you to please them, who pounce on everything they think might possibly be an infraction require a sterner approach. These people are usually prevalent in HOAs, condo associations, high rise apartments, and possibly in apartment complexes. Most often, they are female, but not always.
A. Learn the HOA/condo rules and keep a copy handy so if this person tries to tell you that you are violating some code or other, you’ll know if you really are. Whether you rent or are buying, this is vital for your own peace of mind.
B. If you are renting, let your landlord know as soon as you identify this person so as to forestall any trouble with your landlord.
C. If you are an owner, attend the HOA/condo meetings so you can know about rule changes immediately and can be prepared if this person launches a new attack.
D. Document the actions and write a formal letter to her. Be explicit and detailed, factual, and cite codes or regulations. Do not threaten or talk about lawsuits or police involvement. Be polite. Spell out what you think would be a fair solution.
E. If that fails, file a formal complaint with the HOA or condo association.
F. If the busy body neighbor spreads rumors or lies about you, don’t shrug it off, let her know you will not hesitate to sue her for defamation of character. If she persists, follow through.
G. If this person peers in your windows, alert the police as this is a criminal offense. Don’t have her arrested the first time, but do let her know you’ve spoken to the police about your legal rights and you will call them next time she oversteps her boundaries.
This is usually enough to keep her off your back, but she will mutter and complain about it to anyone who listens. You just have to have a tough skin and ignore all that muttering. Only act when she is violating your privacy, spreading lies about you, or otherwise behaving in an actionable way. She has the right to mutter and complain as long as she isn’t causing you harm. If you ignore her whining and complaining with good humor, she may eventually leave you alone, especially if she finds a new target. Share these tips with that new target; you’ll make a friend.
Neighbors who are rude, threatening, or just plain don’t care require a different approach.
I. First of all, if you feel threatened (usually if you are elderly or female), don’t ever confront these people alone. Bring another neighbor or friends with you. This is when Step Three above is useful.
II. If there’s a HOA or condo association, speak to the board members about how to resolve this problem. They may suggest mediation – take it.
III. If it’s an older neighborhood and/or there’s no HOA or condo association, if you’re renting, speak to your landlord. Your landlord may already know about the problem and know ways to handle it. If you’re an owner, talk to neighbors. They may have dealt with this person before and can offer suggestions.
IV. Suggest mediation. Most cities have a mediation center and all states have at least one. Sometimes, they can suggest things before it reaches mediation, and if that doesn’t work, mediation may help. This is particularly useful if the neighbor is rude or just doesn’t care.
V. If the neighbor is threatening, don’t hesitate to ask for police advice or back up.
VI. If the issue is verbal harassment and verbal rudeness, take the kindness approach: visit them with cookies and speak to them calmly. “I noticed you seemed unhappy last time we met so I thought I’d come over and see what I could do. Is something wrong?” Be calm, concerned, and curious. Each time they verbally abuse or harass you, visit them and inquire about what’s wrong calmly, curiously, and with genuine concern in your voice and attitude. Never retaliate or argue with them. Pursue the issue in great and excruciating and polite detail. One of 2 things will happen: they will eventually reveal why they are being abusive so you can work it out or they’ll avoid you in order to avoid another calm, concerned, and curious visit.
In all cases, if the nicer, personal requests to resolve the problem don’t bring results, document the issue and take it to the next step. The next step is usually the local Code Enforcement officer or the city police.
If the person is conducting illegal activities in your neighborhood, contact the police immediately.
I realize that in some of the not-so-nice neighborhoods, police presence and responses are less than optimal. Document the illegal activity. It is possible to file a nuisance suit with the city or county for something that is substantial, continuous, and violates a law. Visit sites like http://nolo.com or http://www.videojug.com/tag/neighbor-law for tips and suggestions on documenting nuisances and how and when to involve the police and authorities.
For people who let their dogs roam and poop on your lawn, or who walk their dog and don’t scoop, animal control is the next step up if speaking to your neighbor doesn’t work. They are also the place to go for barking dogs.
For lawns that are badly overgrown and the resident just doesn’t respond, the local Code Enforcement officer or city hall is the place to start. The same holds true for junk cars, trash piled up, and other eyesores.
Remember, litigation is a last step. It’s lengthy, expensive (a minimum of $10,000 in court costs and fees unless you go to small claims court, and even there, it can be $3,000 or more), and will usually destroy any chance of being good neighbors afterwards. Unless the damages exceed $50,000 (and some tree damage can do this), it’s usually not worth suing over.