Many neighbor disputes end up in court because of poor communication. If something’s happening that’s dangerous or illegal, the cops are the obvious answer. But if problems arise that are a bit more gray, communication is the best way to save money and hassle. Here’s the best way to be a good neighbor and deal with a bad one.
1. Get to know each other. Being a good neighbor doesn’t mean taking family vacations together. Just knowing them well enough to say hi, or maybe borrowing a cup of sugar or loaning a gardening tool, can build trust and understanding. Issues are much more likely to escalate among strangers than even casual acquaintances.
2. Head off problems before they’re problems. If you are throwing a party at your place, go to all neighbors who might be affected and offer them two things: a verbal invitation to the party and a card with your phone number. If the noise escalates or there is another problem, your neighbor can call you instead of the police.
3. Document the problem. When an issue comes up, start keeping notes – times, dates, and photos if necessary. This can help in three ways. First, it helps you evaluate the seriousness of the problem: Looking at it on paper, you may realize it’s not as big a deal or you might see a solution. Second, you have info to back you up when you explain the situation to your neighbor. And finally, if push comes to shove, good record-keeping can show authorities you’re serious and organized, not emotional and whiny.
4. Talk it out. Tell your neighbor what’s bothering you – don’t assume they know what the problem is. Be open and direct, not passive-aggressive. Ask for their input, and wherever possible, propose a solution that splits the difference and demonstrates a willingness to compromise. Stay cool and positive, even if they’re not.
5. Look for advice or solace online. Sites like Neighbors From Hell have message boards where people discuss their issues and help each other. This one’s free to view and is full of common issues and good advice, but registering will cost $50 if you want to ask about a unique problem. If you just want to vent, try sites like AnnoyingNeighbors.com.
6. Check with other neighbors. See if anybody else on the block is having similar issues – they may be willing to help resolve it. If one of the neighbors is closer to the troublemaker, have them come with you when you talk it out.
7. See if anyone else will side with you. If talking doesn’t work, try getting more help. If you’re part of a condo or homeowner’s association, speak with them about the problem and see if they can resolve it more easily (and cheaply) than you can.
8. Talk to a lawyer. If you’ve tried everything, you can consult a lawyer and have them write a letter threatening legal action. Warning: This can not only cost a few hundred dollars, but it may also throw gas on the fire. Make it a last resort.
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9. Get a mediator. A neutral third party experienced in settling disputes may succeed where you can’t, although it can only work if your neighbor is willing to talk. It’s a lot cheaper than going to court, though – in some cases, it may even be free. Look up a nearby mediation program at the National Association for Community Mediation.
10. Write and report. If you suspect your neighbor is violating city ordinances, do a little research, write it up, and submit it to the proper authorities. You can look up municipal law at places like Municode.com, and you can learn all about code enforcement on your city’s website. If your neighborly dispute involves code violations, the city might solve your problem for you. But don’t try to anonymously report code violations on your neighbor. Not only does the neighbor usually figure out who “snitched” anyway, but they may resent you for being a passive-aggressive busybody, which can make future situations trickier. Remember you still have to live next to these people.
11. Call the cops. If you’ve acted in good faith with no success, involving the police is the next step. You can explain the situation and show how you’ve tried to work it out and kept notes, but realize they probably can’t do much unless a law or ordinance is being broken. This is for things like excessive noise and illegal activity, not a tree limb hanging into your yard. Nonetheless, a police presence might show your neighbor that you aren’t going to let the problem go.
12. Take it to small claims court. This is much cheaper than a bigger lawsuit (which can cost $10,000 or more) because you can represent yourself. But you must do your homework – you need to lay out the problem, provide evidence, and come up with a reasonable damage estimate that you can justify when questioned. Damages are usually capped at a few thousand dollars, although the amount varies by state. And don’t be Judge Judy material: no exaggerations, no pettiness.
Bottom line? As with any relationship, being a good neighbor – or dealing with a bad one – is all about communication.