When reviewing your options in dealing with a problem neighbor, a laundry list of “Do’s and Don’ts” is more helpful in some respects while a narrative is more helpful in other respects, so let’s have both. We’ll lead with the narrative, followed closely by a related laundry list of “Do’s and Don’ts.”
The “problem neighbor” is a longstanding fact of life: Neanderthals probably had problem neighbors who tossed leftover reindeer bones onto their yards. “Problem neighbors” can run the gamut from people who play loud music to career criminals, and interactions with them can run the gamut from brief misunderstandings to protracted range wars. One silver lining of the problem neighbor’s abiding existence is the extensive list of solutions developed by countless sufferers before you. This could eventually involve many facts and documents, so keep an expandable file for all your documentation and notes. Also, read all the steps before starting, as some overlap and/or replace other steps.
Let’s step back to measures that can be taken before you encounter the problem neighbor. First, you can avoid many problem neighbors by avoiding the “problem neighborhood.” Neighborhoods of college students might be too rowdy for families with small children, even as neighborhoods of families with small children might be too rowdy for the elderly. If you have the luxury of choosing your neighborhood, choose one that supports your lifestyle. You can learn a lot about a neighborhood before moving into it: ask the real estate agent, the seller and/or others living in the neighborhood about any difficulties with neighbors; go to the neighborhood at various times of the day and night to see what it’s like. Find out about the quality of life in that neighborhood before you move there. Secondly, if you don’t have the luxury of choosing your neighborhood, then choose to know your neighbors before any problems can arise. You don’t have to become best friends but at least know their names, be cordial and occasionally wave hello and goodbye. “It don’t cost you nuthin’” and those little niceties go a long way toward harmony: if you’re already cordial with your neighbors, you can probably deal more easily with problems as they arise. Third, be a decent neighbor: play your music at a reasonable volume or at a location within your house that won’t bother your neighbors; control your kids’ behavior toward your neighbors and their property; if your dog poops on the neighbor’s lawn, pick up the poop and properly dispose of it; you catch my drift. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Let’s suppose that despite your cordial, hello-and-goodbye waving, “Gandhiesque” behavior, you do encounter a problem neighbor. Fourth, if the behavior does not bother you enough to address it, then ignore it and “chalk it up” to modern life. Fifth, if the behavior does bother you enough to address it, talk to the “problem neighbor” about it. Don’t risk life and limb by confronting a violent person and/or a criminal, of course; I’m talking about a relatively mild problem that could be a misunderstanding between two well-meaning people. It’s quite possible that your neighbor doesn’t know you’re being bothered by his/her behavior and will immediately stop it when he/she knows it bothers you. One rule of thumb is to mention the problem pleasantly approximately 24 hours after it occurs, allowing both of you to calmly discuss the problem. Let’s suppose that despite your best efforts, your problem neighbor is unreasonable: he/she treats the discussion as a confrontation/fight. Make it clear to him/her that you are not there to fight but to discuss the problem. If the neighbor insists on treating the discussion as a confrontation/fight, then leave. Other measures are at your disposal for dealing with this person and you certainly don’t want to invite civil/criminal trouble by fighting.
Let’s suppose that the problem is not resolved by ignoring or discussing it. At least initially, “low key” is best, so the situation won’t escalate into an even nastier situation. Sixth, you can try to cope with the problem. For example: minimize your problem neighbor’s noise by creating your own “white noise” with such things as fans or CDs of ocean waves, chirping birds, etc., or by using earplugs; minimize your neighbor’s second-hand smoke or other unpleasant odors by using air purifiers or air fresheners.to minimize your neighbor’s noise; use earplugs to block out unpleasant sounds.
Let’s suppose that you can’t or don’t wish to cope with your problem neighbor on your own. You have several options, depending on your living circumstances. Seventh, in any event, you should make and keep as detailed a record as possible about your problem neighbor’s behavior. You will need this evidence to prove the problem behavior. That record can be made through: a log that lists and explains each incident, each broken promise, your attempts to solve the problem(s), and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every person who has witnessed one or more instances of bad behavior; video recorded by installed and/or cell phone cameras; audio recorded by installed equipment and/or cell phone features. Eighth, if you live in an apartment, tell the landlord in writing. As a tenant, you have a right to “quiet enjoyment” – the right to live in the apartment without being disturbed by a whole host of problems, such as excessive noise, harassment, probably second-hand smoke, etc. Your landlord must safeguard your quiet enjoyment by taking steps to deal with your “problem neighbor’s” behavior. Ninth, if you belong to a homeowners association or neighborhood association, discuss the problem with one or more board members and based on his/her advice, complain to the entire board in writing. Homeowners associations and neighborhood associations may have several options for dealing with problem neighbors, including but not limited to fines and restricted privileges. Tenth, try “Mediation” through mediation services offered in many localities. “Mediation” allows people to settle a dispute between themselves with the assistance of a mediator – an individual who is impartial and assists the parties in communicating their positions and goals to each other. Ideally, mediation assists parties who wish to preserve their personal or business relationships with each other and who are open to reaching a win-win result – one in which both parties give and receive concessions. Given the cooperative nature of mediation, this alternative is essentially doomed when one or both parties are unwilling to compromise. Nevertheless, if you are willing to cooperate with the “other side” of your dispute in order to reach a win-win compromise, mediation may be your best course of action.
Let’s suppose that your prior efforts have not remedied the problem or at least reduced it to a bearable level. It’s time to call in the law. Eleventh, have your lawyer write a letter to the problem neighbor. Take all your proof to the lawyer and explain the problem; he/she will know what to write. Twelfth, there are nuisance laws and local ordinances dealing with such problems as noise, fence disputes, animal problems, parking problems, etc. Call your municipal or county planning office, which should ensure that your neighbor is in compliance with local/county nuisance laws, possibly by taking legal action. Thirteenth, there are also laws dealing with harassment, physical harm to the person, physical harm to property, and just plain criminal behavior. Call the police to deal with nuisances that are not covered by a municipal or county office and to deal with harassment and/or physical harm to yourself or your property and/or just plain criminal behavior. Fourteenth, sue the problem neighbor (and possibly your landlord and/or homeowner’s association/neighborhood association). Your local court clerk and/or your lawyer can advise you about successfully suing.
DO’S AND DON’TS
DON’T be intimidated by the process or the people.
DO keep an expandable file for all your documentation and notes.
DO avoid problem neighborhoods, if possible.
DO know and be cordial to your neighbors, if possible.
DO be a good neighbor.
DO ignore the problem behavior, if possible.
DO discuss the problem with your neighbor.
DO discuss the problem pleasantly and approximately 24 hours after it occurs.
DO make it clear to your neighbor that you are not there to fight but to discuss.
DO try to cope with the problem through self-help.
DO make and keep as detailed a record as possible about your problem neighbor’s behavior.
DO tell the landlord in writing.
DO tell the homeowner’s association or neighborhood association.
DO try mediation.
DO have your lawyer write a letter to the problem neighbor.
DO call your municipal or county planning office, which should ensure that your neighbor is in compliance with local/county nuisance laws, possibly by taking legal action.
DO call the police to deal with nuisances that are not covered by a municipal or county office and to deal with harassment and/or physical harm to yourself or your property and/or just plain criminal behavior.
DO sue the problem neighbor (and possibly your landlord and/or homeowner’s association/neighborhood association).
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]