How To Solve Rotten Neighbor Problems

My neighbors are terrific people. Friendly, helpful and community-oriented. But everyone isn’t that lucky.

Some people fight with their neighbors over all sorts of items, including cutting down trees or branches, whether a fence is a few inches on the right or wrong side of the lot line, and if the grass isn’t cut short enough.

If you’re a homeowner with problem neighbors, these complaints ought to sounds more than vaguely familiar.

What can you do about annoying neighbors? First, you should pick up a copy of Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise (4th ed., Nolo Press, 2001, $26.95).

Written by attorney Cora Jordan, this thoroughly-researched and entertainingly written book covers just about any problem you might have with a neighbor, including fences, trees, boundaries, water, dangers to children, and noise. There is even a section of the book that deals with problems that occur when your neighbor is a business or owns a home-based business.

“Although it is sometimes hard to believe, many neighbors are unaware that their behavior could possibly bother anyone else,” writes Jordan.

“The dog owner who lets Rover roam at night doesn’t look at the next-door neighbor’s yard in the morning and see the recently dug hole where the petunias had been. The car buff who spends every Saturday on his restoration project never even thinks about what his junk looks like from his neighbor’s living room window,” she continues, adding “These neighbors need to be told that there is a problem.”

One of the most frequent problems neighbors have is over who owns what when putting up a fence on a boundary line. Jordan says that unless both owners agree otherwise, fences on a boundary line are owned by both owners when both are using the fence. Neither may remove it without the other’s permission. Both are generally responsible for keeping the fence in a condition that it enhances the value of both properties. When the property is sold, the new owner purchases the mutual ownership of the fence. Jordan peppers the book with real stories of problems neighbors have with each other. The stories are interesting and, in some cases, hilarious. In Illinois, a neighbor who worked the night shift called the cops on a teenage rock band that was practicing at two o’clock in the afternoon. The noise was waking him and his son up during their afternoon naps. In California, one lawyer sued his neighbor, who was also an attorney, over the noise that came from his dribbling a basketball.

The author herself had to overcome a noise issue, when new neighbors moved in next door and bought a puppy. As she was writing the noise chapter, the puppy would bark incessantly during the day when his owners were not at home. After several days, Jordan would yell the puppy’s name, which would quiet him for a few minutes before the barking started again.

Jordan really wanted her peace and quiet – but like many homeowners, she wasn’t anxious to call her neighbors and complain. And her yelling at the dog had worsened the problem rather than solving it.

“Finally, I had to call. How could I tell my readers to do something I couldn’t do myself?” she writes.

Assuming both neighbors are reasonable, Jordan says most problems can be solved simply by approaching the neighbor and searching for a resolution together. If you’re worried about coming on too strong, she suggests putting your feelings in writing and thinking about it before doing anything. Sending letters lays the groundwork for any legal action you might take down the road. But in the middle of the discussion about how to write demand letters and create the paper trail you’ll need to sue your neighbors is her best suggestions for a peaceful coexistence.

She suggests that neighbors get to know each other before they even have a problem.

“The long-range benefit of simply being able to call someone by name, of creating even the tiniest bit of goodwill is enormous when a problem arises,” Jordan concludes.

July 23, 2001.


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