In a perfect world, we would all have friendly, responsible, and reasonable neighbors. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and our firm frequently receives calls from our clients about damage their neighbors have done to their properties. Often, those neighbors do not have proper insurance coverage.
The complaints we receive cover a wide range of issues: basement flooding damage caused by a next-door neighbor’s hose that was left on all night; water damage as a result of an upstairs neighbor’s overflowing tub; or a tree on a neighbor’s property falling onto a client’s fence or car. We have also had calls about a neighbor’s ladder falling and shattering a client’s window, and complaints about a neighbor’s dog scratching through a client’s brand new screen door.
Of course, if all neighbors had the proper insurance, these situations would be easier to manage. But what can you do if your neighbor damages your property and has no insurance?
The quickest way to get your property repaired may be to call your insurance agent in order to make a claim on your own insurance policy—provided that you have proper coverage and the damage is over your deductible.
Many of our clients get upset when we suggest this, as they believe their rates will go up if they make a claim on their own policy—which is not always true—or they do not feel they should have to pay for the damages when the incident wasn’t their fault.
“What else can I do?” is the usually the next question they ask.
The next steps to take
In the event of a neighbor’s tree falling on your fence, house, or car because of high winds, there isn’t anything else you can do. Your neighbor cannot be held legally responsible if a windstorm or snowstorm caused the damage because it is the result of an act of nature.
On the other hand, if you see that a neighbor has a decaying tree that could cause future damage, and that neighbor does not want to listen to your requests to have the tree trimmed or cut down, you have options. Consider sending a certified letter to the neighbor, as well as to the city or the town in which you live, so that your concern is in writing. By doing so, you have some recourse in a court of law if the tree causes property damage in the future.
If the tree—or something else that belongs to your neighbor—does cause damage, talk with the neighbor and attempt come to some kind of friendly resolution, such as the neighbor paying for all or part of the damages.
If that fails, which it often does, then a visit to small claims court may be your next option. Depending on the state in which you live, you may be able to file a judgment against your neighbor for damages of up to $10,000 without hiring an attorney.
If you win your case, a recorded abstract of judgment—a written summary that states how much your neighbor owes you—will place a lien on your neighbor’s real property. While you may not get reimbursed immediately, your neighbor may not be able to sell his or her house, refinance his or her mortgage, or purchase another property without settling this lien.
Check with the small claims process in your state for more details on how to file and what documentation you will need to make a legitimate claim. Of course, if that is not an option for you, there is always the choice of hiring an attorney to do the battling for you.
Is this worth pursuing?
Keep in mind that all of the above steps can be time consuming, emotionally draining, and costly. Think about the total cost of the damage and decide whether you’d rather just move on. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is settling the claim worth the strife with your neighbor?
- How much time and energy will be taken away from your job and/or family in resolving this matter?
- Is this time and cost more than the price of the damage?
- Is the damage more than the cost of your deductible, and might it be best to make a claim on your own insurance policy?
- Should you simply pay for the repair yourself, knowing it will be fixed properly, and then opt never speak to your neighbor again?
- Is now the time to move?
Heidi Petschauer Fox graduated from St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., in 1983 with a B.S. in management. She joined her late father’s firm, Petschauer Insurance, in 1982, became principal in 1995, and now shares ownership with her partner and cousin, Erwin Petschauer. She received her Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) designation in 1997. She currently facilitates the professional and creative development of the entire Petschauer team and manages the personal lines and social media departments.