Resolving conflicts with neighbors

Unless you live on a plot of land large enough to provide a large buffer zone between your home and your neighbor's, you'll be close enough to the house next door to see its occupants frequently. And unless you and your neighbor are the best of friends, you might find yourself grumbling over some annoyance from across the fence.

Neighbor conflicts are not uncommon. Betty Wang, writing for the legal site FindLaw , says a survey by the site found that 42 percent of respondents said they had been involved in a dispute with a neighbor. Noise issues accounted for nearly half of the problems, with 48 percent saying this was the reason for the dispute. Other reasons for a conflict included problems caused by pets or animals (28 percent), by children (21 percent), by a visual nuisance (18 percent) or a disagreement involving property lines (17 percent).

Other issues can blow up into disputes if they are not resolved soon enough. Daniel DeClerico, writing for Consumer Reports, says some examples include trees that grow tall enough to block sunlight or have their roots and branches encroach on a neighbor's property. People will also get concerned if they have young children and see safety risks on a neighbor's property, such as an open pool or power tools left in the yard. Blighted property or the construction of an ugly fence can also lead to disagreements.

It's in everyone's best interests to resolve a neighborly dispute instead of allowing it to fester into an ongoing feud. If some issue is pitting you against the resident next door, you can look to take care of it in a diplomatic way before taking stronger measures.

Getting to know you

Perhaps the most helpful step in resolving a dispute with a neighbor is to be proactive. Before you run into any trouble, you can introduce yourself to the person next door and get to know them better.

Try to meet your neighbor as soon as possible after you or the neighbor moves in. If a new family is arriving next door, welcome them to the neighborhood and greet them when you see them afterward. Compliment the neighbor if they make an improvement to their property that you find pleasing. You might not become close enough to regularly spend time together, but you'll at least be on civil speaking terms if any dispute arises.

Make sure you're behaving in a way that won't aggravate your neighbor. Keep your music and other noise at a quiet level, and consider your neighbor's view when putting in any fences, outbuildings, compost piles, or other exterior features. If you're doing something that might affect the neighbor, such as getting a dog or planting a tree near the property line, let them know.

If something happens next door that annoys you, such as a loud party, don't assume that it will become normal behavior. A face-to-face discussion with the neighbor should occur if the problem happens again. The People's Law Library of Maryland says you can start keeping a log of incidents if they become persistent, as this will be a useful record if you and the neighbor cannot work out the issue on your own.

Meet with the neighbor soon after an incident, and be diplomatic in the discussion. Stay calm and respectful, listen to what the neighbor has to say, and try to come up with a solution. Don't assume that the neighbor is deliberately trying to aggravate you, and don't assume that they won't be open to discussing the problem. If another neighbor has a better relationship with the neighbor in question, you can ask for their help as well.

If the issue persists after a discussion, you can try sending a letter to the neighbor. Though it is more formal than a face-to-face meeting, it can directly outline the issues involved in the dispute as well as any laws or ordinances the neighbor is violating. You can also choose to send a copy to a homeowners association, neighborhood group, additional neighbors affected by the issue, or other relevant parties to sign before delivering it.

These steps will often lead to a resolution of the problem. Wang says the FindLaw survey determined that 49 percent of respondents discussed the problem with the neighbor while an additional 11 percent sent a letter or e-mail.

A step further

If the problem involving your neighbor's property continues after you have tried to work with them to find a solution, it might be time to seek a third party to help find a resolution.

Mediation offers a more inexpensive option than going to court. DeClerico says impartial third party mediators from a community mediation center will sit down with you and the neighbor to try to find a solution; the fee for this service may be offered on a sliding scale, or there may not be any charge at all. Private mediators are also available, offering a better understanding of local law but charging a higher fee.

Calling the police is another option, though it doesn't fit all circumstances. The People's Law Library of Maryland says the police can assist with violations of a local ordinance or state law, such as excessive noise. For other issues, it would be more appropriate to go to a homeowners association, zoning official, or other person who would be able to take a role in a property issue.

As a last resort, you can consider taking the matter to court. This process is likely to be expensive, and there's no guarantee that the court will find in your favor. In addition, you'll still have to live next to your neighbor and your relationship can easily be soured even further by a lawsuit. However, having a court victory on your side can be useful if the neighbor's behavior continues to offend you and you need to seek enforcement.

DeClerico says small claims court offers a step between mediation and filing a lawsuit. However, it is more difficult for a small claims court to order the neighbor to cease their behavior or enforce payment on any damages awarded.

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