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Message # 762 Resolving neighbor disputes

mp3 #762 Resolving Neighbor Disputes (mp3 file)

When a problem with your neighbor has you at the end of your rope, here are the steps to take:

First, try to talk it over. Don't overlook the obvious. Before you report your problem neighbor to authorities, approach the neighbor, who may not even know about what's bugging you.

For instance, the barking Dalmatian that is keeping you awake nights may make noise only when no one is home; the owner who works the night shift may not know that spot is creating havoc. And your neighbor who worked so hard to paint that neon jungle scene on the eight-foot fence between your yards probably has no idea that it's less than lovely to your eyes.

Assume that the neighbor doesn't know there is a problem, and would like to be told. Talking to your neighbor calmly and reasonably is an essential first step. Even if the two of you do end up in court eventually, a judge is likely to be more sympathetic if you at least made an attempt to work things out first.

So, while it's unpleasant to approach another person to discuss the thorn in your side, you have nothing to lose from it. And if you approach the task tactfully, you may even be pleasantly surprised to learn your neighbor is willing to work toward a solution.

Let's look at some specific rules to follow that could make or break your attempts to approach your neighbor.

1. Open lines of communication. Long before you complain, before you even have a problem, get out there and meet your neighbors. The long-range benefit of simply being able to call someone by name, of laying even the tiniest groundwork of good will is enormous when a problem arises. This is something every one of us should do - and do it now. Too busy or too shy? Making this effort is more important than your excuses.

2-Never be hasty. When a disturbance occurs, there are several reasons for not diving into the water too soon. Acting in anger, whether it's racing over in your bathrobe and slippers, screaming through the telephone, or bringing in the police, reveals your own lack of control and guarantees disastrous resentment.

But even more important, you need to wait to know just how serious the problem is - whether it will be ongoing, or a single or occasional annoyance. You need more facts and therefore more time.

Suppose a new neighbor moves in and immediately throws a rowdy party that is still going strong at 2 a.m. you rush over, bristling with outrage and try to stop the party. Later you learn that the affair was a giant housewarming or an annual birthday party, that this neighbor is a quiet recluse the rest of the time. What have you done? You've spoiled your future relationship.

This same rule of wait-and-see applies when a barking dog appears on the scene. Maybe the neighbor is dog-sitting for one night, or trying a new dog outside, and will learn that it doesn't work -- without your help.

Stereo suddenly blasting? The neighbor could have invested several thousand dollars in a new system and wants to be enveloped in it just once for the experience.

Screaming fight next door? Well, people fight occasionally and in the heat of the battle they forget about the neighbors.

We're talking about some tolerance here, but also about good common sense. You may want to turn up your own volume on a rare occasion.

Instead of running to the phone, start a list of what's happened and when for your own satisfaction. If the problem recurs, now you've been tolerant, even if it means losing a little sleep. The third time you'll be in a better position to take action, and your list may eventually prove useful.

3. Choose neutral ground. While you're exercising all this tolerance and taking your time, observe the neighbor's habits. What time does she get home from work? Does he water his yard at a certain hour? When does the trash go out? How about shopping trips or doing laundry?

What you're looking for is a common ground, a place to meet that is not your territory and not your neighbor's. A parking lot, sidewalk, laundry room, store or the boundary of properties are all possibilities. Choose a neutral spot for your chat, to place you on equal footing and head off territorial defensiveness.

4. Talk about something else first. Try a subject of common interest. "Do you think it will ever rain?" "Do you think the city will pass that parks referendum?" "How about those raiders?" get the conversation going before you plunge into the complaint. Once you are talking, you can gently shift into the problem.

5. Use a question as an answer. Imagine the perfect scenario (and you can achieve it). You and the neighbor are out, standing side by side, watering your parched plants, and complaining about the weather together. You look up at the neighbor's monster tree loaded with dead menacing limbs, and innocently ask, "What do you think we should do about this tree?" You've asked for an opinion instead of stating, "By golly, I hate that tree of yours; do something about it or else."

How about: "Now that the weather is cooler and the windows are all open, do you think we should all turn down our TVs a little?" or: "The walls in this building are so thin that the sound passes straight through them. Is there anything you can think of that we could do about it?"

With conversation first, common interests and neutral ground, the neighbor may help solve the problem, and you have completely avoided any confrontation at all.

6. State the actual complaint. There are those neighbors who don't get the message or don't want to, and by now you know whom you are dealing with. If you must go further, try: "I'm sure you would want to know that your stereo (or tree, or collection of old cars in the yard) is disturbing me." Explain why you are disturbed, for example that you couldn't sleep Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night (remember your list), or you fear the tree, or you think the yard affects property values on the street.

Don't be afraid to say you are sorry, that you hate to complain. You really are sorry you have to complain, and if you say it, then it's easier for the neighbor to also say it.

Have a solution to the problem already in your mind, and offer it. For instance, "Would you please be willing to keep the TV low after nine o'clock when I have to sleep?" "Would you be willing to trim this tree before it causes severe damage (or could we trim it together)?"

Be ready for a complaint against you; the neighbor may desperately grab for one. Head it off and keep it friendly by offering something like: "Please tell me about anything I may be doing that is annoying you."

7. Show your own consideration for the neighbor. If for some reason you can't use neutral ground, go over to the neighbor's at a reasonable time when you are unlikely to disturb them - a weekend afternoon for example. If the problem is affecting someone else too (and it often is), go together and complain together.

Something as basic as what you wear can affect the outcome. Keep it casual. If you come calling dressed to the hilt in a coat and tie and the neighbor is in cut-off jeans, equal footing disappears and defensiveness is instinctive.

8. Never complain anonymously. Sure, it's a lot easier to stick a note under somebody's door than to confront them. If it's necessary to complain in writing as a first step, take a deep breath and sign your name. When others are affected, get everyone you can to sign with you.

An anonymous note, phone call or report to the authorities can make the situation much worse than it already is. The neighbor can't respond, and this goes against human nature. The result is a neighbor who feels isolated, can no longer trust anyone, becomes suspicious of everyone - a bad neighbor.

Sometimes all this courtesy and common sense just doesn't work. And some neighbors can be nasty, mean and dangerous. Then you turn to the law for help.

But most of the time, these steps do work. Instead of developing ulcers, or having to deal later with a situation that escalates into warfare, you'll have solved the problem through your own thoughtful efforts. And you'll have gained what we all want in our lives - good neighbors.

Next, check the local law. If your neighbor is uncooperative, find out whether the annoying behavior violates any local ordinances. The best way to check out what your city or county ordinances cover is to go to the public library or the county law library -- usually located near the courthouse -- and read them yourself. Make copies of anything you think is pertinent.

Once you have a copy of an ordinance that covers the problem, your troubles may be almost over. In most circumstances, just presenting a copy to your neighbor will resolve the problem.

If your first attempts at talking things over face-to-face have given you little hope, write your neighbor a letter. Maintain a calm and reasonable tone, but re-emphasize the need to resolve the unpleasant situation -- and enclose a copy of any ordinance that proves it's also against the law.

Next, try mediation. A mediator will not make a decision for you, but will help you and your neighbor decide on the best way to resolve your problem. Mediators, both professional and volunteers, are trained to listen to both sides, identify problems, keep everyone focused on the real problems, and suggest compromises. Going through the process helps both people feel that they've been heard - and often puts people on better terms at once.

The key to mediation is that unlike a lawsuit, it is not an adversarial process. You do not go to mediation to argue your side. No judge-like person dictates what you must do. The outcome is in the hands of those who have the dispute; until both agree there can be no resolution.

A frequent consequence of mediation is that those involved in the dispute discover that the problem they think they have a noisy dog, an encroaching fence isn't the main problem at all. It may turn out that the reason one neighbor hasn't controlled her dog better is that she's angry about the other's tree, which drops a yard-full of leaves onto her side of the fence. If one neighbor trims some of the far-hanging branches, he may find that his neighbor suddenly finds a way to make her dog behave.

The best place to look for a mediator is a community mediation group. City and county governments sometimes offer mediation services of their own, or can refer you to organizations that do. Call the courthouse information number to find out. The small claims court clerk, or even radio or television stations that take "action line" calls, also may be able to refer you to a mediation service. Finally, many state and local bar associations publish directories of dispute resolution services throughout the state.

Next, call in the authorities. When you have tried but failed to solve a problem yourself, it may be time to call in authorities. For example, if you have politely and repeatedly asked your next-door neighbor to turn down the rock music and instead, the stereo goes up another notch, you may find that you have to finally call the police. Many towns have a special noise unit that responds to complaints.

For a first complaint, the police will probably warn the person violating the ordinance. If the noise continues or is repeated, the noise-maker will be cited and fined. Fines are usually levied according to how many violations there have been for instance, $100 for the first, $200 the second time, $300 the third.

The city or township controls many other common problems that neighbors have with one another, so you may need to report a violation to the appropriate city department. The clerk at city hall will know which department to call, and many departments are in the phone book under the city government listing. For example, offices of the health department, animal control and zoning board will be listed separately, especially in larger cities.

When someone complains about an ordinance violation, the city or county can warn the offender, impose a fine, or take measures to correct the problem. Sometimes, if the person is uncooperative, the city will correct the problem - for instance, clean up objectionable rubbish - and bill the person responsible. In serious situations, the city or county attorney can sue the person to force compliance with the law.

If necessary, sue the neighbor. Whenever someone else's unreasonable action interferes with your enjoyment of your property, it is considered a "private nuisance." if your neighbor blasts a stereo or lets a dog howl all night, you can sue the neighbor for maintaining the nuisance.

Most people are very reluctant to sue their neighbors, and they should be. Litigation is often time-consuming and expensive, and it's practically guaranteed to wreck whatever remains of a civil relationship between neighbors. But if all else fails, consider taking your complaint to a small claims court judge. If you sue for money alone, you can use small claims court. It's easy, inexpensive - and you don't need a lawyer to go through the process. Having the neighbor ordered to pay you money can be amazingly effective in regaining your quiet, your peace of mind and getting a persistent problem cleared up in a hurry. The amount you can sue for in small claims court is limited in California to $7,500.

Once you have sued and won in small claims court, if the noisiness or other problem doesn't stop, you can sue again and again as long as it persists. Also, if other neighbors are affected and perturbed, get together with them and encourage them o use small claims court too. If 10 people sue for $7,500 each, that's $75,000. Do it again - another $75,000. Such large cumulative court awards may be the best persuasion for getting the problematic neighbor to stop the offense.

To get a court order making somebody stop an activity, you must sue in regular trial court - not small claims court - which probably means hiring a lawyer.

This SmartLaw message is based on adapted excerpts appearing in the Los Angeles times from the book "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries And Noise" by Cora Jordan, published by Nolo Press in Berkeley, California. To obtain a copy contact Nolo Press toll-free at 1-800-728-3555 or visit them online at

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