Call it a social issue on steroids, says Bob Borzotta, author of Neighbors From Hell: Managing Today’s Brand of Conflict Close to Home. Neighbor disputes have become a major problem in the last two decades, and people’s ways of making others miserable in their own homes can be practically sadistic. “I heard of a family who moved because of a neighbor from hell (NFH),” says Borzotta, “but on moving day, the NFH followed the moving van and subsequently started harassing the former neighbors in their new digs.” Eventually, they stopped, but it proved Borzotta’s contention that it’s probably easier to leave a bad spouse than a bad neighbor.
Living next to an uncooperative neighbor is awful on many levels. Financially, it can affect the property value of your home (think unkempt lawn and shrubs, old cars everywhere.) Emotionally, it can threaten your sense of well-being and safety.
The good news is: There are many actions you can take short of declaring war. “These actions all start,” says Borzotta, “before a dispute arises.”
- Think about where you’re living. Since this time of life is often about downsizing and moving, really assess the area around your new house or apartment. If the noise of kids playing irritates you, you‘ll probably be unhappy in a neighborhood of young families. If having cars in front of your house bugs you, don’t live near a popular park. Bottom line, think about your needs before diving into a neighborhood where you’re odd man out.
- Introduce yourself. If you’re new to a neighborhood or have lived there 35 years and have seen turnover with new families, introduce yourself and then say “hi” to everyone by name, even the young kids, whenever you see them. Familiarity can go a long way in defusing future problems. (And the kids won’t think you’re the old crank who won’t let them retrieve fly balls from the backyard!)
- Timing—and empathy—are everything. Never try to reason with a neighbor while their dog is howling at the moon after midnight. Rather, try the “I care about you, so I hope you care about me” approach once the irritating situation is past. Example: “I usually leave for work around 5:30 A.M. I know my car rattles a little, but I hope I’m not disturbing you when I pull out of my driveway.” This leaves the door open for the neighbor to say, ”No problem. And we hope Fido isn’t bothering you at night.” If your neighbor does open the door for conversation, state your concern. If they don’t, politely ask if they can take the dog in by 10 P.M. when you hit the sack.
- Don’t make assumptions. The overgrown yard next door may be the result of sloppy neighbors. Or it may be because someone is ill or recently widowed. Visit your neighbor to ascertain why the lawn is untended. (You’ll quickly know if it’s the former or latter.) If it’s someone who needs help, offer to mow for them. Or suggest getting a kid in the neighborhood who’s started his own mowing business. If it’s sloppy neighbors, read #5.
- Know the governing laws in your neighborhood. What are the regulations for noise, junk cars, unmowed lawns, and trash in your municipality or homeowners’ association? (You can go to your local city or county homepage or try a site like MuniCode.com.) Knowledge is power. If talking about your concerns in person with your neighbor doesn’t work (always the first step), call the authorities and file a complaint with your local police, homeowners association, or county office. The neighbor can be fined for non-compliance and probably won’t appreciate your interference. But you are within your rights.
- Gather evidence. If a problem persists, keep a journal of dates and times of ongoing offenses. It may sound extreme, but you may want to consider installing a surveillance camera. The neighbor with hard evidence of harassment or infractions is always in a better position with authorities (the homeowner’s association or the municipality), than the out-of-control nut who rants.
- And speaking of authorities…. If calling the police is your idea of a good solution, think again—unless the neighbor is using your windows for target practice or you feel personally in danger. You probably will not get the long-term solution you seek (a cooperative neighbor) and you may even make matters worse (a more pissed-off neighbor).
- Consider mediation. Assuming your neighbor isn’t a sociopath, consider using a mediator to help resolve your differences. (Consult the National Association of Community Mediation for a mediator near you.) Mediation won’t assign blame; it will try to help you find a win-win so each of you gets what you need to live more harmoniously.