Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].
Question from Ken near Seattle: Hey Brian, I’m in a newer neighborhood where controlling the cost of homes means tiny yards. These aren’t packed quite as close together as some neighborhoods on the east coast but I’ve come to refer to these as “west coast row houses.” You might know where this is going. There’s nothing much worse than living in this type of neighborhood when you have nightmare neighbors. On one side of me is a guy that blares his TV at full volume all day with the window nearest to me wide open. Two doors down is our neighborhood cat lady – only her four cats are running loose, damaging my flower garden, and screeching at the moon (or something) all night. And I could go on about others further down the street... What can I do to make my neighbors behave better?
Answer: Hello Ken. The easy answer is selling your expensive city home and moving to 10-acres out in the country. But I don’t think that is the answer you are looking for. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to alleviate your issues and even make your neighborhood a better place for everyone.
Sometimes you need to take legal action but most of the time it’s best to begin with a friendly conversation. But know that you can escalate the situation if your neighbor doesn’t correct the problem. A friendly conversation can be started over the fence, or you can make a point of catching your neighbor on the sidewalk, or in their driveway. There’s a good chance the neighbor doesn’t even realize they are doing something that annoys you or stresses you out. If you don’t already know your neighbor, start by introducing yourself and letting him or her know something about you. You don’t’ have to directly attack the behavior that annoys you. You can let them know how much you appreciate a quiet neighborhood and how the noise level around you has been going up. Early in the conversation, it can be a good strategy to ask if you are doing anything that bothers the neighbor you are talking to. Then mention that you’re hearing noisy cats at night and TV volume coming out of people’s homes. Causally ask the neighbor if they’ve noticed the same changes in the neighborhood.
If that doesn’t work, you can get a little more formal. Let the neighbor know that you have something you want to talk to them about. Set up a date and time when the two of you can sit down and talk. It’s still, usually best to not directly attack the other person’s behavior. Instead, let them know how their behavior makes you feel. Let him or her know that you get stressed when their TV is turned up loud with the sound going out the open window that directly faces your home. Most people want to be respectful of others and a little embarrassment will quickly fix the problem. If that still doesn’t fix it, there are more escalation steps you can take.
The next step can depend on your neighborhood and local ordinances. If your neighborhood has a homeowner’s association (HOA), getting the HOA involved is usually the next step. Most HOAs have clear guidelines for everything from landscaping to the height of fences and the color of the houses. HOAs also have more authority than you have. An HOA usually has a formal escalation policy that can begin with a warning but if the behavior doesn’t change, a fine will be imposed by a specific date. If the behavior is severe enough, the HOA often has other remedies such as putting a lien on the property and even forcing the person to sell the house.
In neighborhoods without an HOA, you’re more dependent on the local ordinances. However, local ordinances are almost always less restrictive than HOA rules. For instance, the loud TV might not be covered by an ordinance until after 10 pm or it might involve a certain decibel level out at the sidewalk. Another problem with these ordinances is they may be a low priority for the police and other authorities. Also, the authority may need to witness a problem that might not be occurring when they show up.
This brings up documenting the bad behavior or problem. It is possible to take obnoxious neighbors to civil court. But if you’re going to go to court or use another formal process (such as mediation), you need to have good documentation. Specific dates and times of violations, photos, signed complaints from other neighbors, etc. By the time you get to civil court, you’ll want to have a thorough understanding of the local ordinances. You might easily prove damages to your yard from an unleashed dog but have more trouble being awarded damages for the stress you experience because a neighbor has too many backyard BBQs.
Ken, one thing to be clear about is that criminal and/or dangerous activity needs to be treated more seriously. If there is clearly illegal or dangerous activity going on, you probably want to skip the friendly chat and go straight to the authorities. But most neighborhood disputes can start with a candid talk and kindness. Also, keep in mind there are many other possible solutions. For instance, if there is a renter involved, you can make a complaint to the homeowner (landlord). Fence installation can be a solution to some problems. Your local animal control might help with the neighbor’s cats.
I’m sure I left something important out. Please add your comments.
Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].