Treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated is wisdom that is thousands of years old. And it may be more important than ever in today’s litigious society where a growing number of Americans – nearly 80 percent – live side-by-side in urban and suburban areas, in many cases separated only by a wall.
Between sharing driveways and fences to sharing the beautiful, or not-so-beautiful, sights and sounds of a neighborhood, conflict is bound to happen from time to time when people live next to one another. Excessive noise, pets off their leashes, unmaintained lawns, trespassing, an illegal home business – these represent just some of the most common complaints that can come up between neighbors. When complaints go unresolved, frustration turns into phone calls to the local police or into a lawsuit.
Here are 10 tips from Findlaw.com, a leading online source of legal information, on how to avoid earning the scorn of your neighbors and being the subject of a lawsuit.
- Get to know your neighbors. Make time to get to know your neighbors. Learning the basics of why they choose to live in your neighborhood, what they desire in a great neighborhood, what they do for a living, what they enjoy doing for fun, and even the names of their kids can pay dividends in avoiding conflicts down the road.
- Start a neighborhood watch group. Join or form a neighborhood group to watch for unusual or illegal activity in your neighborhood, and to facilitate common ground among your neighbors. Currently, about 200,000 official neighborhood watch programs are registered throughout the United States. To see if your neighborhood has a watch group, or to register a new group, visit www.usaonwatch.org.
- Courtesy call. Open communication is an important part of home ownership, and can help prevent future problems with your neighbors. They are more likely to be supportive with your projects if they know what’s going on ahead of time. If you are planning a major landscape or remodeling project, let your neighbor know in advance. And if you’re going to have a party that could create some unexpected noise, don’t just tell your neighbors about it, invite them.
- Maintain your property. Think about the way your property affects your neighbors and imagine the view from their side of the street or fence. Many neighborhood associations and cities maintain covenants or have regulations about property maintenance, according to Findlaw.com. Not adhering to these standards can get you in hot water with more than just your neighbors.
- Respect property lines. Check all local community laws before landscaping, adding a fence or tree, or launching a remodeling project, such as adding onto your home. If you’re building or landscaping near the property line, make sure you’re in compliance with local codes. If you share a property line, such as a shared driveway, work closely with your neighbor to find solutions that work for both of you. If necessary, consult a lawyer to draft an agreement on how to handle present and future actions with shared property.
- Fences. Fences make for good neighbors, but make sure that before you build one, you follow local codes regulating the height, location, material used and appearance of a fence. A neighbor can only remove another’s fence if it poses a danger to those who interact with it. If it is a property-line fence, neighbors have equal share in the future of the fence and must agree in remodeling it. This also means that both neighbors are responsible for maintenance of the fence and need to split all costs for the preservation.
- Trees. The tree owner is responsible for the maintenance of the tree and any damage if the tree falls on a neighbor’s lawn or house. If a thunderstorm or other natural disaster forces a tree to cause damage, then the tree owner is no longer responsible. Neighbors are able to trim others’ tree branches; however, if they harm the tree, they could be sued for up to $2,500.
- Keep pets in control. Pets are free to roam on their owner’s property if they have a fence set up, but if the animals escape and cause damage, it is the pet owner’s full responsibility. Most neighborhoods and parks have leash laws and require owners to clean up after their pets. Pet owners will also be responsible if their pet bites or harms another person. If a neighbor has too many pets, then they could be violating a zoning, health code or noise ordinance.
- Don’t be a noisy neighbor. Loud noises aren’t only a nuisance, but also a potential health hazard. Exposure to sounds of 115 decibels for 15 minutes a day can cause hearing loss, according to the League of the Hard of Hearing. As a reference, a noisy restaurant is about 80 decibels and live rock music is 130 decibels. Almost every community prohibits excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise (including excessive dog barking), and the police enforce these laws. Most noise ordinances designate “quiet hours” within their community.
- Seek mediation. Filing a lawsuit should always be the last resort. Before you get there, speak with your neighbor about the problem. If it’s an issue that affects many neighbors, team up for more support. If that doesn’t work, seek mediation, which many cities and neighborhood councils now offer. Mediation can help neighbors address a problem and still preserve long-term relationships with your neighbor.
If a legal issue arises between you and your neighbor, check Findlaw.com to learn about the law, to find more information on how to handle certain situations, and to find a lawyer in your area.