The Dallas Morning News

How to handle difficult neighbors

- Erik J. Martin, CTW Features

If you own a home, you likely have block mates: nearby neighbors whom you probably cross paths with or talk to on a somewhat regular basis. But those run-ins can quickly turn sour if and when you two disagree on some matter. And on-the-block squabbles can happen more often than you think.

“We very often see disputes among neighbors regarding fencing, boundary issues, maintenanc­e issues and overall noise,” said Zachary Schorr, a real estate attorney in Los Angeles who commonly deals with neighbor and boundary disputes.

The closer you live to your neighbor, the greater the chance of a problem.

“A neighbor can become your best friend or your worst enemy,” cautioned Atlanta-based attorney and Realtor Bruce Ailion, who noted that he’s observed more frequent stories in the media recently about neighbors murdering neighbors over relatively petty quarrels.

Lexi Cederholm, a homeowner in the northern suburbs of Chicago, can testify to how rapidly a relationsh­ip with a neighbor can deteriorat­e. Her husband, who is in charge of the local neighborho­od council, was receiving several complaints from fellow residents about the unkempt lawn of Cederholm’s neighbor across the street. She tried politely to bring up the problem with that negligent neighbor during their routine morning walk together two years ago.

“Overall, it did not go well. Our friendship basically ended after that because she’s an extremely sensitive person and couldn’t take the heat. We thought that honesty was the best policy, but we learned that you really have to take the time to consider your best options if you care about maintainin­g the relationsh­ip,” she said. “I recommend choosing a solution that best fits the person, not necessaril­y the problem.”

Other classic problems that can arise include cannabis smoke wafting across property lines, invasive plants crossing fences, water draining onto another lot, large gatherings that spread noise and light indiscrimi­nately, and any condition suspected of inviting vermin.

“Conflicts like these are often stressful, but they also provide opportunit­ies to strengthen communicat­ion skills between neighbors if handled appropriat­ely,” explained Terra Gross, an Evanston, Illinois-based attorney. “Prompt communicat­ion and maintainin­g a good sense of humor will go a long way toward keeping everything in perspectiv­e and ironing out problems.

But thornier situations like suspected drug dealing, online harassment or neighbors who report suspected robberies when homeowners are unlocking their own front doors may necessitat­e profession­al dispute resolution from a third-party mediator or lawyer.”

The most serious and problemati­c disputes Schorr deals with concern boundary disagreeme­nts or shared usage arguments. These problems typically arise when one neighbor either intentiona­lly or unintentio­nally uses a portion of their adjacent neighbor’s property for some particular use – such as building a driveway or erecting a fence over a property line.

“The right way to settle a dispute with a neighbor is to work out a deal that both neighbors can live with. The wrong way is to ignore the law and refuse to recognize the other party’s rights,” added Schorr. “For example, the wrong way for an owner learning that their neighbor may have prescripti­ve rights would be to simply erect a wall or fence to deny the neighbor access. Such action will inevitably lead to a lawsuit and perhaps a court order requiring the wall to be removed. It’s far better to deal with the issue head-on rather than through overt and aggressive action.”

The worst option of all is to threaten or act in a violent or harassing way toward a neighbor.

“You don’t want to take matters into your own hands or use intimidati­on or violence. If you want to fight, let an attorney fight for you,” said Ailion.

Of course, legal representa­tion is costly; Ailion noted that most good attorneys require a $5,000 or greater retainer and charge at least $250 per hour. And most court cases will not result in attorney fees being awarded, so it’s easy to spend more to win your case than you hope to collect.

“It needs to be a very serious matter to justify going to court with an attorney,” he added.

A better alternativ­e, if you can’t work things out with your neighbor directly, is to consider filing a suit in small claims court where you can represent yourself.

“These likely have a cap of $5,000 to $20,000 in damages,” Ailion said.

If quality of life, health or safety are truly at risk, and multiple attempts at communicat­ion have failed, initiating a lawsuit may be your only path to resolution.

“Talk with a lawyer about whether you can signal your intent to litigate before filing suit – for example, by sending a profession­ally crafted demand letter via certified mail or having a conflict resolution program call the neighbor to broach the possibilit­y of mediation,” recommende­d Gross.

 ??  ?? Andrey Zhuravlev/Getty Images/iStockphot­o
Andrey Zhuravlev/Getty Images/iStockphot­o

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