Being a homeowner comes with immense benefits: it’s an excellent long-term investment, it helps you build equity, and it provides you with federal tax benefits. However, homeownership can quickly become a hassle, especially when you encounter problems with one of your neighbors. Although no one wants to deal with such incidents, all homeowners are likely to face them one day. Before jumping on the phone to call the police or hastily confronting your neighbor, you should learn how to deal with common neighborhood problems — legally and professionally.

The guidance provided below was inspired by the book Neighborhood Law, released by attorneys Emily Doskow and Line Guillen. It outlines a landlord’s rights and responsibilities, shares insights on how you can resolve long-term tensions and difficult situations, and educates you on legal actions that you can take when necessary.

Step 1: Be Prepared

Although a problem with your neighbor may be irritating, the actions of the neighbor may not be illegal. Therefore, the first step you must take to remedy any neighborhood problem is to conduct your own research to learn your homeowner’s rights.

Conduct Legal Research

You want to research multiple facets of the law, including both local and state law.

  • Local laws are passed by a city council (or board of selectmen) or a county board of supervisors. The most common topics covered by local law include animals, blighted property, building codes, fence appearance, fence height, fence location, garbage, noise, protected trees, sick trees, trash, viewing obstructions, weeds, and zoning.
  • State laws are passed by the state legislature. The most common topics covered by state law include adverse possession, boundary fences, damage to trees, disorderly conduct, easements, nuisance, right to farm, spite fences, and trespassing.

Typically, you can research both local and state laws on the internet. Doskow and Guillen recommend using the following websites to ensure you are accessing accurate information:

  • Learn about local laws
    • County: www.co.<county name>.<state postal code>.us

Example: www.co.alameda.ca.us

  • City: www.ci.<city name>.<state postal code>.us

Example: www.ci.berkeley.ca.us

  • State and local government on the internet (www.statelocalgov.net)
  • Learn about state Laws
    • Nolo’s legal research pages (www.nolo.com/legal-research)
    • FindLaw (www.findlaw.com)
    • For additional information, try a Google search

While conducting research, you should always double-check the laws you are reviewing and ensure they are current – you need to verify that the law hasn’t been changed or repealed. Once you are educated on your position, it’s time to move to step 2.

Step #2: Approach Your Neighbor

How you approach your neighbor may vary depending on your relationship with them. For example, if you have already established an amicable relationship with your neighbor, approaching them about the issue will be much more comfortable and straightforward than if your current relationship is contentious or nonexistent. If your relationship is far from amicable, then you should spend more time considering your approach. Regardless of where your relationship stands, the most effective way to resolve a neighborly dispute is to open the lines of communication.

When you approach your neighbor, be prepared and always assume they aren’t aware of the problem.  Consider compiling the following items before you confront your neighbor:

  • Information about the law
  • A log of your concerns
  • Pictures of the infraction, if possible (e.g., trees obstructing your view or a fence that is falling apart)
  • A list of other neighbors that are affected by the issue — Be careful in how you present this — you don’t want to imply the idea that your neighborhood is ganging up on the person

Once you’re ready to discuss the problem with your neighbor, find common ground. Introduce the problem as a mutual concern (do not attack your neighbor) and present the information factually and diplomatically. No matter what, never be hasty. If your neighbor is unwilling to work with you, you can take legal steps to manage the problem.

Step #3: Take Legal Action

Unfortunately, neighbors do not always see eye-to-eye, and, in some cases, you may need to take legal action. Depending on the circumstances, you, as a property owner, can take different routes.

Turn to Authorities for Help

First, identify the proper authority that can help you resolve the conflict and contact them for guidance. This may include the police, a zoning board, the city health department, or another entity. Before jumping into mediation, one of these entities may be able to act as your mediator. You need to have sufficient evidence to gain the support of such authorities. However, if they select your case and decide to take action against the neighbor, you may have found your solution.

Seek Mediation

If the neighbor is doing nothing to remedy the situation, and you are unable to make a solid case with a government entity, then you can file for mediation in your local court.

Mediation is a process in which the people involved in a dispute sit down and find their own solution with the help of a mediator. A mediator is a person who is neutral to the dispute and has training in techniques to get people talking.”

A qualified mediator can be found with the help of your local government. Once you contact the mediator, they take charge of negotiating with your neighbor. The experience and skills of the mediator are often enough to help resolve the issue. Therefore, this is a viable solution that you should consider. 

Take the Issue to Small Claims Court

If a problem persists and you cannot find a resolution, you have the option of taking your neighbor to small claims court, though this should be a last resort.

“Small claims court is a local court where you can go to sue a person who has caused you damage. In a few areas of the country, this court is called by other names such as ‘justice’ court or ‘pro se’ court.”

In general, small claims court is a surefire way to settle any neighborhood problem because the case is presented to a judge. In addition, it’s relatively easy to open a case, and the cost to file with the court is generally low. Once you file a claim, your case is scheduled in front of a judge, who then resolves the problem. However, there are certain restrictions depending on where you reside, and you should complete your research before taking a neighbor to small claims court. Like any other option, you need to be prepared when you enter the courtroom – there is no guarantee that you will win.

Remember, as a homeowner, you have rights. Don’t be afraid to confront your neighbor to defend those rights. Doing so not only helps you avoid an ongoing dispute but also preserves the equity in your home.

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