Whether you are buying a home for the first time or moving into a new neighborhood, you will need to coexist with your neighbors while protecting your right to peacefully enjoy your property. Unfortunately, disagreements or disputes sometimes arise, and it can help to know how to resolve them as smoothly as possible. Before bringing an apparent violation or problem to a neighbor’s attention, you will want to make sure that you understand the state laws and the ordinances in your city or county that govern property rights. These may include residential zoning rules as well as laws on what constitutes a nuisance or a hazard on a property. Subdivisions and other types of planned communities typically have their own rules (known as CC&Rs) as well, which may be very specific.
If you are a tenant, you have certain defined rights and obligations with respect to your landlord and other tenants in your building. You should explore our section on information for tenants to understand your options.
Communicating with a Neighbor
Before confronting a neighbor about a perceived problem, you should make sure that the problem is likely to recur rather than just being a one-time incident. You may want to keep a record of similar incidents that occurred, which can help show a pattern. Make sure that you know who is causing the problem, especially if several households live close together. You may want to discuss the problem with other neighbors near the problematic neighbor in case they have suffered from the same conduct. Then, all of you can approach the problematic neighbor together and make a stronger case.
When you do approach the neighbor, you should assume that the neighbor is unaware of the problem or at least causing it unintentionally. You should be able to explain why it has a negative impact on you and offer a reasonable solution that will resolve the problem without hindering the neighbor’s ability to enjoy their own property. If they raise concerns about your own behavior, you might try to find a compromise in which each of you accommodates the other better moving forward.
In some cases, if an informal resolution proves impractical, you may need to outline your complaint to the neighbor in a letter. You should state the legal support for your position to motivate the neighbor to take your concerns seriously. You might even hire an attorney to write the letter for you, which should place your complaint on especially strong footing.
Alternatives to Going to Court
If conversations with the neighbor or a courteous letter fail to get results, you can report the neighbor’s misconduct to the authorities, such as a zoning board or a government agency that handles health and safety. You should make sure to explain the context and the steps that you took to address the problem. If the government intervenes, the neighbor may face a citation, a fine, and ultimately criminal penalties.
Another alternative is trying to resolve the dispute through mediation. This involves the assistance of a neutral third party, known as a mediator. They can recommend solutions for you and advise you on the strengths and weaknesses of your position. However, a mediator does not have the authority to order the parties to reach a certain agreement. If mediation does not resolve the dispute, you may need to go to court.
Going to Court
Any unreasonable activity that interferes with the use or enjoyment of your property is classified as a “nuisance” and can support a claim against your neighbor. Some states list certain types of nuisances under the law, but you generally still can bring a claim if the activity is not listed under the law, as long as it is unreasonable. (In a few states, the activity must be unlawful instead of just unreasonable.) Often, a group of neighbors will bring a lawsuit against a certain defendant based on the same type of conduct, which affects all of them.
Successfully establishing liability means showing that the defendant’s actions are seriously annoying you, they are reducing your ability to use and enjoy your property, they are unreasonable or unlawful, and you have incurred damages. You may be able to get damages from the defendant in small claims court, or you may be able to get a regular court to issue an injunction to order the defendant to do or not do something.