Home & Garden

About the House: Words of Advice When Dealing With a Neighbor

By Matt Cantor
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 01:29:00 PM

Everyone’s different. Now, isn’t that a novel comment? OK, so it isn’t a fresh idea but it’s true. My wife and I are different. I’ll bet you and your partner, spouse or closest friend are pretty different too, but, by the grace of some deity, alien influence or, maybe, the Constitution, we manage to get along or at least act out some version of concord in our daily affairs. 

That said, people often have a great deal of trouble working things out with their neighbors. Perhaps someone forgets to put the playdough back in the container soon enough or, one day, they park across your driveway. There are so many slippery slopes and, all too frequently, human misunderstanding unravels it’s diamond-back coils and away we go. If not for this, we would be without lawyers. 

I spent a few hours with a lovely couple in Berkeley recently and they shared not one but two such tales of woe and I will begin with these. Mind you, these are very nice people so it’s a valuable lesson in commerce that one can be good-willed but still fail to achieve harmony when it is actually within our grasp (and this, of course, will be my posit). 

The first tale was that of a property that they own but do not occupy in a neighboring town. The house has a shared driveway and a split but common garage at the rear. Now, I’d like to say at the outset that these shared driveways exist in strict contrast to the American way of doing business, which seems to me to be something along the lines of “this is mine, that is yours, please stay on your side and we’ll get along just fine.” (Corporate wealth has grown handsomely by this inflexibility.) 

Shared driveways are often the source of contention and require assiduous adherence to an agreed-upon code else steam begins to build up and soon things explode. In any event, this was not their problem because the tenants were pretty even-tempered and did what they were asked without a lot of yelling. The problem was with the building.  

When your neighbor does not keep their property in good order, it may be unsightly and unpleasant but it generally remains an aesthetic issue (though it may affect property values—we’ll come back to this later), but when your neighbor’s building is falling apart and it’s attached to your building, it’s another matter. This was the case with our friends. The owner of the adjacent property had failed to replace the roof in a timely manner and the building was leaking on the neighbor’s side. As is not uncommon this was affecting both parts of the building and was a focus of distress for our friends.  

Unsure what to do, they performed some interior repairs in order to assure that the building would not collapse. This work was, to some extent centered on the shared wall along the middle of the building. The neighbor, when confronted with the leak and it’s extenuations, countered that the repairs performed by that very nice couple was the real source of trouble and, by the way, you’re also ugly and your kids are stupid. In short, things broke down.  

They have not wanted to hear more guff from this woman and so have been steaming and crying alternately in the privacy of their own home. And then there’s the lost sleep. Now this is not a large building and the cost of a roof over the neighboring section is probably hundreds and not even a thousand dollars. Faced with this, my first suggestion was that they consider whether it might be worthwhile to simply offer to replace the roof on the remaining portion of the building. Now there are legal issues to consider and I don’t want to underplay the potential liability in working on the property of someone who has already showed some viperous tendencies.  

However, the building isn’t getting any dryer or stronger and it’s certainly not creeping over to their side of the property line. I think that we often negate or turn a blind eye on ameliorative options when in conflict. What if, instead, we say, “How much money is it worth it to me to see this problem disappear?” You can bet that if they get into litigation with this woman, it will be many times what the roof would cost and many more sleepless, angry nights. And the cost of those may be far higher than anything money can approximate.  

The other situation these folks were faced with involved their actual next-door neighbor. The fence between them (often at the center of neighborly disputes) had, in places, begun to fall down and the neighbor, fearing excessive costs (I presume), proceeded, on their own steam, to take down the rest of the fence and begin replacement. That was two years ago, so you may have some idea how this story goes.  

At this point, the tale is about hair-pulling exasperation and involved minute, excruciating detail about the pouring of posts and stick-by-stick, millimeter progress. Being a very nice couple, they didn’t want to press the neighbor, or say untoward things, so they are, instead, boiling and brooding. My advice to all who find themselves reflected in this description is to pick the more politic of your team and send them forth ASAP to seek resolution. Don’t brood. 

In this case, I suggested that the neighbor be asked to complete the project within a fixed period of time or relinquish their role and allow an outside contractor to finish the project. Set a date and stick to it as much as can be done without bloodshed. Smile and offer a handshake at all junctures but make sure you are moving toward a satisfactory state, else you endanger your relationship with yourself. That’s what really happens a lot of the time. We get frustrated because of our inaction and then end up adding this to the balance sheet we hold against the neighbor (or with whomever you’re on the playing field). Some call this passive-aggression but names don’t matter. My point is that it’s best to proceed toward some sort of resolution as quickly as possible if you can’t simply forget about it altogether. 

Similarly, my advise in this case included exploration of the notion that these folks might simply offer to pay for the fence, if progress was not adequately forthcoming. Not that this is the optimum in fairness, but fairness isn’t always the razor of efficacy. If you really want the heartache to go away, consider all options. Murder is usually off the table but paying to get the thing done, even when you might not consider it your duty, should be considered if it works. It’s all about your level of hurt. 

Another similar case from just this last week went something like this. The house I inspected was nothing less than a showplace, a grand dame of a house on a street of similarly estimable estates in our neighboring town of Piedmont. The owners had spent buckets of money installing extraordinary art works in the form of gates, railings, fountains and streams, not to mention an addition and rehab of majestic beauty and quality. Then you look to the left and there’s this huge shingled wall that makes you wonder if you’re at the wrong address. Peeling paint, shingle beyond mere weathering; to put it simply, a mess. 

It’s just about all you see on one whole side of the property and aesthetically trounces on all that idyllic scenery that our homeowner has worked day and night to create. So, what did I say? Yes, I suggested that they seriously consider offering to reshingle that side of the house. The owner of this sadly neglected home is probably hurting for cash or is, perhaps, simply insouciant.  

It’s easy to focus on the problem of the neighbor but it’s important to not lose sight of the objective and to see all options (remember, except murder; say it three times), including offering to pay to get it done. Remember to include compassion in the mix. Offering to pay may create resentment if it’s not done with eloquence and an ounce or two of face-saving. Take all the blame and share none and if you’re lucky, it might be the best deal you ever got.