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How to Resolve Problems

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Noise and other neighbor-related issues are part of life, but how do you go about solving these problems? There are four main ways to try to resolve problems with your neighbor: talking to your neighbor about the problem, using a mediator, calling the police and suing your neighbor. The worst-case scenario, of course, is having to move.

Step 1: Talk to Your Neighbor

Whether it is a noise problem, a property line issue, a wandering or disruptive dog, an overhanging tree or any other issue, the easiest thing to do to address a problem is to talk with your neighbor about the issue. She may not even have been aware that there was a problem.

If your neighbor is unwilling to fix the problem, your next step is to do a little research to learn what your local ordinances cover. If you determine that your neighbor is in the wrong-and that she has made no attempt to remedy the problem-you should send her a letter (along with a copy of the ordinance in question) that addresses the problem, references the local ordinance and details your plan to contact the police or other local authorities if the problem is not solved.

You can either talk to the neighbor directly, or you can fill in the sample letter below with the particulars of your problem and send it to your neighbor:

Sample Letter:

Date

Recipient's address

Dear (neighbor's name):

I am writing to discuss the ________________ (add specific problem) issue that we talked about recently. Although you agreed that you would remedy the problem, you have made no effort to do so. After consulting our local ordinance (see attached), I feel that I have no alternative but to contact the ________________ (add police or local authorities) for assistance in solving the problem. If you would like to discuss this matter further, please contact me at _____________ (add phone number). I hope that we can come to some sort of agreement without involving our local authorities.

Sincerely,

(Sign your name)

Step 2: Mediation

If talking or letter writing does not work, you may be forced to contact a local mediator to help resolve your problem. Read the following FAQ section to learn more about mediators.

What is a mediator?

A mediator is a trained professional who listens to both sides of a dispute and objectively works with both parties to resolve the issue.

Should I tell my neighbor ahead of time that I am planning to contact a mediator?

Probably not. Mediators are trained to talk to and convince warring parties to discuss their differences. Having the mediator contact your neighbor directly will show him that you are very serious about resolving the problem.

Is mediation expensive?

Not usually. Most cities provide free or low-cost mediation services to help neighbors resolve their problems.

Did You Know?

There are more than 550 mediation centers in the United States. They handle approximately 600,000 disputes a year. The American Bar Association reports that mediators are able to help neighbors solve their problems 90 percent of the time; 85 percent of these mediated agreements are still being honored 6 months later.

How do I find a mediation center?

Visit the National Association for Community Mediation's Web site for contact information of mediation centers in the United States and around the world. You can also look for local office in the Yellow Pages or contact religious organizations (especially the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) and the Mennonite Central Committee), state or local bar associations or government agencies that deal with consumer complaints.

Step 3: Call the Police or Local Authorities

If Steps 1 and 2 have not worked, your next step is to call the police or other local authorities (city hall, animal control office, department of streets and sanitation, department of zoning, department of health, etc.) depending on the type of problem.

So, whom do you call for each specific problem? The following list offers advice on who to call when you have reached your limit with the blaring music, barking dog, overhanging tree, refuse-filled backyard, and other joys of community living.

TIP: If you live in a condo, you will want to bring many of these issues-such as noise, property line, parking problems and property upkeep troubles-to the attention of your condo board or management company before you call police or the local authorities.

Who Should Homeowners Contact with a Problem?

IssueWho Do You Call?

Noise

Police

Barking dog

Police

Loose dog or other pet problems

Animal Control Department

Property line issues

City hall or other nonlaw enforcement authorities

Failure to take care of property lawn care, trees, garbage cleanup

City hall or other nonlaw enforcement authorities

Parking issues

Police, city hall or other nonlaw enforcement authorities

Trespassing

Police

Criminal activity

Police

Construction issues

City hall or other nonlaw enforcement authorities

Snow removal

City hall or other nonlaw enforcement authorities

TIP: Be sure to document the problem, so that the police or other authorities can see that this is a chronic problem and that you have attempted to address the issue on your own. If the problem is noise-related, try to call the police when the problem is actually occurring.

Step 4: Take Them to Court

If your neighbor is still noisy, dirty or otherwise unwilling to address the problem, you can sue her for creating a nuisance. If you go to small claims court, you will be able to seek monetary damages for the trouble your neighbor has caused you. But if you are interested in seeking a court order for the neighbor to stop the offensive activity, you will need to go to regular court.

Going to Court

What is a "nuisance"?

A nuisance occurs when someone does something or fails to do something that interferes with the use and enjoyment of your property. Examples of nuisances include letting garbage accumulate on neighboring property and being noisy during the early morning hours.

What is an "injunction"?

An injunction is an order issued by a court that either compels someone to do something ("mandatory injunction") or orders him to refrain from doing something ("negative injunction").

Types of InjunctionsWhen IssuedExample

Temporary Restraining Order ("TRO")

When immediate action is necessary, but before your case can go to trial

Your neighbor threatens to enter your property and cut down your trees. You file suit but seek a TRO in the interim.

Preliminary (Temporary) Injunction

After defendant has been given a chance to be heard

Your neighbor has received notice of your lawsuit and has filed his answer to your complaint. The court will issue a preliminary injunction until the end of the trial.

Permanent Injunction

After a full trial has been held

You won the case. The court issues a permanent injunction ordering your neighbor to not cut your trees.

How do I get an injunction?

The procedure for obtaining an injunction depends on where you live. Generally, it will involve filing papers with your local court and serving them on the defendant. Contact a local attorney or research your state's rules of civil procedure for specific instructions on obtaining an injunction.

Small Claims Court

If talking with your neighbor and even bringing the police or other authorities into the matter has not solved your problem, you have almost no recourse but to take your neighbor to small claims court to seek compensation. Before you head off to small claims court, make sure you have done everything you can to remedy the problem with your neighbor. Use the following checklist to help you determine if you have exhausted all other methods of conflict resolution:

Problem Resolution Checklist:

Have you:

  • talked to your neighbor about the problem?
  • talked to your landlord about the problem if you rent?
  • talked with your condo board or management company about the problem if you live in a condo?
  • researched local ordinances to see if your neighbor is in the wrong?
  • written and sent a letter to your neighbor as an additional attempt to resolve the problem?
  • documented all of these steps as a means to prepare for contacting authorities or suing your neighbor?
  • contacted a mediation center for help with the dispute?
  • called authorities for help with fixing the problem?

If you have answered "no" to any of these questions, you should try one or more of these solutions before going to court.

What can I sue my neighbor for in small claims court?

Basically, you can sue your neighbor for any nuisance that affects your ability to enjoy your life, home or property.

What do I need to prove to win my case?

You need to show that the problem is excessive and disturbing; that the person you are suing is responsible for the problem; that your enjoyment of your life, home or property is affected by the problem; and that you have asked the offending party to remedy the problem with no resolution.

Do I need a lawyer to go to small claims court?

No. Taking a case to small claims court is easy, and the average person will have no problem taking a case to court.

Is small claims court expensive?

No. Small claims court is set up to be a low-cost alternative to traditional courts, which often involve the use of a lawyer and higher legal costs.

How much will it cost to bring a small claims case to court?

Filing costs vary by state, but you can expect to spend approximately $15 to $30 to file your case.

If I win my case, will the judge make my neighbor stop the offensive activity?

No. If you win your case, you will be awarded a monetary sum that will compensate you for the problems caused by your neighbor. If you are seeking a court order to get your neighbor to stop her offensive activity, then you will need to go to a traditional court. On the other hand, the monetary settlement that your neighbor is required to pay by a small claims court may be just the inducement she needs to stop causing the problem.

How much money should I ask for in small claims court?

While the amount varies based on your level of suffering, most states restrict the amount of claim to between $2,000 and $5,000. Law experts suggest that you come up with a per-day rate that will compensate you for your suffering. You should then multiply this rate by the number of days you have been affected.

Is it true that small claims courts use mediation as a last ditch attempt to solve the problem?

Yes. Many courts ask the two parties to meet with a mediator before their case is heard in court. This often results in an out-of-court settlement or agreement. The judge will hear your case if you and your neighbor are unable to come to any sort of agreement.

What happens if I lose my case?

You may have to pay for the defendant's expenses and other fees. If your case is unjustified, the defendant may also sue you for malicious prosecution or abuse of process.

Checklist: What to Bring to Court

  • Copies of letters or other correspondence between you and your neighbor (or between you and your condo board or homeowner's association)
  • A written record of the problem and how you attempted to fix it (should include dates of when you talked to the neighbor, participated in mediation or contacted authorities)
  • A copy of the local ordinance that relates to the issue in question
  • Any neighbors who have complained about the problem and who are willing to serve as witnesses
  • A recording (noise) or videotape (trespassing, property line issues) to prove your case to the judge.

Sidebar: Written testimony is not usually admissible in small claims court.

Moving: What to Do If Nothing Works

One of the greatest lessons we can learn in life is that sometimes problems cannot be solved no matter how hard we try. If talking to your neighbor, seeking mediation, calling the police or local authorities, or even suing your neighbor has not helped, it may be time to move.

Ask yourself the following questions before you consider moving:

  • Am I sure that my neighbor is at fault?
  • Have I tried to talk with the neighbor about the problem?
  • Have I researched local ordinances and contacted my neighbor to inform him of the law?
  • If I live in a condo or planned community, have I talked to the condo board or the homeowner's association for help with the problem?
  • Have I sought mediation to solve the problem?
  • Have I contacted police or other local authorities for help with the problem?
  • Have I taken my neighbor to small claims court or regular court to address this problem?
  • Is the problem getting worse (e.g., louder noise, messier yard, continued trespassing or criminal activity)?
  • Has my neighbor retaliated against me in any manner (physical or verbal threats) because I have complained about the problem?

If you answered yes to these questions (especially 8 and 9), it might be time to consider moving away from the problem. While no move assures you of peace and harmony, moving away from your current problem after you have made every attempt to remedy it will probably improve your quality of life.

If you own a condo or house, your move will be as straightforward as listing your house for sale and shopping for a new place to live. But if you are renting, you may need to break your lease.

Can I break my lease to get away from a problem with a neighbor?

That depends on the type of agreement that you have with your landlord. If you have rented a property without a lease (known as a Tenant at Will), you can break the agreement at any time, as long as you provide your landlord with written notice. You will have a much more difficult time breaking a lease if you have signed a lease to rent a property for a specific amount of time. This agreement may not be broken by the landlord or tenant except under special circumstances.

So then, how can I break a lease?

You can break a lease if your landlord significantly violates its terms. Violations, in terms of tenant relation issues, might include a landlord failing to comply with laws that pertain to the health or safety of building tenants. Contact a lawyer or visit law resource sites online for more information on your specific situation.

What happens if I just break the lease?

You will be responsible for the remaining rent that is due, although most states require a landlord to find a new tenant and, when this occurs, not charge you for the remaining rent.