How to Avoid and Live With Neighbor Nightmares

<p><span>Scope out potential problems before you buy and deal with disputes.<o:p></o:p></span></p>

U.S. News & World Report

How to Avoid and Live With Neighbor Nightmares

A referee between two arguing neighbors.(Getty Images)

When Mike Scanlin and his wife moved into an expensive ground-floor condominium within a four-story building in a posh part of Los Angeles 18 months ago, the real estate agent assured him that there were no noise nuisances, like loud dogs or kids.

It did seem that way at first, but as Scanlin discovered, "There is a 9-year-old boy's bedroom directly above our bedroom. He is, like most 9-year-olds, hyperactive."

Especially in the morning, and the evening, Scanlin says, when the boy "runs, jumps, screams and makes tons of noise."

Scanlin has talked to the boy's mother to no avail. An entrepreneur who works from home, Scanlin also sent building managers complaint letters, who in turn, sent letters to the mom.

"Nothing has worked. It's getting worse," Scanlin says. "Sometimes the kid gets up at 3 a.m. and rearranges the furniture in his room, with wood scraping on wood, directly above our bed."

Scanlin and his wife are moving out next month. They aren't willing to wait around until the kid grows up or hopefully grows out of his behavior.

They say you can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends and neighbors. Easier said than done, when it comes to housing. It isn't easy to move, and for some homeowners, financially speaking, once you do plant your roots, you may not be in any position to go elsewhere. That's why, if you're buying a home, it's critical to have some sense of who's living next door – or above you. Neighbors are important for renters to consider, too, especially if you're locking yourself in with a lease.

So before you buy or rent, ask yourself the following questions. Because if the answers aren't promising, you may like the solutions at your disposal even less.

Have I only examined my property? You can't go into other people's homes, of course, and you don't need to. But is there anything you're seeing or hearing that you find a bit annoying? That could be a red flag, says Rachel Stephens, a marketing assistant in Celina, Ohio.

She lived in an apartment with upstairs tenants who were extremely loud. "We could sometimes hear entire conversations and it was like an earthquake every time they went up or down the stairs," Stephens says.

Looking back on it, Stephens realizes she had heard the tenants when looking at the home and should have picked up on the fact that her upstairs neighbors smoked. The windows were open, and it was a chilly on the day Stephens looked at the place.

"We actually inquired if there was a smoke smell," she says. "The landlord said that he did not know of one and that it should not be an issue. We should have followed our instincts."

But what Stephens says about sound should resonate with everyone. "If you notice [an annoying] sound at all when visiting the home initially, it will be magnified when you live there," she says.

Am I buying a home next to renters? Allison Hester, editor-in-chief of eClean, an online resource for professional cleaners, says she and her husband bought their first home about 16 years ago, "and it was a nightmare, mostly due to the neighbors."

They purchased a cute little rock bungalow with a huge, double-arched covered porch with a swing. "It was the nicest house on the street," says Hester, who lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

But their house was between two rentals. "Over the two years we were there, we probably had 10 neighbors between the two houses," she says.

Hester's neighbors included a couple that liked to drink and yell at each other in the middle of the night.

"One night, after a fight, the drunk husband decided to sit on his front porch at 2 a.m. with a boom box and sing sad country songs at the top of his lungs," Hester says, adding, "Yes, we called the cops."

But the worst was the family with four foul-mouthed kids that dealt meth, Hester says.

Sure, that rental property next to you may have the salt of the earth living there, but there's bound to be turnover, and just as nobody washes a rented car, no tenant will take care of a rental property the way you will with your own.

Have I canvassed the neighborhood? You should. Ask neighbors about the area. (There's no need to tell them you're trying to size them up as well.) Still, even if you can't tell if your neighbors are going to be nice or a nuisance, you may pick up important information about the neighborhood.

Try to talk to the current tenants or people selling your home about the neighborhood. Granted, it's not always feasible (and home sellers will focus on the positives and be reluctant to volunteer that a neighbor is a jerk), but if you can talk, you may pick up some valuable intel. Brian Scios, who works for the Child Domestic Violence Association in New York City, says before he moved into his apartment, he asked the current tenants about the noise.

"They looked at me wide-eyed and mentioned how the guy [next door] was very loud and they had to talk to him a few times," says Scios, who ended up renting the place and, sure enough, has had to talk to his neighbor a few times about the noise. But because he went in knowing what he was in for, and likes his home, he has no regrets.

Scios also advises checking out your prospective home during the day – and night – to really get a sense of what the place is like.

What to do if there are problems. Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do, realistically, which is why it's so important to try and assess the neighbor situation before moving in. When you do have a dispute, "these are always difficult situations, without easy legal answers," says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School.

"When you escalate by calling the police or filing a lawsuit, you risk developing a Hatfield and McCoys scenario with nobody getting what they want," Reiss says. "It's also important to remember that what you think to be utterly reasonable may not be perceived that way by your neighbor or even by disinterested third parties. What is loud music to you may just be a run-of-the-mill Saturday night party to them."

True enough, and your neighbors have rights, too – which is, again, why it can be difficult to work out a disagreement.

If you can't resolve problems with your neighbors, Reiss says, "you can try to determine whether your neighbor is breaking any local ordinances. For instance, loud noise."

You may want to involve the police and see if they will deal with the problem informally, Reiss adds. "They may or may not," he says.

You probably won't be going to small claims court, unless you or your neighbor has a problem that involves money, like a problem with boundary lines and easements, says Zachary Schorr, a real estate attorney at Schorr Law, APC, based in Los Angeles.

"Most small claims courts do not have the jurisdiction or power to provide injunctive relief – an order from the court prohibiting certain activity," he says.

In any case, avoid court if you can, Schorr says; many cities offer free neighborhood mediation services between neighbors.

"But when all other methods fail, lawsuits are necessary," Schorr says. "There are difficult people in the world, and sometimes they wind up being your neighbor."

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