Solving Disputes with Your Neighbors
There are all types of problems that may arise between neighbors. Some of the most common are noise, property boundaries, fences, trees, or blighted property.
You can solve many of the problems by following a step-by-step plan. Note that going to court is a last resort after you have collected data and tried to resolve the problem in other ways.
Step 1: Get to Know Your Neighbor
One often over-looked strategy is to get to know your neighbor, if you are not already on good terms. Even if a problem has occurred, try to get to know your neighbor before making the complaint. Introduce yourself. Talk about general issues of interest. A few weeks later, raise your complaint.
Step 2: Start a Log to Track the Problem
If the problem is one that reoccurs, (like late-night noise) start a tracking log. Write down the date, what occurs and any other observations that may be helpful. You may find that the problem is not as frequent as you thought. In any event, a clear log will help document your case for the police or the courts, if it gets that far. It will also help you talk to your neighbor.
Step 3: Discuss it With Your Neighbor
Talking to your neighbor in a pleasant way may be all that is needed to work out a mutually acceptable solution. Remember yelling is unlikely to persuade the other person. Also remember that the person may not acknowledge your point right away, but may change their behavior or address the problem later (once they have thought it over).
Tips on Talking
- Assume the other person is unaware of the problem, or at least act like it!
- Be open and pleasant.
- Use phrases like "How do you suggest we approach this?" or "I thought you might not know about… ."
- Propose a solution - offer help or split costs, if you can.
- No matter how negative the response is, end the conversation by leaving the door open to a positive solution. "Think it over. I'd like to try and work it all out." You will lose nothing by being pleasant.
You do not have to believe they will be reasonable but you have left an atmosphere that may allow your neighbor to have a change of heart later.
Step 4: Put it in Writing
When talking does not work, you may find that a clear written description of the problem and a proposed solution may persuade your neighbor. If you believe s/he has violated a law or local ordinance, include a copy of that law or ordinance. Your neighbor may find that reading the actual law persuades them in a way that your verbal complaint did not. Send a copy of the letter to your local councilperson or similar political representative. You can find out who your representative is by visiting the Maryland state website and selecting your city or county from the list. Your local government homepage will often provide a link to the city council website. You may also want to contact your local community group or police liaison. Many neighborhood citizens' councils can be found online, and your local police station can provide you with the name of the officer who serves as your community liaison.
See the attached files below for examples of a good letter and a bad letter.
Step 5: Talk to Other Neighbors
If the problem is bothering you, it may be an issue for others. If it is a mutual problem, consider a joint letter. Remember a civil tone is still critical but a group approach can be particularly effective.
There may be one neighbor who has a close relationship with the person causing the problem. S/he may be willing to talk on behalf of the group to the difficult neighbor.
If you have not tried seeking assistance from your councilperson, police community liaison or a neighborhood civic group, you may want to consider it. Step Four provides information on ways you may be able to contact them.
Step 6: Try Mediation
Mediation is less formal and likely to be cheaper than going to court. In addition, the chance to have a neutral third party sort out what are often multiple issues can help the overall situation.
You can find out more about mediation or find a community mediation center or an individual mediator.
Step 7: Call the Police
Calling the police should be done after considering the possible outcomes. The police are most likely to be able to help if the other party has violated a local ordinance or state law with criminal penalties. For example, the police can help with excessive noise but are unlikely to be able to do much about a dangerous tree limb. If you have a log of dates and times the problem has occurred or a joint letter from other neighbors, show these to the police. The police meet all sorts of people when called out to help with neighborhood disputed. A reasonable documented approach will set you apart from others. Remember many police officers have some training in mediation but their skills and interest in solving neighborhood disputes will vary.
Step 8: Get Help From a Lawyer
Talking to an attorney can help you sort out next steps and the costs/benefits of various options. One possibility is asking an attorney to write a letter on your behalf explaining the law, the proposed solution and raising the possibility of a lawsuit. Remember a lawsuit may not be the perfect answer (you may not win) and remain as cordial as possible with your neighbor.
Step 9: Consider Small Claims Court
Going to court can be upsetting for both sides. An attorney can help you sort out the issues even if s/he does not represent you. However, you do not need an attorney to go to small claims court in Maryland. Make sure you come up with a justifiable and reasonable estimate of your damages. Be prepared to show how you arrived at the figure. The maximum you can sue for in small claims court is $5000. Also plan how you will present your story. Avoid exaggeration or making inflammatory statements. Remember you will still live near the person you are suing.
Step 10: Following Up on a Court Decision
Even if you win in court, a victory may not solve your problem. If you won damages, you will need to collect the money due to you. Before you leave, talk to the clerk at the court about the next step. Even if the problem continues, you will also find that the police are likely to take your complaints seriously if you have a court decision on your side.
Win or lose, you will still live near your neighbor. Try to work out the best relationship you can after the lawsuit is over.