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Neighbors behaving badly
Bloody Santas, barking dogs, unruly trees -- what you can do when bad neighbors make your life hell.
December 19, 2005: 9:22 AM EST
By Grace Wong, staff writer
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Have you ever had a neighbor who has made your life hell?

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NEW YORK ( - The holiday season is shaping up to be a time to loathe rather than love your neighbor.

In protest of the commercialization of the holiday season, a resident in Manhattan is displaying a bloody Santa that has his neighbors in an uproar. A man in Florida also angered homeowners earlier this month by hanging a blindfolded Santa by a noose from a tree in his yard.

Gory Santa displays are merely the holiday variation of a year-round headache: neighbors from hell.

"Neighbor disputes are a perennial problem," said Bob Borzotta, who created, a Web site devoted to managing neighbor conflict.

Arguments come in all shapes and forms, but noise, unruly trees, fences and other boundary disputes top the list, experts said.

While there aren't statistics specific to the rise in number of neighbor disputes, police reports show a rise in police calls by people making non-emergency complaints from their homes, usually about neighbors, according to Borzotta, who is also working on a book about neighbor disputes.

Some Web sites and blogs are even devoted to sharing horror stories. (Check out some bad neighbor tales at, and Why I hate my Neighbor.) invited readers to share stories about their worst neighbor experiences.

One reader wrote about a nosy neighbor rooting through his garbage while another shared a story about a neighbor whose child would run through the neighborhood shrieking obscenities.

After dealing with two problematic neighbors, one reader said: "I never believed in the existence of hell. Today, I am amongst the firmest of believers!"

Ah, so much for neighborly love.

Talk it out

In cases like the bloody Santa display, neighbors don't have much recourse, according to Sam Tamkin, a real estate lawyer and co-author of the Ask a Real Estate Expert syndicated column.

Most experts advise beginning by reasoning with your neighbor. If that doesn't work, mediation is the next best option.

Several non-profit organizations offer mediation services for free or for a small charge. Private services will run you a couple hundred of dollars for a half-day session.

"Most people just don't know how to talk to their neighbor," said Betsy Coddington, executive director of Resolutions Northwest, a community mediation center in Portland, Oregon. "Mediation allows people to confront each other in a safe environment with a third party facilitator."

Caroline Harmon, executive director of Baltimore-based Community Mediation Program, Inc., said about two-thirds of the cases that come to her organization are related to neighbor disputes.

She described a recent case where two neighbors were arguing over street parking on their block. They were both also upset when the other neighbor's children played in the alleyway separating their houses and would yell at them.

They began the mediation process by venting about their problems, Harmon said. Then they worked on brainstorming solutions and left with a written agreement about how they would share parking. As part of the resolution, one woman even offered to watch her neighbor's child while she worked an evening job.

The National Association for Community Mediation has more than 200 centers nationwide with mediators trained in neighbor disputes. You can search its directory for one near you by clicking here.

Legal matters

If mediation isn't an option, consider other alternatives. For instance, in noise disputes, it's usually effective to take up the case with your condo or homeowner's association, according to Tamkin.

If that doesn't resolve the problem, you can also sue, though that is typically not the best course of action, experts said.

"Going to court means you've lost the battle. It's the last step and the most expensive," said Victor Merullo, an attorney who specializes in tree and neighbor law.

An average case court case will cost a hefty $10,000, and if your case isn't worth at least $50,000 -- and some tree damages can get this high -- then suing isn't really worth it, he said.

According to Merullo, if your neighbor's tree is uprooting your driveway, you have the right to trim those roots up to the boundary of your property in most cases.

But you have to act within reason and with necessity. Cutting the roots because they impact your driveway is one thing. Cutting the roots when they don't affect the use of your own property is another matter. Basically, you can do whatever is reasonable without killing the tree, Merullo said.

Going to small claims court is an alternative legal avenue that's cheaper. Costs are usually lower since you can represent yourself, but damages are capped, usually between $3,000 and $7,500.

Also, a judge isn't likely to look positively on your case if you burden the court with a trivial matter, said Andrew Glasgow, an attorney at AAI Law Firm PC.

"I can't tell you the number of times I get a call from someone who wants to sue because their neighbor came over and cut six branches off a tree," said Lew Bloch, a registered consulting arborist.

If you've got a neighbor from hell, you can either learn to live with it, face it or move away, said Borzotta.

"One of the most disturbing things is that the bad guys usually win and are more likely to outstay good neighbors," he said.


Would your family like to purchase a big-ticket item this year -- a big screen TV, a new car? Have you not gotten around to choosing a guardian for your kids? Do you need help getting out of debt? If you live in the New York metro area and would like advice from MONEY Magazine on these issues and are willing to appear on TV, please contact Phil DiIanni at  Top of page

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