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Your Home: Real Estate

Pipe Down!

Where there are neighbors, there are sure to be complaints about noise, property lines, privacy - you name it. Here's how to make nice.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Shira Springer
April 6, 2008

BEFORE BETSY MEYER MOVED INTO A TRIPLE-DECKER ON A QUIET WEST Cambridge street six years ago, she knew there had been "some issues" between the previous owners and the neighbors. As the deal was being finalized, her attorney told her about a six-page document detailing how the area behind Meyer's home should be maintained, down to the number and type of plantings: A row of nine Canadian hemlocks at least 8 feet tall were to be planted at the back of the property by a certified landscaper; a kousa dogwood to be placed 2 feet from the south property line and 12 feet from the east property line; a sorrel tree and two honey locusts positioned nearby. If any doubt remained about the arrangement of trees, the paperwork filed with the Middlesex South District Registry of Deeds included an annotated map.

The plantings were intended as "visual screening" around a rear parking area controversially installed during a total rehab of Meyer's property in 1997. By the time Meyer moved to the neighborhood, she figured no ill will lingered. After less than a month at her new home, however, Meyer received a letter complaining that the plantings were not being properly maintained in accordance with the document instructions. It didn't take long for Meyer to inherit a neighbor problem.

Ah, neighbors. We all have them, and it seems everybody has a story or two or more about theirs. Since its creation last summer, the website RottenNeighbor.com has become a popular destination for anonymous postings about problem neighbors, averaging 1 million visits per day, according to San Diego-based founder Brant Walker. Stories run the gamut from allegations of drug dealing to a woman breeding chinchillas. "Having a bad neighbor is universal," says Walker, whose inspiration for the website came from a rotten odor emanating from his neighbors' apartment. "Not everyone is like you."

Differences in lifestyles and values usually trigger conflict between neighbors. Fears about a neighbor's behavior decreasing property value can exacerbate the situation. "You are sitting in the biggest investment you're ever going to make in your life, and you're looking out your window at somebody you can't stand," says real estate lawyer Bruce Embry of the Cambridge firm Clark, Hunt and Embry. "It's not like going to a store and buying a product. If you don't like it, you get a refund and go to a different store. You're going to see your neighbor every day."

So, what kind of neighbors can cause the thorniest problems, and what can you do about them?

THE NOISEMAKERS

As a lawyer who represents condo associations, Richard Brooks has heard it all, from the man who complained that thin walls made his neighbor's bathroom habits entirely too audible to the penthouse resident who hosted noisy sex parties. Brooks has even been the subject of a noise complaint. "My neighbor once made a comment about how she could hear my wife and I having sex," says Brooks of the Braintree-based law firm Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks. "Here I am, a condo lawyer and newly married, and my neighbor is making off-color remarks about our sex life . . . But that's life in a condominium and in a multifamily house. At some point, the level of noise will be loud enough that you can hear it."

With no shortage of amorous newlyweds, barking dogs, and rattling air conditioners, excessive noise ranks among the most common issues that arise between neighbors. Quieting the situation can prove tricky. Who is to blame for squeaky floorboards? When does the stereo-blasting teenager next door cross accepted boundaries? Boston's municipal code considers noise excessive if it's louder than 50 decibels between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and louder than 70 decibels at all other hours. Surrounding cities and towns have similar noise ordinances. If you suspect you're hearing excessive noise, and your neighbor ignores reasonable requests to quiet down, call the police. But unless noise disputes provoke criminal activity, law enforcement officials have limited options. When litigated, rarely does the complainant come away with much satisfaction.

In his 20 years as a property manager, Barrington Management president Nicholas Boit has seen only one noise complaint go to trial. A man sued his condo association because the floor above squeaked when his neighbors walked around. Boit estimates the lawsuit cost the plaintiff around $15,000 in legal fees. "The association wasn't doing anything wrong, and neither was the unit owner above," says Boit. "The judge looked at the person who brought the complaint and said, 'You, sir, either need to deal with it or move.' " He moved.

To avoid the cops or court, try talking with your neighbor about bothersome noise. There may be an easy solution - extra carpeting, piano practice limited to certain hours, outdoor parties moved inside after 11 p.m. If not, the noise-sensitive might be happiest living somewhere with large yards.

"If your concerns are so idiosyncratic, if you have sensitivities that are way outside the bell curve, then you shouldn't be living in a condominium," says Embry. "You need to go to a place that has 2-acre zoning and live in a house out there where whenever you see people, it's going to be your choice."

THE PROPERTY-LINE DEBATERS

All Maureen of Arlington wanted was a driveway big enough for two cars. Figuring that a larger parking area would improve her property value, she visited a town office to research the possibilities. A plot drawing she saw there appeared to indicate she owned an extra 10-foot-wide strip of land that had always been considered part of her neighbor Susan's yard. Knowing this additional space would permit the enlargement of her driveway, Maureen went about reclaiming the land. "To tell you the truth, I didn't want all of the land, just a little bit at the bottom where it would be helpful for another car," says Maureen. "Even to this moment, I never thought that Susan would be upset. I suppose that's being naive."

Maureen and Susan, who asked that their last names not be used, live in an Arlington neighborhood filled with 100-year-old homes and awkwardly shaped lots demarcated by stone walls and tree lines.

"Maureen told me what she wanted to do, and I was a little surprised," says Susan. "But once I pulled out my plot plan, once I had a look around the neighborhood at the natural features that were there, I said to myself, 'I'm prepared to argue this. There is no way someone can come 10 feet into my yard.' If I was not so confident of that, it would have continued to be amiable, though there would have been tension."

Maureen contacted several surveyors before she found one who would take the job, because the neighborhood is notoriously difficult to measure. When the stakes went down, the existing fence between the two properties was exactly where it should have been. Susan's property was, in fact, all hers. The matter was dropped.

Instinctively, Maureen and Susan took the right steps to avoid escalating tensions. First, Maureen informed Susan of her intentions well before surveyors showed up. Gail Packer, executive director of the Cambridge-based Community Dispute Settlement Center, notes that opening lines of communication is key in diffusing tension between neighbors. Anonymity can breed contempt, and preemptive moves can spur retaliation. Second, Maureen let the facts be the final arbiter.

THE PRIVACY INVADERS

And then there are boundary issues of a more disturbing kind. Next month, the case of the Commonwealth v. Michael Palermo is scheduled to be heard in Lowell Superior Court. According to a statement of the case submitted by the Middlesex district attorney's office, Palermo "began exposing himself to his female neighbor" in Tyngsborough in February 2006, masturbating in front of a window "in the hopes that she was watching and that excited him." The Tyngsborough police caught Palermo on video. Palermo told the police he "was not aware his behavior had alarmed" his neighbor, a single mother of two young children. But the woman found Palermo's behavior so disturbing that she asked her parents to come live with her. Palermo was charged with three felony counts of open and gross lewdness and misdemeanor counts of criminal harassment, indecent exposure, and accosting/annoying a person of the opposite sex. "Any time you're dealing with neighbors, there's always the expectation of privacy in your home," says Tyngsborough Deputy Police Chief Richard Burrows. "In this particular case, the window he was using for exposing faced the street, a public way. Not just the victim would see him, but potentially anybody on or near the street could see this going on."

The Palermo case represents the kind of problem where law enforcement and the courts can effectively intervene. Once a neighbor engages in alleged criminal activity, the judgment of a court usually offers the best remedy. The only other option may be learning about a problem neighbor before moving into a home or condo.

That is what motivated Walker to create RottenNeighbor.com, where complaints can be linked to addresses. While he faced a relatively minor neighbor issue, he hopes the website can become a resource for people relocating, not just a forum for venting frustrations with neighbors. "It could really be a useful tool for people who are moving and want to know what their neighbors are going to be like," says Walker.

THE HARASSERS

During a yearlong conflict with her upstairs neighbor, Karen dreaded returning home to the second-floor Ashland condo she shared with her husband and son. One day, Karen, who asked that her last name not be used, arrived to find the stairs to her unit blocked with wicker furniture from a common area. Karen claims her male neighbor on the third floor moved and dirtied the furniture to aggravate her. This time, Karen informed the police and provided them with a history of the conflict, because she "wanted this on record, in case something further happened."

If attempts at civilized conversation and compromise fail, then any documentation of escalating tensions can prove helpful, especially when one neighbor appears headed toward criminal conduct. As a paralegal, Karen knew that. She also understood the importance of remaining levelheaded, despite feeling intimidated and controlled by the man living upstairs.

The police visited the residence and ordered the upstairs neighbor to move the furniture into the basement. But Karen says the harassment continued. Guests for a 50th birthday party that Karen threw for her husband arrived to police cruisers in the driveway. Earlier that day, a locked back door led to a verbal confrontation between Karen's husband and the man upstairs. The man then called the cops, claiming Karen's husband had violated police instructions that the two sides not talk to each other.

Karen considered moving. Yet when a moving van pulled into the driveway on August 11, 2006, Karen was as surprised as anyone. The problem neighbor moved out before the end of the day, though he left behind a basement full of unwanted items. Karen's advice? "Don't move into a small condo association, because personalities get in the way."

As Newton District Court clerk magistrate for the past 37 years, Henry Shultz says he can predict what people will argue seconds into a case. He knows when one side has baited another into action. "If a person has a nasty, non-neighborly attitude, the courts, no matter what they do, cannot solve that," says Shultz. "Oftentimes, the person [being victimized] may have to move. They deserve to have peace of mind in their own home. You can't live every day and night worried something is going to happen."

THE APPEARANCE-CONSCIOUS

MIT professor Richard de Neufville and his wife live in half of a two-family home that Cambridge mail carriers refer to as "the crazy house." It certainly suffers from a split personality - one side a cheery yellow, the other a buttoned-down dark green. While passersby might do a double take, de Neufville sees the arrangement as perfectly logical.

"We could persuade ourselves that we could be nice to our neighbor and compromise, but, at the end of the day, why bother?" says de Neufville, who lives on the yellow side and first agreed to disagree with his neighbor about the exterior color 25 years ago. "People go about things differently. We said, 'Why not represent ourselves? We don't have to negotiate.' It's a happy coexistence. This is not a Palestinian wall. This is life in the big city. You have to live and let live. I'm not against, in principle, having the same color, but I don't think I have to make a special effort." Consider the current color scheme a potential neighbor dispute averted. Before a difference in taste escalated into a much larger issue, de Neufville and his neighbor determined color coordination wasn't worth a fight.

Successful arrangements between neighbors often come down to attitude and approach. But open-mindedness, clear communication, and flexibility can be hard to summon, whether differences of opinion involve aesthetics, additions, or etiquette. Neighbors who see only one solution, beware. Taking a hard line and reaching out to counsel can create bigger, ongoing problems. "The legal and the interpersonal have a way of entangling themselves," says Embry. "Even if you can settle somebody's dispute as a good lawyer, you can't necessarily bury the hatchet between the neighbors. If you've got to move your fence, and it's going to cost $15,000, who's going to be happy about that? You're going to have two unhappy neighbors for a while."

Meyer, the West Cambridge resident whose property required certain kinds of trees, diffused her situation by telling her neighbors about her love of gardening, convincing them she cared about what happened to the space surrounding the parking area. "Gardens just make people cheerful," says Meyer. Discussions about the landscaping took a less confrontational, more vibrant turn when Meyer added ferns, hosta, and Solomon's seal to the hemlock border. But today, the hemlocks are diseased, once again proving good relations between neighbors require constant upkeep.

Shira Springer is a Globe reporter who covers sports. E-mail her at springer@globe.com.

E-mail your worst neighbor stories to magazine@globe.com.

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