In a perfect world, your neighbors are there for you when you’re running low on sugar or milk, or need someone to stop by and feed your cat while you’re away for the weekend. But the world isn't always perfect, and some neighbors can be a great source of strife and anxiety.
In my nearly 30 years of living in New York City, I’ve dealt with rowdy frat bros next door, an upstairs neighbor whose dog developed a habit of barking until 2:30 a.m., only to start again four hours later, and a woman who lived down the hall from me who let her dog roam free in the hallway and use it as a wee wee pad.
By NYC standards, I’m actually pretty lucky. I have friends who have gotten into screaming matches with neighbors, and others who have very nearly had to resort to legal action after months of bad behavior.
We consulted with two lawyers, Walter S. Jennings and Alan J. Goldberg, who have a wealth of experience with landlord and tenant issues, and Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist who is a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate, on how to deal with the problem next door.
Assess: Is it worth making a big issue out of?
Is your gripe with your neighbor something that’s actually impacting your quality of life, or is it just a nuisance? You may not like that the woman in the apartment next to yours is a bit over-zealous with the garlic when she cooks, but chances are her culinary choices aren't negatively impacting you in any way. If she’s a frequent smoker and the smell permeates your apartment, however, that could be cause for legitimate concern.
“In New York City the most common dispute I see as a landlord-tenant attorney among neighbors is noise complaints. Second to that is neighbors who are dealing with secondhand smoke issues,” Jennings says. “For apartment owners and renters, disputes that warrant legal action against their neighbors include; noise disturbances, illegal activity, pet problems, secondhand smoke, and water leaks.”
Do your best to resolve the issue person-to-person
If you’re somewhat friendly with your neighbor and feel comfortable approaching her with an issue, sometimes a simple conversation can do the trick. Remember the barking dog I mentioned? When I saw his owner in the elevator one day I casually informed her his late-night/early morning barking was keeping me awake and she apologized profusely. The following night I slept like a baby.
Goldberg says, “We always tell tenants to never confront your neighbors,” however, there are certain instances, like the one I mentioned, where a polite exchange can solve the problem quickly and easily.
Saladino says how you approach an issue can make all the difference. “Choose your timing wisely," she says. "It is important that you approach them when you are in a clear state of mind so you can communicate effectively. If the person feels attacked, they likely get defensive automatically, which rarely accomplishes anything. You want to be strong and clear in your request without being aggressive. Remember, there is a difference between expressing your anger and creating effective change."
Try to prevent the situation from escalating
Even if a conversation doesn't accomplish anything, there are still tactics to try before resorting to legal action, which Jennings calls “the last resort.” He suggests you "offer to your neighbor the idea of hiring a mediator." As he sees it, "mediation is affordable and can help create resolution and keep issues outside of the court system." Hiring a mediator does usually cost less than a lawyer's hourly fees.
For more information on mediation, including how to find a mediator who suits your needs, click here.
Saladino offers a similar tip. "Try to approach the situation before too much resentment builds," she says. "Often we brush things under the rug and then have an even harder time communicating our request in a calm manner."
She adds, "It's also helpful to show some understanding of the neighbor's concerns. Remember, they believe they are 'in the right' as well. Some neighbors are unaware that what they are doing is upsetting you, so telling them before too much time goes by can alleviate the problem quickly."
Involve your landlord or building management company if needed
I have friends in Murray Hill with 20-something neighbors who love to party until the wee hours of the night and often trash the hallway in the process. After months of back and forth with little progress, they decided to get management involved.
"You have recourse," Goldberg says of disputes amongst neighbors. "If you’re a rental tenant, it’s your landlord’s obligation to ensure your warranty of habitability and your quiet enjoyment of your apartment. That means you have the right to complain to your landlord, and the landlord is the one who is supposed to take action."
Still, just because a landlord is supposed to do something doesn't mean he or she will.
"If the landlord doesn't take the appropriate action, you have recourse available to you to withhold rent, or to actually bring injunctive proceedings against both the landlord and the offending tenant," Goldberg says.
As Jennings sees it, involving building management or a landlord could help defuse a tense situation. "They typically have seen all types of disputes and should be adept at finding a resolution," he says. "From my 40 years of experience in this area, most management companies have attorneys either in-house or on retainer that assist them with resolving the dispute."
When my neighbor’s dog was treating our carpeted hallway like a fire hydrant, for example, it took two calls to management to resolve the issue.
Approach it differently depending on where you live
Goldberg cautions that condominiums are very different with regards to residents' rights. "In condominium situations, you have to go into court against the actual neighbors themselves," he says, "whereas in a co-op or a rental situation you just proceed against the board or the landlord and it’s their responsibility to take action."
And what about co-ops? “The co-op board has substantial power to resolve disputes. Under most co-op lease agreements, the board can bring eviction proceedings against [those] it deems undesirable,” Jennings explains. “The label ‘undesirable’ can stem from neighbors not being very neighborly and causing disturbance among the community.”
Decide if legal action is warranted
If talking the issue out and involving your landlord prove to be fruitless efforts, legal action may be your best bet for getting an issue resolved.
Though we mentioned above that consulting legal counsel should be a last resort, Goldberg points out that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. “Legal action can sometimes be a first resort because of the fact that people are very sensitive about complaints from their neighbors,” he says. “Sometimes the best way to work these things out is by going into court or putting it into an administrative type of proceeding.”
Noise complaints, for example, might easily be solved by initiating legal proceedings because most people would rather turn down their music or end the party a bit earlier than head to court for what could be a long, drawn-out fight.
Documentation is key
If you feel like a trip to court might be in your future, Goldberg advises documenting anything and everything you can. In instances of a noise complaint, which is one of the most common points of contention among neighbors, he says it’s “very, very important” to document all of the noise you hear. Recording the noise is even better, and should be done whenever possible, says Goldberg.
“You have to keep a log of the noise,” he says. “And if you can record it, it’s very important to record it.”
Though it might be tempting at times, retaliation is one thing Goldberg does not recommend, particularly as it pertains to a noise complaint. “If you’re under somebody making noise, never bang up on the ceiling,” he says. That in itself can be deemed harassment and lead to an arrest.
Saladino warns against "tempting" passive-aggressive gestures, as well. "When things become tit for tat your living situation can really become unhappy,” she says, adding that "name calling or attacking the person's character" should also be off-limits.
“This usually escalates things immediately and really makes things worse,” she says.