1. “Complaining will cost you.”
Falling out with your neighbors can mean more than just uncomfortable meetings in the hallway or front yard, added stress and sleepless nights. When Richard Laermer and his partner moved into a Manhattan co-op, his next-door neighbor invited them over to dinner. “We had a lovely wine-infused time,” recalls Laermer, a PR executive. But those good times didn’t last. A few short weeks after breaking bread, Laermer left a sticky note on the neighbor’s door asking if her kids could be quieter in the mornings. “Tone is impossible to convey,” he says. “She was sure I was yelling at her, but really I was explaining how connected our pads were.” The neighbor cut off all contact. After that, things got really bad.
As Laermer discovered, a bitter neighbor has the power to sue you over anything from a barking dog to street parking. When Laermer, for example, wanted to change the position of his apartment’s front door to create an alcove, his neighbor threatened to sue because it would infringe on her privacy. “It would have added $75,000 to the value of our home,” he says. After five years of the silent treatment, the couple moved in 2007 to friendlier climes in Connecticut, he says. “Try to build a good relationship with your neighbors, because friends usually don’t sue friends,” says Robert W. Zierman, a lawyer who practices boundary dispute law in Seattle.
Laermer is more careful these days. “I think the tough economy has made people keen not to ruffle feathers,” he says. Not everyone can afford to move. Around 10.7 million homeowners, or 22%, owed more on their mortgages than their home was worth in the third quarter of 2012, according to the latest figures from CoreLogic, a mortgage-data firm. That is down from around 23% in 2011. Laermer was the one that got away – by moving to a new neighborhood – but he has regrets. “My bad neighbors ruined decades of anonymous Manhattan dwelling fun. Apartment living will never be the life for me again.”
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2. “I will use your Wi-Fi — and might get you arrested.”
Nearly one-third of Americans admit to using their neighbor’s Internet service, nearly double the number from two years ago, according to a national survey by the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance. Such thieving can push your data usage above its monthly limit and increase your Wi-Fi bill, according to a spokeswoman for AT&T, who recommends that customers protect their Wi-Fi network with a password and change it regularly. Worse, there’s no controlling what Wi-Fi thieves do with your signal, and if what they’re doing is illegal, you could be in hot water.
Barry Covert, a lawyer based in Buffalo, N.Y., and recently represented two clients — one in Buffalo, N.Y. and one in Milford, Mass. — who he says had their wireless Internet hijacked by neighbors downloading child pornography. The clients are no longer facing charges: The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, issued an official apology in March to the family in Buffalo, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has since said that it believed the people in Milford were innocent. Neither case went to court, but if they had, Covert says, legal fees could have run to $100,000. To be sure, the more common result of Wi-Fi mooching is simply a slow Internet connection. But experts say it is so difficult for investigators to determine whether the person using a network is the account owner, almost anyone could wind up in legal trouble.
The solution: Secure your Wi-Fi, and change the password regularly. It isn’t fail-safe, but it sets up an obstacle, pros say, and that can be enough to encourage a thief to move on to the house down the block. “If you use technology, you need to know how it can be used against you,” Covert says.
3. “Good luck blocking out our din.”
The biggest complaint people have about their neighbors is noise, says Bob Borzotta, whose annual online poll at his website NeighborsFromHell.com has ranked it as No. 1 year after year. That includes barking dogs, loud music, car and house alarms and domestic arguments. And these aren’t the constant complaints of a neighborhood killjoy. “I know two people who ended up having intestinal surgery because of anxiety related to long-running disputes with neighbors over noise,” Borzotta says. Like Richard Laermer, he advises caution when complaining. “If you complain to the wrong person, a genuine neighbor from hell, he or she will make a point of making you miserable,” he says.
Lost sleep and noisy neighbors can mean hefty doctor’s bills to deal with anxiety and stress. People who suffer from psychological distress spend an average of $1,735 more on health care each year than lower-stress folks, according to a study published in 2011 by researchers at the Medical University at South Carolina. The bills for the house aren't much better: Soundproofing one wall between you and the noisy neighbor can run $200, and it is an extra $300 for the ceiling, says Ted White, president of the Michigan-based Soundproofing Co. The price of soundproof windows, meanwhile, ranges from $350 to $900 each, according to Reno, Nev.-based Soundproof Windows Inc.
4. “I’m a registered sex offender.”
For obvious reasons, this may be the last thing in the world your neighbor wants to mention. But the Sexual Offender Act of 1994, also called “Megan’s Law,” requires that people convicted of sex crimes notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment post-prison. That information is then made public, via the National Sex Offender Registry. And as would-be home buyers use these tools right along with Zillow to evaluate their future neighborhoods, the presence of a convicted sex-offender can hurt property values. One study by the researchers in Longwood College and Longwood University in Virginia said that registered sex offenders living nearby can reduce a home’s value by 9%, and homes near registered sex offenders can take more than 70% longer to sell.
5. “We’re ripping up the flower beds and planting corn.”
Forget Farmville. About 43 million Americans now grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries and herbs, according to a 2009 National Gardening Association report, up 19% over the previous year. But what’s good for the farmer isn’t necessarily so good for his neighbors. A Virginia Tech study from the same year suggested that landscaping and pristine lawns help increase property values by an average of 7.5%. A home valued at $150,000 with no landscaping could be worth $8,000 to $19,000 more with a sophisticated landscape with color and large plants, the study said: “Relatively large landscape expenditures significantly increase perceived home value and will result in a higher selling price than homes with a minimal landscape.”
At least if your neighbor decides to plow her garden, perhaps she’ll share the harvest. Cat Rocketship, 29, an artist, ripped up her lawn when she moved to a settled neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa. She planted soy beans, corn, squash, tomatoes and peppers. It raised eyebrows with her older neighbor. But now, she says, “we’re feeding at least two families with the vegetables we’re growing,” and her neighbor has become accustomed to her more offbeat ways. If you’re undertaking any major renovations in a neighborhood, she says, it helps to be friendly. She even brews beer in her garage these day, in full view of her neighbor.
6. “My bed bugs need neighbors too.”
Friendly neighbors sometimes bring other unwanted guests. It only takes one embarrassed and silent neighbor with a mattress full of bed bugs to infect an entire apartment building. In one recent study, the arrival of a single suspected bedbug resulted in infestation in 45% of the apartments in a 233-unit building within three years. Getting rid of the pests is hard — it may take several cycles of extreme extermination, and around $550 for a typical one-bedroom apartment, according to San Francisco-based exterminator Dan Fitzsimmons.
In some cases, landlords have to tell new tenants about infestations. New York, which has suffered from a rise in bed bugs infestations in recent years, requires it by law. But neighbors can keep their own bed bug problems to themselves, and if the critters creep from their apartment to yours, it isn’t always clear who’s on the hook. In some cases, the landlord will cover the costs; in others, it is the tenant’s responsibility. The only thing would-be tenants can look for, beyond asking the landlord, is obvious signs of filth: The more unhygienic the neighbor, the greater the odds of an infestation.
7. “I’m secretly stealing your land.”
Few homeowners have heard of “adverse possession,” but it is the legal grounds on which a neighbor can claim rights to your land. Say a neighbor moves a fence or wall, or plants trees or a bush. If he encroaches on your property, and no one notices, he can claim “continuous, exclusive, open and notorious” use of that land — and if he’s able to do so for an average of 10 years in most states, he may be able to claim ownership. This could potentially add to the value of his property while reducing the value of yours.
Indeed, most people don’t check their land boundaries until it is too late, says Zierman, the property lawyer. “You may not want to make a fuss, because you’re neighbors,” he says. But securing the boundaries before it becomes a real issue — you’re selling your house, or your neighbor is — is important. Fighting to get the land back can cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In friendlier disputes, a land survey can cost up to $1,000 or less if split between two neighbors, experts say —much less than the cost of a lawsuit.
8. “Our bad behavior will give the whole block a bad name.”
When Ariel Stallings moved into her first home in a quiet suburb of Seattle, she thought she would be the one who would make neighborhood curtains twitch, considering her rainbow-colored dreadlocks. But the real troublemakers, it turned out, lived in the house across the street. “It soon became obvious they were selling drugs,” says Stallings. Eventually, the police raided the house and dealt with the problem.
Not everyone is so lucky. Those living near lawbreaking (or even just bothersome) neighbors may feel like they have little choice but to pony up for a costly home security system. Fences, stronger gates and a top-of-the-range security system with multiple cameras and window-and-door sensors can cost up to $10,000 for a large house, says Bob Tucker, a spokesman for Florida-based ADT Security Services.
9. “We’re not paying our mortgage.”
When your neighbors can’t keep up with their house payments, it can spell trouble for the entire neighborhood. Foreclosed homes not only are more likely to fall into disrepair but also might reduce the value of nearby homes. On average, home property values drop nearly 1% when they’re within one-eighth of a mile from a foreclosed single-family residence, according to the Woodstock Institute, a research group, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Foreclosures are falling over the long-term, but experts say many are still caught up in the legal system. Foreclosure rates rose 10% in February from the month prior, according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac, though that was still down nearly 25% from the year before. “Foreclosures have been contained as a threat to the housing market, but there’re still hot spots in the foreclosure market in different states that need to be stamped out,” Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac, said in a statement. Including February, Florida has had the highest foreclosure rate for the sixth consecutive month, he says.
10. “You’re moving? I’ll cut $20,000 off your sale price.”
Those casual over-the-fence conversations about your flooded basement or the incipient kudzu problem could end up costing you when it is time to sell. Real estate agents often advise home buyers to find out what the neighbors think about a property. “I do encourage any buyer to drive around the neighborhood and, if they see a neighbor out front, to stop and talk,” says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, a broker with Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Coldwell Banker AJS Schmidt Realtors. We’ve gotten some really cool information from people that way.”
Some agents will do their own investigations. Robert Earl, founder of The Earl of Real Estate, an agency based in Reston, Va., says he’s one of many agents who check with local busybodies when representing a buyer. Earl says a buyer’s knowledge of a “distressed sale” or divorce could knock 5% off the sale price — that is $20,000 off the average sale price in Northern Virginia. Neighbors have told him about flood damage on a property he was looking at on behalf of a client, and “sure enough, we saw evidence of water damage hidden away.” The lesson? Be careful how close you get to your neighbor.
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