How to deal with the neighbour from hell
Disputes with neighbours often hit the headlines, particularly once the lawyers are called in. Only recently, Steven and Fiona Young from Blawith in the Lake District faced a £600,000 bill after carrying out a nuisance campaign against their neighbours who'd bought the farm next door as a second home. The court found that the damage the couple had caused had devalued the house.
One in 10 UK homeowners have claimed or will need to claim on their home insurance because of their neighbours, according to recent research by MoneySuperMarket.com, adding £50 a year to the average annual home insurance premium.
Common complaints involve noise from music, DIY, vehicles, noisy hobbies and general living noise, which because of the volume or the time of day disturb the neighbours. Other issues can be problems with parking, shared access, overhanging trees and plants and children's behaviour - kids playing outside late at night, for instance.
So if your neighbour is partying until 4am or their leylandii is leaving your garden in the dark, here are a few tips on tackling the problem.
Talk it through
The first step in dealing with an issue with neighbours is to have a quiet word with them. You may feel awkward about approaching them but it's the best way to come to an amicable resolution of your problem.
If noisy neighbours are spoiling your time at home, confronting them while they are making the noise can be counterproductive. You need to bide your time and have a friendly chat about the problem when you next see them.
Paula Higgins, chief executive of the HomeownersAlliance, says: "Surprisingly often, neighbours don't even realise their actions are bothering you. Time your chat carefully. You might be better to catch them over the garden fence, instead of awkwardly knocking on their door. Remaining calm and reasonable gets better results than being confrontational.
"If it is to do with noise, you can get the council involved. But be aware your complaint will go on record and may make it harder to sell your house."
Write a letter
If a friendly chat doesn't work, then send your neighbour a polite letter explaining what the problem is and suggesting a possible way to resolve it. Try to look forward to how things can work out in the future rather than problems. Make a note in conversations and keep copies of all correspondence – you will need to show that you have done all you can to settle the dispute yourself before you involve third parties such as the council.
However, sometimes writing a letter can result in the problem escalating. Mel and Simon Fowler* used to get on very well with their neighbours, Joy and David Harrison* – their five-year-old daughters often played together. But all this changed when the Harrisons bought two kittens.
The couple didn't bother with a litter tray, and the cats regularly fouled the Fowlers' back garden.
"It got so bad that we just couldn't step out into the garden, and there was no way that Mya could play out there," says Mel. "It was probably a mistake but we didn't feel comfortable speaking to Joy and David about the problem, so we wrote a polite letter asking them to buy a litter tray.
"They ignored it and after we sent a second letter they wrote to say that if we contacted them again, they would report us to the police for harassment.
"Eventually, the problem resolved itself as the kittens went missing – nothing to do with us! – but the frosty atmosphere between us was one of the main reasons why we moved house a year later," adds Mel.
If communication has broken down, it's a good idea to involve an impartial third party. Someone who is removed from your situation will work with both sides and help come up with a plan for how to live alongside each other. Mediation is voluntary, and the cost – often in the region of £500 – is split between the two parties.
Mike Talbot, managing director of UK Mediation, says the reasons things go wrong is that people often raise issues in the wrong way. "They tend to be attacking in the way they approach the problem. Or if they do raise it, they are either ignored or get an aggressive response. The problem is once people take up positions with their issue with their neighbours, it's very hard to get back from that."
"Quite often in disputes there has either been a bad history between the two sides because of an incident in the past or sometimes there may have been a friendship between them that has been spoiled and it can feel awkward for both sides to talk about that, so part of the mediator's job is to set up the right conditions by being neutral and working privately with each side to try to remove any barriers to discussing what needs to happen from now on," says Talbot.
"Confidentiality is important and there's usually more to the dispute than meets the eye. If it's a housing officer or someone from the local authority who is speaking to the parties, they are more tightlipped than if it's an independent mediator," Talbot adds.
If your dispute is property-related, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Dispute Resolution Service (RICS DRS) aims to resolve issues between neighbours over boundaries, hedges, right to light, parking and access, possession and title. However, the service is not cheap – between £1,800 and £2,640 – which will be divided between the two parties.
"Perhaps two neighbours need someone who is qualified and independent to provide an answer to a technical question such as ‘where is the boundary between our properties?'. The surveyor will provide a neutral, non-binding, answer to the question. The intention is to help the parties reach an informed and amicable resolution," explains Martin Burns, director of RICS DRS.
"My advice is to keep talking, try to avoid getting entrenched and bring in the lawyers only as a last resort. Getting an independent surveyor to act as an intermediary is perhaps money well spent if it resolves a dispute without the need for court action, which can cost thousands of pounds."
RICS operates a disputes helpline (020 7334 3806), which provides 30 minutes' free advice from a chartered surveyor.
Some councils and housing associations offer a free mediation service. If that fails, the council may be able to use anti-social behaviour legislation to get that tree cut back or to make sure the neighbours don't play music in the middle of the night.
If you need a private mediator, the Ministry of Justice has an online directory (civilmediation.justice.gov.uk) of mediators, with fees starting at £60 an hour for cases where you are claiming £5,000 or less.
Citizens Advice Bureau (citizensadvice.org.uk) can help with neighbour disputes, although whether and how much it gets involved depends on the issue and individual's circumstances. For its online guide to neighbour disputes, visit adviceguide.org.uk.
Hiring a lawyer
Although suing your neighbour should be avoided, it's worth checking your home insurance policy if you do have to. If you've paid extra for legal expenses insurance, this should cover you for some neighbour disputes - over boundaries, for instance. Sometimes a solicitor's letter is all that is needed to jolt your neighbours into action.
Amy Johnston, a consumer disputes solicitor at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, says: "If you've spoken to your neighbours and the problem persists, I would recommend consulting a lawyer who can advise on whether you have a case and what other evidence you may need to support it. It is sensible to get advice early on, so you can act appropriately and stop matters escalating."
But she stresses that court action should be viewed as a last resort."Neighbours are expected to make significant efforts to resolve disputes without court intervention. Court proceedings are stressful, so we try to guide them through the procedure and offer alternative ways to handle the dispute via negotiation and sometimes mediation. Ultimately, clients have the decision about whether to take the case to court."