The Golden Rule of Good Neighbors

My husband and I were recently considering buying a new home. After a bit of browsing, it occurred to me that no matter what country you're in, how wonderful the property, how perfect the price, and how desirable the location, there lies one big unknown factor that can turn your good fortune into a fiasco-good neighbors.

The exercise that we all go through is to try to determine whether our dream home has reasonable neighbors before we sign on the dotted line. You probably were clever enough to check for barking dogs, crowing roosters, or a neighborhood fire station. Don't forget to scan for a mosque's towering minaret from which the call to prayer emanates five times a day - 24 hours a day! That's what I just had to do, in case you were wondering where that came from!

You may even want to check the local crime database to make sure your neighbors are not convicted criminals or sex offenders. While you're at it, confirm that your prospective neighbors respect your property line, parking their cars closer to their front door than to your's, don't play basketball in your driveway, don't let their dog relieve itself in your yard, don't leave six years of baby toys outside their garage door all year long, or deposit their smelly garbage cans near your windows.

But alas, no matter how vigilant you are, your nice neighbors can always move, and turn the keys over to the Loud family with their three beloved German Shepherds. We recently had an incident with our own neighbors. Six years after buying our home which we had thoroughly researched at the time of the purchase, we woke to find two peacocks strutting through our back yard. We called the police, unsure of what to do, and were informed by Officer Incompetent that they were "native" to our part of Massachusetts. (Can you imagine if my son had used this information on a school report on peacocks? His teacher would not have been amused. )

Peacocks are not native anywhere in America, but unfortunately, they are owned by a nearby neighbor who did not keep them penned. Many bird turds later, and thanks to many other frustrated landlords and an annoyed police force that got used to phone calls like mine from around town, the owner decided to build an aviary for them. I still hear their screeches which sound like the wild howls you hear on a "National Geographic" special, but at least I don't have to play hopscotch on my walkway to avoid the mess they leave in their wake.

Not everyone may have peacocks, but barking dogs, toys left in common areas, noisy parties, and cars parked in front of your home are common neighbor complaints. What can you do to solve the problems and stay on good terms with your neighbors?

First of all, get to know your new neighbors as soon as possible after moving in. Find some common ground and chat with them about a shared hobby, work experience, or family life. The reality is that the better you know people, the more you all have vested in maintaining cordial relations. If they know you, they will be less likely to cause problems to begin with.

Let's say a problem does occur. Maybe your neighbor routinely throws very loud parties that last into the wee hours of the morning. Document your complaints. Keep a record of what happens including date, time, incident, and witnesses, if any. At the same time, talk to other neighbors and see if they share your concerns and determine whether they have already made any attempts to contact the homeowner. It is also important to identify whether this is a real problem or your tolerance level is very low. Remember the boy who cried wolf?

Next, research what the legal code is in your town regarding noise and parties. Once you have all your ducks in a row, invite your neighbor over if you are already friendly. If not, you can always "coincidentally" prune your hedges while he is outside raking. Casually bring up your concern, and ask if it wouldn't be too much trouble for him to help you out. This is always a great time to blame your concerns on a third party. ("My wife must sleep before 3 a.m. or else I can't be in the same room with her the next day.")

If your attempts are futile, your next step should be to see if a second contact with the neighbor, along with some other neighbors, might do the trick. A little peer pressure in this case may just be what you need to have Mr. Unruly see it your way.

If not, it is time to contact the appropriate local authorities. Let them look into the matter and see what they can do. It may be possible to skip right to this step if you feel that your neighbor will not handle your complaint well. In that case, try to maintain your anonymity as long as you can, and discuss this with the police up front. No one wants Mr. Loud banging on the door after the police leave seeking a physical confrontation with you if he's the type.

Most situations can be resolved by town officials, but you will need to put pressure on them to follow through occasionally. In a worst case scenario, you may need to take this to higher authorities - the neighbor's wife, a local elected board, or hire an attorney to file charges.

Remember to be as polite as possible, sensitive to special situations, and calm. A good sense of humor is always an asset as well. Most neighborly disputes can be worked out with minimal pain. Of course a few of us will always end up with peacock poop in the yard. Then again it could be worse - the town could build a new fire/police station around the corner! Then, to whom do you complain?

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