Don't you sometimes wish you could just build a big wall around your house, ring it with a moat, and make all your neighbors disappear?
Since that's out of the question for most of us, disputes with neighbors are inevitably going to crop up from time to time. We've got a suggestion: Don't litigate, arbitrate. This section will show you how. Do you work from home? If so, you need to be especially careful, because, if you're like many people, it may not be technically legal for you to work there. There have been a huge number of cases in which, essentially out of spite, neighbors have turned in other neighbors for zoning violations. If you've reason to worry, check out Minding Your Own (Home) Business.
Arbitration: A Better Way to Mend Fences
Not long ago, Michael Daly was working on a screenplay when his upstairs neighbor suddenly cranked up the Doobie Brothers. The stereo was so loud, says Daly, "I felt like I was inside a drum."
Daly thought about suing, since it wasn't the first time this guy had busted his concentration. But instead he tried something else: neighborhood mediation. At a free session sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Daly's neighbor agreed to keep quiet. Total out-of-pocket expense: a $10 donation.
There are more than 500 neighborhood-mediation centers around the nation that specialize in resolving potentially bitter border wars. You may not be able to find an office in more rural areas, but they have popped up in nearly every metropolitan area in the U.S. in the last 15 years. "I can't think of a major city that doesn't have one," says Larry Ray, the executive director of the National Association for Community Mediation. Last year alone, these nonprofit centers, which are run by the courts in many states, handled about 600,000 neighbor feuds. Numerous other mediation centers are operated by church groups.
While most people are still unaware of neighborhood mediation, it's becoming increasingly popular for two reasons: First, these centers generally resolve neighbor feuds free. Second, according to the ABA, neighbors are able to settle their differences with the help of a mediator 90% of the time. The bar association says 85% of these mediated agreements are still in force six months later. "The mediator makes no decisions at all," says Cora Jordan, an attorney and author of Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise (Nolo, $16.95). "That's why these agreements last as long as they do."
Even if you doubt you could ever get your neighbors to agree to mediation, don't give up hope. Once you contact a center, the mediator assigned to your case will contact your neighbors and urge them to come in. Sixty percent of the time, both parties appear, the ABA says.
There's also been a proliferation of private mediators. More often than not, they are lawyers, psychologists or social workers who generally charge about $100 per dispute. Probably the only reason to pay these fees is simply that you'd feel more comfortable having a legal or counseling professional handle your case rather than a volunteer at a nonprofit center. "But even if you pay for mediation, it's going to be a heck of a lot cheaper than if you sue," Jordan says.
The place to find a mediator or a neighborhood center is the Yellow Pages, where they're generally listed under the heading "Mediators." You can also call the local bar association. Or the police. In recent years, some officers have begun carrying cards with the telephone number of the nearest center so they can have it ready when they respond to neighbor disputes.
Minding Your Own (Home) Business
Thinking about opening a business out of your home sweet home? If you're just going to be working on a computer in an unused bedroom, you're probably in the clear. But if the business is any more elaborate than that, you may be about to run afoul of your local zoning codes. Most towns have laws on the books that limit the scope of home businesses. Originally intended to keep hair salons and auto body shops out of residential areas, these codes may seem archaic to today's home-office dweller.
Luckily, it usually takes a complaint before the rules are enforced -- so if you have good relations with your neighbors you probably don't have to worry. But, if your neighbor brings a violation to the attention of local authorities, you may be shocked to find that you have little choice but to comply with the rules.
You should know the zoning restrictions that apply to you, even if you choose to ignore them. The codes vary widely, but they often prohibit home businesses from creating traffic, posting signs, using on-street parking, hiring employees, or using too much space in their home for business uses. Your first stop should be Town Hall. Proceed straight to the clerk's office, and act as if you know what you're doing. "It's very important that you don't say, 'May I start a business in my home?' " says Omri Behr, an Edison, N.J., lawyer. "Every bureaucrat will say no. Just ask for a copy of the zoning ordinance. That way, you don't give yourself away."
If you decide to go ahead and open a business where you won't be able to comply with the exact letter of the law, discuss it with your neighbors. Explain how you will be an asset to the block by being there during the day to keep an eye on their homes, sign for occasional deliveries, or serve as a resource for kids home alone after school. There will almost certainly be times when your business inconveniences your neighbors. By keeping lines of communication open, they'll go to you with complaints, not the town officials.
One of the biggest irritations to neighbors is having delivery trucks rumble through the local streets all day. For that reason, home-office experts suggest renting a post-office box or using a service such as Mail Boxes Etc.
If you see regular clients, try to visit them at their offices, or communicate with them by phone as much as possible. If you're storing work materials in your garage -- a no-no in some cities -- call one of those mini-storage places and start renting some space.
The penalties for running an illegal business range all over the map. In some cities, you'll get a mere slap on the wrist. Others will fine you upward of $500. And some will even hit you with a more severe punishment. An Albuquerque, N.M., man who refused to shut down his computer company was sentenced to 90 days in jail, though the sentence was eventually reduced to probation.
While you can always hire a lawyer and fight back, that's expensive, and there's not much chance you'll win. (Courts have upheld towns' zoning laws almost unanimously.) A smarter strategy is to get plugged in to local politics before you ever get turned in. In many cities, local groups are springing up. A good place to find such an organization is your local chamber of commerce. You could even join the chamber itself. If you get into a dispute with a neighbor, you'll need every ally you can get.