Last summer, our next-door neighbors sold their home. My husband and I were sad to see the family move out. They were dream neighbors: quiet, friendly, generous — and away a lot. I worried that we wouldn’t have such a harmonious relationship with the new owners, and from the start, it seemed as if I was right.
They began improvements to the house immediately after the closing. Our peaceful dead-end street was lined with work trucks for weeks. The workmen were rude, and they parked on our grass. Streams of guests arrived on weekends. Our leisurely dinners on the patio were punctuated by the noise from the activities going on next door. One Saturday, the owner’s twentysomething children set up an adult-sized Slip ’N Slide, and their fun slipped into the wee hours.
My husband and I were heartbroken when they cut down two 100-year-old trees that had shrouded us with privacy; after that, I could clearly see the clutter on their dining room table from our family room couch.
When my 5-year-old repeated what he’d overheard me saying about our neighbors, I felt guilty. We plan on living in our home for a long time. I thought about how draining and sad it would be to have prolonged negative feelings about our neighbors, and I reconsidered my outlook.
According to Americo Mello, a clinical psychologist at Lahey Health Behavioral Services, I was right to reconsider.
It’s not the situation but our thoughts about the situation that are influencing our emotions, Mello says. “If you find yourself being annoyed by what your neighbor is doing, look at what your thoughts are before reacting. Try to sit back and evaluate your thoughts, especially if you have a negative response or severe reaction to an issue or situation.”
In some cases, the situation can really escalate, prompting people to move. To get a sense of how out of hand these cases can get, you only have to watch an episode of “Fear Thy Neighbor ” on Investigation Discovery. The show recounts scary real-life encounters — many involving violence — between neighbors.
“Never put yourself in a situation that you think is unsafe,” Mello warns. “If a conflict has escalated to this point, you may want to enlist the help of an objective third party or professional mediator.”
A North End mother of three rarely saw her downstairs neighbor, but she heard him. When her 2-year-old son ran across the floor or her infant daughter cried, the neighbor would yell from below, shouting at her to control the commotion and peppering his demands with obscenities.
“I tried to control the noise as much as possible, but there’s only so much you can do. We lived in a brick-and-beam building, and you can hear everything,” says the woman, who asked that her name not be used because she worried about retaliation.
She had heard him berating his wife and feared confronting him.
“He seemed like a really mean guy all around,” she says. “We just tried to stay out of his way.” Thankfully, he has since moved out.
Timothy Kleiser, an anthropology doctoral candidate, says if safety is not a concern, directly addressing the issue may help things end on a more positive note.
“Conflicts with our neighbors are unavoidable, but sometimes they can be an opportunity to bring people together,” says Kleiser, who studies community spatial theory. “We are all invested in where we live, and ultimately most of us want to get along with the people around us.”
When Kleiser and his wife moved into their Groton neighborhood, they made an effort to get to know their neighbors.
“A single older woman was kind of a pariah in the neighborhood. Her yard was a mess, and she had a cage of ducks that would roam around,” Kleiser says.
When he introduced himself, she shouted at him to get off her property. “I asked if she needed help with yardwork. I thought it might open the door to friendship, but it backfired. She literally chased me away.”
“After a while, I realized that she’s clearly a self-sufficient person. . . . Maybe she thought my offer was insulting,” says Kleiser, who refused to give up. He went back to the neighbor’s house. This time, he made himself vulnerable to her.
“I was planting a garden and I had no idea what I was doing. So I asked her for help,” he says. “Immediately, her demeanor changed. She taught me gardening tips for over an hour. As the months progressed, I spent a lot of time there, and we developed a sort of friendship.”
Kleiser’s approach aligns with Mello’s advice. For Mello, establishing a positive relationship early on is key. If you’re not comfortable knocking on your new neighbor’s door to introduce yourself, he says, “take every opportunity to say hello. For example, wave to them in the yard or when you see them heading into the house from the car. These small gestures build up.
“These gestures will lead up to a chance for a friendly conversation. . . . Take the time to learn about your neighbor,” he says, “and you’ll find that they are more willing to listen to you if a conflict comes up later on.”
Brian Dougherty, a partner in Robert Paul Properties, a regional real estate firm, says that in the dense landscape of downtown Boston, where there is a lot of condo living, it’s particularly important to have good relationships with your neighbors.
“You have to share common space. You contend with your neighbors at the mailbox every day, when you’re taking out the recycling,” Dougherty says. “You really want to make nice with your neighbors.”
Then he says something surprising: The onus should be on the incoming homeowner. “Be hospitable, invite them to your house,” he says.
Don’t wait for the welcome wagon.
People who have been living in a building for a long time are often wary of new owners and have seen a lot of turnover, Dougherty says. “If you want to make improvements to the exterior of your new building, don’t go to someone who has been living there 25 years and start listing all the things you want to do right away. Be cautious, diplomatic, and friendly. Start slowly when bringing up the improvements you want to make.”
Dougherty recalls a client who purchased a Back Bay brownstone and embarked on an extensive renovation that involved reducing a patio to add more parking.
“The neighboring homeowners fiercely opposed the project based on the size and color of the brick being used. Lawyers became involved, and an architectural review by the homeowners’ association took place. A dispute ensued for months,” Dougherty recalls.
As it turned out, both families had daughters at the same college — unbeknownst to them — and at the end of the semester, the two came home for break very close friends. “After that, both homeowners pulled back and ultimately realized that the fight had been rather silly, and they reached a compromise,” he says.
Though his practice is in commercial matters, lawyer Robert Carney has seen countless quarrels between neighbors.
“Boundary disputes and issues with cutting trees are very common. Blowing snow into someone else’s driveway is another one. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of escalation that can happen with residential neighbor issues,” says Carney, chairman of the commercial real estate department for Sherin & Lodgen, a Boston firm.
Some strife down the road can potentially be avoided, says Carney, if homeowners understand the property they are buying and the related rights before they own it. “When you are about to buy a house, go to the building inspector and find out if there are permits or variances on the property. It’s not unheard of that a deck, patio, fence, or shed was constructed without a permit. If that’s the case, you could have a potential violation on your hands that could become a problem.”
Carney recommends getting a title insurance policy and having a survey of the property done by a licensed surveyor.
“It costs more money than a plot plan, but it shows exact plot lines and the dimensions of the property, including improvements and easements. You can even get the utilities shown,” he says. “It’s a great way of understanding what your property is subject to.”
If only he knew that way back when.
Carney wishes he had had a survey done when he purchased his first South Shore home in 1995.
“The landscaping was such that we thought our property went broader than it was,” he recalls. “When we went to install a new stone wall, we found that the existing one was actually on our neighbors’ property.”
Carney went next door and had a friendly conversation with his neighbor, who understood the situation and, fortunately, had no issue with the location of the wall.
“I wrote him a letter saying I knew that our wall was on his property and that we would move it if he ever wants us to,” Carney says.
Dougherty suggests trying to get a sense of who your neighbors are before you buy. “Be friendly to the people you see in the building. Check out the neighborhood, ask around.”
Jaci Conry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.