Neighbour disputes: how to resolve issues cheaply

Here's how to deal with all manner of neighbourly disputes, from harassment to parking to hedges.

It's a fact of life: neighbours fall out and have disputes over the trivial and the not-so-trivial aspects of living next door to each other.

Now, according to Hometrack, we’ll spend an average of over 20 years in our homes, so if things don't go according to plan we can face decades of petty disagreements.

What's more, it can end up costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

A common problem

A survey by Tepilo last year revealed that the majority of us don’t get along with the neighbours.

Some 56% of people have argued with them and, of those, 27% have had multiple disagreements.

These arguments can quickly spiral out of control, largely because we cannot get away from said neighbours: over a third of people see them a couple of time a week, and 18% see them every day.

How do disputes start?

We also feel highly protective of our property, because it’s likely to be the most valuable thing we own.

Justine Ball, an Associate at law firm Shakespeare Martineau explains:Disputes between neighbours usually concern an individual’s home or land which is always going to be personal and often causes a stronger emotional reaction when issues arise. Strong emotions often lead to hasty decisions, causing matters to escalate very quickly.”

Jeff Lewis, partner and head of litigation at Brabners, added: “Something as small as putting the bins out in the wrong place has been known to spiral out of control."

In some cases, neighbour-related stress becomes too much, and we end up being forced to move house. A study by Co-op Insurance found that one in 10 Brits have taken this route.

Unfortunately, it comes at a price.

Once you have factored in Stamp Duty, legal fees, surveys and searches, valuation fees, mortgage arrangement fees, estate agency fees and removals, you can expect to spend between 5% and 20% of the property’s value on a move.

If you were to move from an average £222,000 home, and spend 10% on the move, you would be sinking £22,200 on getting away from the neighbours.

Ball recommends keeping a lid on your irritations if you intend to move, because if you start a complaint or dispute, “this will more than likely be disclosable to any potential future buyers and could inhibit the sale from reaching its market potential.”

The Seller’s Property Information Form includes a section where you have to disclose any previous or current disputes with neighbours. It also asks if you know of any issues that could lead to a dispute in future. If you lie on this form, you could be sued by the buyer if a problem subsequently arises.

The nature of the dispute will dictate the impact this has on your property sale. Mark Hayward, chief executive of NAEA Propertymark, points out: “If there is a dispute and it is about an issue that is materially important to a purchaser – such as parking, shared driveways, boundaries in the right place – this can all make a sale difficult.”

Fortunately, if you have simply had the odd row over the garden hedge, then the impact may be negligible.

You may lose one or two potential buyers when they read the details of the argument, but you should eventually find someone willing to buy, who will not expect the issue to be reflected in the property price.

Hayward highlights that a disagreement with the neighbours will not always affect the selling price. However, if you need a quick sale, or the market is particularly slow in your area, you may have to price the property attractively to find your buyers.

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And if it's more serious than the garden hedge?

At the other end of the spectrum, a long-running argument that has grown vindictive may put many sellers off buying altogether. Really serious problems involving the police, threats or harassment, could render your home unsaleable, and force you to drop the price dramatically, or take the property to auction.

We can see the impact on the property value from a case in the archives. Back in 2002 a couple took their neighbour to court for a campaign of harassment, and asked an estate agent to value the impact on the property value. He said the neighbour had reduced the value of the property from £250,000 to £190,000.

Not everyone is willing to be chased out of their property by the neighbours, but if you want to stay, you will need to resolve the issue. If you cannot reach an agreement, you may end up seeking legal advice.

A study by Saga a few years ago found that 28% of people over the age of 50 had been involved in a legal dispute, and 40% of those related to neighbours and property.

Taking the legal route is not a cheap option. In the first instance, you might visit a lawyer for advice, and get them to send a few letters to your neighbour.

The cost will depend to a large extent on the response and the complexity of the issue. However, Saga found the average fee for legal advice over a property row is £1,331, while for problem neighbours it’s £879.

If a formal letter doesn’t work, you may end up in court, in which case the costs will escalate. There will be evidence to obtain and may be experts to pay for – on top of the cost of the lawyer and the court fees.

There have been plenty of examples where costs have raged out of control. Back in 2012, neighbours in a mansion block in Westminster disagreed over whether the upstairs flat ought to put carpets down, to reduce the noise. The downstairs neighbour took them to court, and then to appeal, and between them, they spent a total of £140,134 on legal costs.

As the judge said at the time: “If the parties were driven by concern for the well being of lawyers, they could have given half that sum to the Solicitors Benevolent Association and then resolved their dispute for a modest fraction of the monies left over."

What should you do?

Given the cost of falling out with the neighbours, it’s worth taking steps to stay on good terms. This starts even before you move in.

Sarah Beeny, owner of property website Tepilo, says: “You could start with asking the vendor about the neighbours, but be aware just because they don’t get on with the neighbours doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t either.

"Check out neighbouring houses to see if they look well cared-for and pop by at the weekend to get a feel for the atmosphere. If you’re thinking of putting in a serious offer, see if the neighbours are in and introduce yourself: ask what the street and neighbourhood are like.”

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What if I’ve already moved in?

If you have moved in and the neighbours are behaving unreasonably, take your complaint directly to them. It’s important to tackle the issue early, but to take the emotion out of the equation and be calm and reasonable.

You can outline the problem you are facing, and suggest a sensible compromise to suit you both, says Lewis at law firm Brabners.

“Neighbours can avoid long and costly legal battles if early, reasonable action is taken," he says. "This can even prevent the situation getting to the stage of involving a lawyer."

"Yes, there may come a point where a visit to the solicitor is inevitable, but in our experience many disputes between neighbours could have been resolved over a cup of tea and an open conversation.”

Turn to the council

If their response isn’t what you are hoping for, then the council may be able to help – if the issue relates to noise, planning permission, high hedges or boundaries.

You will need to contact the correct department, and ask about the procedures you need to go through in order for them act. The council may be able to serve them with a noise abatement order, insist on changes to property developments, or demand they trim a high hedge, without you having to take legal action of your own.

If the council cannot help, then you may need legal advice. Ball says that rather than rushing to court, it’s worth considering mediation.

She explains: “Dispute resolution can be a more affordable and less confrontational alternative to pursuing court action. It allows both parties to seek an agreement between them, with the help of a third party mediator.

"Not only can this resolve the situation in a cheaper and more efficient way, it can help to keep the peace between neighbours too.” Full mediation could cost neighbours £1,500 each, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to court costs.

Alternatively, it may be worth considering paying for a professional to look at the issue from an independent perspective.

Take a boundary dispute, for example, Ball says: “Both parties can appoint a surveyor to determine the boundary on the basis of documents and evidence, and both parties would agree to take action and settle the dispute based on the outcome of the surveyor’s decision.

Costs are often kept to a minimum by splitting the professional fees of the surveyor between the parties.” This may require each party to pay out between £1,000 and £3,000, but will help keep the peace, and keep you out of court.

As Lord Justice Ward put it, summing up in the case over the neighbour’s carpets: “Not all neighbours are from hell. Give and take is often better than all or nothing.”

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