How to Deal With Neighbors' Problematic Uses of Property

Answers to frequently asked questions about dealing with neighbors, from irritating holiday light displays to construction of new rental cottages to encroaching fences.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 10/13/2023

Neighbors getting on your nerves? Other homeowners and renters have probably faced similar issues. Learn more about the laws or rules that can help with the situation.

Question: Can I sue my neighbor to stop the excessive holiday lights display?

My neighbor has set up a holiday lights display that includes bright flashing lights, music, and inflatables; and an unending line of cars arrives to see it all. It's driving me nuts! What can I do?


If the display is so extreme that it affects your enjoyment of your home, your best legal remedy might be a nuisance claim against your neighbor. If successful, a judge can order that the display be toned down or removed altogether.

Nuisance claims allege that either an individual (you) or group has lost the use or peaceful enjoyment of property as a result of actions by the accused. Unless you have other neighbors who are equally annoyed by the display, the action will likely involve only your rights (this is called a private nuisance).

As the plaintiff, you'd have to prove that:

  • you own your property and have suffered some sort of harm
  • the lights display prevents you from the use or quiet enjoyment of your property
  • you did not consent to your neighbor's actions in creating or maintaining the display
  • your neighbor's lights would reasonably disturb an ordinary person, and
  • your harm outweighs any public benefit to the holiday lights display.

Whether or not your nuisance claim will ultimately succeed depends largely upon the facts. Does the light or sound from the display result in you or a family member losing sleep? Is there a marked increase in the amount of traffic in front of your home as people drive by? Are sightseers leaving trash on your property? Are you having trouble getting into your driveway? Has the display caused you to lose power to the home repeatedly? Are other neighbors expressing the same frustrations?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you might have a shot at convincing a judge that your neighbor has gone too far. Unfortunately, you face an uphill battle. Judges hesitate to interfere with individual property rights, and don't want to be perceived as Grinches. Additionally, your neighbor can argue that any court interference with the display would be a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Courts are also typically reluctant to declare a temporary condition (assuming the lights WILL eventually come down) as a nuisance.

Before filing a lawsuit, try talking to your neighbors in search of a middle ground. Perhaps they could curtail the hours of operation or turn down the music. If other neighbors are just as upset, you might find that peer pressure gets the job done more quickly than the courts ever could.

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Question: Our neighbors are letting their house fall to ruin! What do we do?

I live in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. Several neighbors have gardens and tasteful front porch decorations, and almost everyone repaints their houses every few years. One neighbor, however, is doing nothing to keep up his home. His paint is chipped, his weeds are overgrown, and the swimming pool is disgusting—wires have fallen into it from a nearby electric pole, and we've seen mice and other vermin around the deck. What can I do?


There's one in every crowd—a neighbor who doesn't follow the aesthetic or cultural norms of the community. The result might not impact you directly, but it's certainly a visual annoyance and potentially a detractor from the value of your property. How can you make your neighbor clean up his act?

In some planned communities, there are clear rules regarding upkeep and aesthetics, which are integrated by contract into homeowner agreements. Neighborhood associations enforce these to ensure uniformity of design choices such as paint color, fence design, and flower choices. If you live in a neighborhood with such an arrangement, contact your homeowners' association (HOA) leadership to bring its attention to the situation.

If you do not live in such a community, your situation is more difficult. It sounds as if the swimming pool situation with electrical wires is a potential hazard, and the pests around the pool are also menacing. For the animal situation, consider calling Animal Control (a government agency, which might go by a different name in your jurisdiction).

For the electrical wires, you might call your neighborhood power company and explain what you're seeing. They might have the emergency authority to enter the property and ameliorate the situation. Such a situation is also dangerous if there are local children who might be attracted to such a strange swimming pool; in the law, this is sometimes referred to as an "attractive nuisance," and your neighbor has a legal responsibility to get the pool in order.

What about the paint? This probably falls into a category below mandatory legal upkeep. Unless a local statute requires regular painting of a house exterior, it's unlikely you can force your neighbor to paint by suing in court.

Your best bet is to attempt to convince him to paint the house voluntarily. It might be that your neighbor cannot afford exterior maintenance, or is simply busy or unmotivated. Consider telling him that you're hiring a company to repaint your own home and are wondering if he might be interested in having his house painted by the company as well, in the same neutral color. State that you'd be willing to pay some portion of the fees. If he's getting a discount, and there will be virtually no trouble or involvement on his part, he just might agree.

Alternatively, try to get consensus from a group of neighbors on hiring a painting company, which would potentially give a bulk discount for the neighborhood. If a group were to present this plan to your neighbor, the effects of peer pressure could be powerful.

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Question: How can I stop my neighbor from building a mother-in-law suite?

I got a letter from my neighbor informing me that she intends to build an "accessory dwelling unit" )ADU) on her property. We live in Oregon. It sounds like the dwelling will be a new house, which can be rented to a third party.

My quiet neighborhood is composed mostly of families, who all know each other. I'm concerned about strangers coming and going. What can I do to stop this project?


Let's start with a brief background on accessory dwelling units. An ADU, also called a "mother-in-law suite" or "granny flat," is a separate, complete dwelling unit. It can be either attached or detached from the primary dwelling unit (in this case, your neighbor's home).

ADUs are normally significantly smaller than the primary dwelling. In some places in Oregon, for example, the ADU can be no larger than 33% of the primary dwelling.

It's a good idea to make sure you are fully informed about all aspects of the pending land use application. Review all communications, including your neighbor's letter, about the proposed ADU.

Also contact your local planning department to get other crucial information, such as:

  • who to direct your concerns and objections to at the planning department
  • any applicable deadlines, including deadlines to file written objections
  • whether a community meeting or public hearing has been scheduled
  • what approval criteria apply to the ADU application (what requirements your neighbor will need to comply with to have the ADU approved), and
  • details about the actual ADU, including its proposed size and location.

Also familiarize yourself with the applicable zoning ordinance. Land is typically classified into different zoning districts, like residential or commercial. Residential neighborhoods are often classified into subzones like "Urban Residential-Low Density" or "Urban Residential-High Density." The applicable zoning ordinance will dictate what uses are permitted in each zone. For example, the ordinance might allow ADUs in "Urban Residential-High Density" zones, but prohibit them in the "Urban Residential-Low Density Zone."

To have any chance of stopping a development project like an ADU, make sure to timely file your objections. Objections that might be considered valid include, for instance:

  • ADUs are not permitted in the applicable zone
  • the proposed ADU is too big, or
  • the proposed ADU will violate setbacks (in other words, will be too close to the property line).

If the project is ultimately approved, you might be able to file an appeal. Check with your local planning department to learn about the process. At a minimum, you'll need to submit a written appeal and pay a fee. Again, be ready to comply with all deadlines.

Retaining a land use attorney is a good idea to help make sure deadlines are met and that you put your best argument forward at the beginning of the process.

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Question: How can I protect my property boundary line when my neighbor must build a fence that's partly over the line?

My neighbor recently built a wire fence, with my permission, about three feet over my property line in order to go around some trees. The fence goes about 500 feet. Someone told me in seven years the property will belong to my neighbor. Is this true?


It's true that in some states, you could lose property if you've given up its use for a certain period of years (typically five to seven), and if the neighbor using it were to go to court to get a judgment to that effect. This is called adverse possession, or in the case of access to property, a prescriptive easement.

However, giving permission to the neighbor to use the property "defeats" a claim of adverse possession. Better not to trust oral permission, however. Draw up a written permission for the neighbor's fence that:

  • clearly defines the actual property boundaries
  • clearly defines the location of the fence
  • states that the fence belongs to the neighbor
  • grants the owner permission to place the fence there, and
  • clearly states that the location of the fence does not alter the boundary lines.

You and all owners of the fence should sign the agreement. It would also be wise to treat the paper with legal deference: Get it notarized and keep a copy for your records. For added protection, file a notarized copy of the agreement with the recorder's office or registrar of deeds in the county where your property is located.

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