My neighbors are letting their house fall to ruin! What do I do?

When property that's not cared for turns into a local legal issue.

Question

I live in a beautiful, suburban neighborhood. Everyone in our neighborhood takes great pride in where we live. Several of us have gardens, most of us do annual holiday lights, and almost all of us repaint our houses each year. The majority of the homes have clean windows and white picket fences. One neighbor, who has lived there for decades, is just not keeping up his home. His paint is chipped, his weeds are overgrown, and there are no planted flowers. His swimming pool is also disgusting – it seems to have wires that have fall into it from a nearby electric pole, and we’ve seen mice and other vermin around the deck. And he certainly doesn’t participate in our holiday light tradition! What can I do?

Answer

There’s one in every crowd – a neighbor who just doesn't follow the aesthetic or cultural norms of your 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 neighborhoods, there are clear rules regarding upkeep and aesthetics that are integrated by contract into homeowner agreements. Neighborhood associations enforce these agreements vigorously 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, call your neighborhood association leadership to report the situation.

If you do not live in such a community, your situation is more difficult. You cannot force your neighbor to plant a particular kind of flowers on his property to match yours, or to use the same fencing material that everyone else uses. You certainly can’t force him to put up holiday lights.

There are some things you may be able to force him to do, however. 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 may go by a different name depending on your jurisdiction).

For the electrical wires, you might call your neighborhood power company and explain what you’re seeing in your neighbor’s yard. They might have the emergency authority to enter the property and ameliorate the situation. Such a situation is also dangerous if there are children around the neighborhood, 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 his pool in order.

What about the paint? This probably falls into a category somewhere in between mandatory legal upkeep (the electrical wires and pests) and discretionary legal upkeep (holiday lights and matching flowers). Unless there is a local statute in place requiring certain regular painting of a house exterior, it is unlikely that you can force your neighbor to paint by suing him in court. Thus, your best bet is to attempt to convince him to paint himself in a neighborly fashion. It might be that your neighbor might not be able to afford the exterior maintenance, or that he is simply not interested in the effort and time involved. Consider this: approach him and tell him that you’re hiring a painting company to repaint your own home, and you were wondering if he might be interested in having his house painted by the company as well in the same neutral color. Explain that you would 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, your neighbor is likely to 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 can be powerful – especially with the financial incentive.

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