Neighbor's Construction Driving You Nuts? What to Do

What to do first about bothersome construction -- and when to bring the lawyers in

It’s been a long day at work. You come home, hoping for some peace and quiet. But no sooner do you sit down than you hear drilling. You hope it stops; it doesn’t. Minutes pass, then hours. More noises wash over you – drilling, hammering, and the stomping of legions of construction workers.

Few things can be more annoying than living next to a construction zone. Whether you’re living in a suburban neighborhood with a neighbor installing a swimming pool next door, or an apartment building with your upstairs neighbor expanding his bathroom, construction can be a nuisance.

What should you do? As with any dispute, it is easiest to handle it  early  and  civilly, using the steps suggested below.

Talk With Your Neighbor

As soon as you begin to see or hear signs of construction that looks potentially disruptive, you should approach your neighbor. It is possible that your neighbor simply didn't realize that you would be able to hear the workers reinstalling the kitchen sink or taking down a bedroom wall.

Your initial conversation need not be hostile. You might point out the disruption and ask how long the construction will likely take. If it’s a short project – a couple days – you might just decide to live with it. If it will be a longer project, you might suggest to your neighbor that construction at particular hours would not affect you – for example, if you work in the afternoons anyway.

If the construction needs to be done on evenings or weekends when you’re home, you might ask your neighbor for a schedule of what type of work will be done and when. Most contractors would be able to give a rough idea of this schedule. For example, if they are planning to quietly paint upstairs, you would know it’s probably safe to be home. If they’re planning to demolish a wall next weekend, knowing that in advance would permit you to schedule a weekend trip.

Self-help options like these might seem like compromise or capitulation, but they are a good way to keep a friendly relationship with your neighbor. The value of a civil relationship with a neighbor should not be overstated. Remember, you’ll run into this person every week – in the elevator, the laundry room, the street, or the local store. Your neighbor will interact with your family and guests. If you can avoid screaming matches, lawyers, and lawsuits, it will make your life less awkward over the long-term. (If they’re doing significant construction on their apartment or home, chances are they intend to live there for awhile!)

Options If Talking With Neighbor Doesn’t Lead to Solutions

Unfortunately, not everyone will be reasonable. Your neighbor might not care that the construction is bothering you, or might be unwilling to work with you to give you advance notice of the particularly noisy or disruptive construction. Now, you have three main options:

  1. You might seek help from your building or neighborhood association.
  2. You might seek help from a government agency; or
  3. You might retain a lawyer.

Let’s consider each of these three options, which are presented in order of escalating hostile engagement. Remember, if you can solve a neighbor dispute with a lower level of hostility, you’re likely better off.

Getting Help From Your Neighborhood or Building Management Association

If you live in either a common-interest community that’s governed by a neighborhood association or homeowners’ association (HOA), or in an apartment with a building management association, clear rules may already be in place for construction projects. What types of contractors are approved? When can work be done? What sort of work can be done, and what must the occupant do to make sure neighbors are not disturbed?

If you’re being dramatically disturbed, it seems possible that your neighbor’s work is violating the applicable rules. You can likely find these rules on your building management company’s website (if you live in a large apartment building) or annexed to your homeowner’s agreement (if you own a residential home).

From there, the association might be willing to intervene on your behalf; it might write to your neighbor, or instruct your neighbor that he or she violating the rules. Some associations might also have dispute resolution mechanisms in place – for example, a leader from the association might be willing to have a three-way meeting with you and your neighbor in order to mediate the conflict and generate potential solutions (for example, that your neighbor perform certain construction activities only at certain times).

Getting Help From Local Government Agencies

If your property or apartment has no building or neighborhood association, you might need to rely on government agencies to intervene on your behalf. Government rules and regulations will vary widely from state to state and city to city. In New York, for example, the Department of Buildings exercises a great deal of control over construction operations. Other cities have different entities with similar missions – they issue “stop work orders,” for example, when construction operations are dangerous or violate city codes.

Hiring a Lawyer

If your other options have failed, you might consider a lawyer. Lawyers can be expensive, and you should try to think about the economic value of having “no disturbance” from your neighbor’s construction. (“How much is it worth to me to solve this annoyance?”) Fortunately, a full-scale lawsuit is not the only meaningful type of help you can get from a lawyer.

You might retain a lawyer for the limited purpose of writing a letter to your neighbor. This is sometimes called a cease-and-desist letter, or a notice of potential litigation.

Why a letter and not a lawsuit? A few reasons. First, lawsuits can be very time-consuming. It is not uncommon for a lawsuit to take months or years to wind their way through the court system. Second, while it is possible that a court might grant what’s called an injunction or temporary restraining order – essentially an order to your neighbor to stop construction immediately during the litigation – this will surely be expensive. Third, a simple letter might do the job. Sometimes, people will react quickly once they see that an attorney is involved. A strongly written letter, citing applicable statutes and case law, on “official” letterhead, demonstrates to your neighbor that you do not intend to sleep on your rights. (Your neighbor does not need to know that you might be unwilling to spend the time and money on full-blown litigation). In other words, a letter from your attorney is a good way to jumpstart negotiations and flex some muscle, without spending exorbitant amounts of money.

If none of these options work, and the letter from your lawyer goes unheeded, speak to your attorney about litigation. Often merely filing an action will be enough to scare the neighbor into compliance with the rules, or at least scare the neighbor into negotiating with you about changes to the work or schedule.

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