Scared of Your Neighbor?

How to deal with a situation where your neighbor's behavior may be dangerous.

At some point, everyone has the experience of living near a creepy or suspicious neighbor. Sometimes it’s nothing you can specifically point to; it’s the neighbor's manner, the hours he or she keeps, or the emanating smells. Other times, it can be more concrete – troubling noises, anger, or actual threats against you or your family.

What should you do if you’re scared of your neighbor?

Think the Best of People

Recall your high school English class when you read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “Boo Radley” was a frightening character for much of the novel, a loner feared by the neighborhood. Boo is a source of terror, largely because of his strange mannerisms and the mystery surrounding his past.

At the end of the novel, however, it is revealed that Boo is a supremely decent guy, playing a key role in aiding the protagonists. Before you overreact to what you perceive as your neighbor’s oddness, consider that he or she might simply not present well, or might come from an unfamiliar background or culture. Perhaps the neighbor has mental health issues, but is wholly nonviolent. Do not be quick to judge – especially if your neighbor’s behavior isn't directly harming you.

Complain to Building Management or Neighborhood Association, If Any

If you live in an apartment building or in a community governed by a neighborhood or homeowners' association, that might be your best first stop. For example, imagine a situation where there seem to be an unsafe number of animals in the neighbor's apartment causing a ruckus, or you regularly hear screaming inside a neighbor's home.

These things can be, in a word, scary. In such a situation, it might feel too uncomfortable to contact your neighbor directly. A better approach would be to contact your building’s management (perhaps beginning with the doorman) or your neighborhood association. Those “non-partisan” entities might be able to anonymously intervene, addressing the strange conduct with your neighbor while leaving you anonymous.

Call the Police

In a situation where you have reasonable, immediate fear of your neighbor – particularly if the neighbor makes physical threats on your safety – gather any evidence you have of the issues and call the police. It seems unlikely that a private lawsuit between you and your neighbor would really address the issues here.

Remember that, in the context of neighbor disputes, courts tend to be most effective for money damages. Your neighbor hasn’t harmed you in a quantifiable, financial way, but rather in an emotional way. You feel frightened. A knock on the door from law enforcement might be the best means on sending your neighbor the message to stay away from you and your family. Keep in mind, however, that once the police respond to your call, they might have you fill out a report and your neighbor is likely to learn that you were the person who complained. The more independent evidence you can provide, such as photos of dangerous activity by your neighbor, the less personal involvement you might need to have in the case.

Consider How Long the Situation Will Last

What's ahead for you and your neighbor? The long-term outlook and your corresponding strategy will depend on whether you and your neighbor are owners or renters.

If your neighbor owns his or her property, and you’re merely a renter, the situation may factor into your decision about renewing your lease. If you're in a multi-unit building, particularly in a large city, you might be able to consider creative alternatives with your management company. It might be willing to let you switch apartments in the same building. You might be able to convince the company to allow you to pay a little extra to move apartments even before your lease expires. This would allow both you and your neighbor to live in peace – but further away from one another.

If you're a homeowner, the matter may be more complicated. In the worst case, you might consider selling your home -- but realize that, depending on your state's laws, you may need to disclose any material problems to prospective purchasers.

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