New Edition!

Neighbor Law

Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise

Resolve neighbor conflicts and get peace of mind

Issues with the neighbors? Learn your rights -- and responsibilities -- with Neighbor Law, Nolo's popular bestseller and comprehensive guide to the laws concerning common neighbor disputes, including:

  • boundaries
  • noisy neighbors
  • blocked views
  • neighborhood businesses, and
  • second-hand smoke.

The new edition is fully revised!

  • Product Details
  • Don’t let a neighborly nuisance turn into a nasty lawsuit. Learn your rights and responsibilities with Neighbor Law, the plain-English guide to the laws behind common neighbor disputes.

    Neighbor Law is more than a legal guide—it’s a practical book filled with tips on how to solve problems and restore good neighbor relations. Find out how to handle:

    • noisy neighbors
    • trees that hang over a property line
    • blocked views
    • unclear boundary lines
    • high, unsightly, or deteriorating fences
    • dangers to children (“attractive nuisances”)
    • problems with neighboring businesses
    • drones trespassing onto your property
    • other common issues, like secondhand smoke, blighted property, and animal issues.

    The 11th edition includes updated laws and information on going to court, boundary fences, private nuisances, and much more.

    “A Nolo book that gives practical, no-nonsense approaches to handling neighbor disputes.”—Los Angeles Times

    “This classic book, which keeps getting better with each new edition, answers virtually all questions … . ”—Orlando Sentinel

     

    ISBN
    9781413330854
    Number of Pages
    368
  • About the Author
    • Emily Doskow, Attorney

      Emily Doskow is a practicing attorney and mediator who has worked with families in the Bay Area since 1989.

      Emily is the author of Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, the co-author of Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnership & Civil Unions and The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community, and the editor of many Nolo titles, including Divorce Without Court: A Guide to Mediation and Collaborative Divorce and the bestselling Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees Boundaries & Noise.

      Emily specializes in family law, including adoption, parentage issues, domestic partnership formation and dissolution, and divorce. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

    • Lina Guillen, Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)

      Lina Guillen was a Legal Editor at Nolo and is an author and trial attorney with over 20 years of experience in a wide range of legal matters. She is an active member of the California State Bar and received her J.D. from UC Law San Francisco.

      Lina has been quoted in several national newspapers, online publications, and print magazines, including The New York Times, CNBC, U.S. News, Kiplinger, HowStuffWorks, and Real Simple Magazine, and interviewed by reporter Vivien Lee for Spectrum News in New York.

      Legal experience. Lina served as an extern for the Honorable Judge Susan Illston of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. After graduating, Lina practiced at several Bay Area firms, gaining experience in probate litigation, general commercial disputes, real property disputes, white collar crime, public agency, civil rights, employment law, and family law matters. She handled investigations, prepared motions, completed discovery, took and defended depositions, argued hearings, and conducted court trials.

      Volunteer work. As a practicing attorney, Lina noted the disparity in outcomes between those who could afford lawyers and those who couldn’t. This inspired her to volunteer at various organizations, including Project Homeless Connect, the Justice & Diversity Center, and Legal Aid of Marin, where she provided free legal assistance to individuals with no access to attorneys.

      Writing experience. In addition to law, Lina has always had a passion for writing. She was an editorial assistant for The Press Democrat newspaper, researching and editing major stories and writing smaller pieces for the paper. At Hastings, Lina served as the submissions editor for the Hastings Women's Law Journal.  She also took writing classes at the Writing Salon in San Francisco and studied Writing, Editing, and Technical Communication through the U.C. Berkeley Extension Program.

      Working at Nolo. Lina’s legal experience, volunteer work, and writing background drew her to Nolo in 2012, where she felt she could put her skills to good use by assisting in Nolo’s mission to provide reliable legal information to consumers. As a Legal Editor, Lina has edited and coauthored Nolo books, managed the development of legal content on several Nolo websites, and written numerous legal articles on family law issues, LGBTQ law, and more.

      She is the coauthor of Neighbor Law,  8th edition; Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce; Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples; and A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples.

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Neighbors and Legal Questions

    1. Tackling a Neighbor Problem

    • Take Preliminary, Preparatory Steps
    • Approach the Neighbor
    • Turn to the Authorities for Help
    • Try Mediation
    • Take the Neighbor to Court

    2. Noise

    • Laws Against Noise
    • What to Do First About Neighbor Noise

    3. When a Tree Is Injured or Destroyed

    • Who Owns a Tree?
    • An Owner’s Rights When a Tree Other Plantings Are Damaged
    • What the Tree Owner Can Sue For
    • Criminal Penalties
    • What to Do If a Neighbor Damages Your Tree
    • Preventing Damaging Actions by Neighbors

    4. Encroachment: Invading Branches and Roots

    • Looking for Help
    • Trimming a Neighbor’s Tree: The Right of Self-Help
    • When a Neighbor Can Sue
    • Going to Court to Hold the Tree Owner Responsible

    5. Unsound Limbs and Trees

    • Getting Help From the City Government
    • Trimming a Neighbor’s Tree: The Right of Self-Help
    • Ask the Owner to Trim the Tree
    • Suing to Prevent Damage
    • Calling on Your Homeowners’ Insurance
    • After Damage From an Unsound Tree

    6. Boundary Trees

    • Ownership
    • Co-Owners’ Responsibilities
    • Damage to or Removal of a Boundary Tree

    7. Fruit and Nuts: Who Owns What?

    • Who Owns the Tree?
    • Fruit That Has Fallen
    • Avoiding Problems

    8. Obstruction of View

    • The Basic Rule: No Right to a View
    • View Ordinances
    • Subdivision Rules That Protect Views
    • Other Laws That May Protect Views
    • Views That Are Not Legally Protected
    • Avoiding View Problems When Buying Property

    9. Boundary Lines

    • Settling Uncertain Boundary Lines
    • When a Neighbor Doesn’t Honor the Boundary

    10. Using Another's Land: Trespass and Easements

    • Trespassers Who Become Owners
    • Easements

    11. Fences

    • Rural Areas: Fencing Livestock In or Out
    • Urban and Suburban Fences
    • Property Line (Boundary) Fences
    • Disputes Over Boundaries
    • Sharing a Fence That Is Not on the Boundary

    12. Spite Fences

    • Legal Restrictions on Fence Height
    • What Is a Spite Fence?
    • Negotiating With the Neighbor
    • Going to Court Over a Spite Fence

    13. Dangers to Children: Attractive Nuisances

    • Understanding the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine
    • Taking Necessary Precautions
    • Seeking Legal Help

    14. Rural Neighbors and the Right to Farm

    • Ordinary Nuisance Rules
    • Right-to-Farm Laws
    • What Neighbors Can Do

    15. Water

    • When the Neighbor Is Liable for Damage
    • When the Neighbor Might Not Be Liable for Damage
    • What the Neighbor at Fault Must Pay For
    • What to Do If You Suffer Water Damage Due to a Neighbor
    • Rights to Water

    16. When Your Neighbor Is a Business

    • Zoning Laws
    • Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions Governing Subdivision Properties
    • Home-Based Businesses
    • Other Laws Protecting You and Your Property
    • Expect a Compromise
    • What to Do When the Law Favors You
    • When the Law Favors the Business

    17. Other Common Neighbor Issues

    • Blighted Property
    • Weeds, Rubbish, and Garbage
    • Loud and Offensive Language
    • Drug Dealers
    • Registered Sex Offenders (Megan’s Law)
    • Animal Problems
    • Secondhand Smoke
    • Vehicles
    • Drones
    • Outdoor Lights

    18. Legal Research

    • Researching Local Laws
    • Researching State Statutes
    • Researching Case Law

    19. Mediation

    • What Is Mediation?
    • How to Find a Mediator
    • How Mediation Works

    20. Small Claims Court

    • What Is Small Claims Court?
    • Preparing for Small Claims Court
    • How Small Claims Court Works

    Appendixes

    A. State Statutes on Injury to Trees

    B. State Statutes on Private Nuisance

    • Common Law Definition
    • Conduct or Condition Must Be Unlawful or Unreasonable

    C. Boundary Fence Statutes

    Index

  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 2: Noise

    He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.

    —Goethe

    It is 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. After a long and hard week, you are enjoying one of life’s great pleasures—no impending buzz of the alarm clock. Then your neighbor fires up the chainsaw or power mower or boom box. The dog down the street barks at any and all of it. You cover your head with the pillow for a while and then give up. Not wanting to cause trouble, you begin the weekend irritable, tired, maybe even physically ill.

    In case you think you are just being too sensitive, think again. The Health and Place Initiative (HAPI) is a group of Harvard experts investigating how to create healthier cities in the future. In its research brief, “Noise, Health, and Place,” HAPI looked at the impacts of noise.1 The team found that short-term impacts of environmental noise can include annoyance, cognitive impairment, and disturbed sleep, while the long-term impacts include secondary effects such as possible mental health issues, increased risk of injury, ischemic heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease, caused by lack of oxygen/reduced blood flow to the heart), and an increased risk of heart attack.

    Noise is a serious matter, and the time might come when you realize that you should have acted long ago to curb the situation—if not now, then perhaps when it’s time to sell your home. In California, for example, home sellers must (by law) fill out a disclosure form for the new buyer, pointing out any material problems. There is a blank in which to mark “yes” or “no” to the question of whether the homeowner experienced “Neighborhood noise problems or other nuisances.”2

    What should you do when facing an excessive-noise situation?

    Laws Against Noise

    You are protected from noisy neighbors by local, and sometimes state, law. Additionally, rules in rental agreements and planned communities further restrict allowable noise. Noise regulations are enforced by the police, landlords, neighborhood associations, and the courts. And when you are affected by your neighbor’s excessive noise, you can sue the neighbor for creating a private nuisance. You can ask a court for money damages and to have the noise stopped.

    Local Noise Laws

    The most effective weapon you have to maintain your peace and quiet is your local ordinance. Almost every community has a noise ordinance prohibiting excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise. And most laws designate certain times as quiet times, such as nights and some hours on weekends. Some types of noise may be allowed at some times but not at others.

    Certain necessary noises occur all of the time and we simply have to put up with them—for instance, noise from a heavy industry or from traffic on the freeway. But when people can control the noise, the ordinances apply. Running a power mower might be perfectly acceptable at 10 a.m. on Saturday, but probably not at 7 a.m., and turning up the volume on the TV or stereo might be okay at 5 p.m., but definitely not at 2 a.m. when neighbors are trying to sleep.

    Many towns also have decibel-level noise limits, and your town probably has electronic equipment for measuring the noise when a neighbor complains. A few cities have special noise units on staff, who enforce the laws and free the police for other calls.

    A typical noise ordinance, this one from Oxford, Mississippi, begins like this: “The creation of any unreasonably loud or disturbing noise or sound… within the city limits of Oxford, Mississippi is hereby prohibited.”3 Some cities use the language “loud, raucous, or nerve- wracking noise.” San Francisco, California, states that, “No person shall produce or allow to be produced by any machine, or device, music or entertainment or any combination of same, on residential property over which the person has ownership or control, a noise level more than five dBA above the ambient at any point outside of the property plane.”4

    Some sounds that bother us the most are placed in special categories that either are not allowed or have special rules. These noises are assumed to disturb people. For instance, most cities prohibit—either in their noise laws or vehicle laws—the honking of auto horns unless there is danger. This means that the daily early-morning tooting across the street for the carpool is a violation.

    Dogs are usually singled out; sometimes they are allowed to bark for very short periods, say under ten minutes. The dog that barks only at intruders or a passing fire engine is probably within legal limits. But the neighbors down the block who allow their dog to howl all night are most likely violating a local ordinance.

    Motorcycles might be mentioned by name in an ordinance. In some locations, unnecessary running of the engine, for example, might be presumed to disturb a neighbor. In addition to actual lists of troublesome noises, certain types of noise are sometimes included in the special categories. Examples are sounds of annoying pitch, such as a screech, and persistent or repetitive sounds, like the hum of a motor or the pounding of a hammer.

    When Is Noise Truly Unreasonable?

    Most ordinances prohibit unreasonable noise, but they don’t define it. The police—or later, a judge—might have to make the decision. But to be unreasonable, the noise should be—in the opinion of an average person—too loud, prolonged, or disturbing for the time of day. It usually boils down to common sense and to what most people consider unacceptable. For example, the child who practices the piano for an hour each day is certainly not a matter for law enforcement. A roaring piano at 11 o’clock every night is. A rollicking party several times a year—probably acceptable. Every three days? No way.

    Music can present special problems. Sometimes it is a matter of taste. What is pleasant to some ears quickly hits the discomfort level of others.

    The Bouncing Ball

    A bouncing basketball isn’t usually considered a noise problem, but two California lawyers went to court over one. One sued the other, who was dribbling the ball in the driveway and disturbing him.

    After several court proceedings, including a full-blown court trial, the case went all the way up to the California Court of Appeal, which found in favor of the basketball-playing neighbor. The court held that the noise from basketball play in the neighbor’s backyard, at a reasonable time of day, for less than 30 minutes at a time, and no more than five times per week did not constitute unlawful harassment and would not cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress.5

     

    Noise laws are enforced by the police (or other local government agencies) and the courts, and typically take into account the effect of the noise on a normal, reasonable person. If you jump out of your skin at the slightest peep of a puppy, you might find no help from the law. Sometimes cities require that the noise disturb two or more persons before it can be stopped, so as to prevent complaints from excessively sensitive people.

    Decibel Level Laws

    Many towns prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The decibel limits are set according to the time of day and the neighborhood zoning. For example, higher levels are typically allowed anytime in industrial areas. In residential areas, the limit is lower than the industrial limit during the day and much lower at night. There are exceptions for emergency situations, such as road repair. Also, some cities allow people to apply for a variance to the noise law—a permit to exceed the noise level for a certain period of time, for instance during major construction. You might also be able to get a permit for a one- time event.

    Unless you are a sound engineer, the language of these statutes might mean nothing to you. It does, however, mean something to the police or the special noise unit. They have a machine and know how to read the noise level.

    Measuring the Noise Level Yourself
    If you are curious about the noise level where you live, you can purchase a decibel level meter for as little as around $20. Taking your own reading can give you an indication of how severe a problem is. If you file a formal complaint, however, the police or city authorities will want to take their own measurements.

     

    What happens under a decibel level ordinance is that a neighbor complains and noise-unit personnel come to check things out. If the noise is still going on, the noise officer will place the machine on an estimated property line and take a reading. If the noise level coming into the other property is above a certain number, it violates the noise ordinance. However, the offending noise has to be measured against what is called the ambient level—the background noise level without that particular disturbance.

    Finding the ambient level with a live band playing can be difficult. The noise units have become experts at finding comparison levels, and many people insist that this method is the fairest one possible. For apartment living, the decibel level is measured inside, and it is common for the allowable levels to be much lower.

    Once the machine shows that the particular noise is above the allowed level, the person responsible will usually be warned. If the noise continues or is repeated, then the person will be cited and fined. Fines are often levied according to how many violations there have been—for instance, $100 for the first time, $200 the second, $300 the third.

    When a town adopts the decibel level method, it usually keeps the unreasonable noise law on the books, too. When a town has both kinds of laws, either one may be used.

    Today’s Reasonable Person

    The reasonable person in today’s society is a strange mixture of adaptation and resistance. Consider for a moment everyday life in the city. You slip your car into rush-hour traffic in the morning with several thousand noisy, honking others. Huge trucks fill the lane beside you. Stereos blast. Road crews pound with heavy equipment.

    And that’s before you even arrive at work, where you perhaps encounter 200 cubicles’ worth of coworkers, the din of voices and clatter in a lunch room, and so on.

    Several hundred years ago, this kind of constant noise would have been unthinkable. Now you and I, today’s reasonable people, have created an amazing compromise. Some noises are tolerable and some are not. Noise is okay in some places at some times but not in others— definitely not at home.

    An argument can be made that the reasonable person today is much more sensitive to noise at certain times and in certain places than in years past. As the tolerance for noise increases on one end, it decreases on the other to prevent an overload. We are looking at a method of survival. The Saturday morning lawn mower is not just a bother to some people; it is a nightmare.

    It is no wonder that our police can hardly keep up with noise complaints, and that neighbor-to-neighbor fuses are so short. What’s the answer? Who knows? Awareness of the situation is a beginning.

     

    How Times of Day Factor Into Noise Ordinances

    Most local ordinances include what could be called “quiet times.” The noise level allowed is lower during these times, the hours when most of us try to sleep. An average ordinance prohibits loud noises between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 or 8 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. or midnight until 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Some cities set the evening hour as early as 9 p.m. or even 6 p.m.

    What this really means is that if any noise is loud enough to keep a reasonable person awake during these hours, it is above the limit allowed. Towns that use a decibel system also tend to lower the limit during these hours.

    These quiet hours can vary from one residential area to another within the same city depending on the zoning for the particular spot. In a residential-only zone, for example, the morning hour might be 8 a.m. and in an industrial area 7 a.m.

    Having quiet times listed does not mean that there are no noise restrictions at other times. A blasting boom box can be a violation at any time. What it does mean is that you have the right to expect not to be disturbed during the quiet hours. A neighbor who starts up a chain saw at 6 a.m. on a Sunday is probably breaking the law. In suburban areas, the lines between different towns might meander, and different restrictions might apply from one block to the next. It’s a good idea to know not only your own ordinance but those in nearby areas that can affect you.

    Other Local Laws Regarding Noise or Related Issues

    Once in a while, a neighbor noise problem can be solved by using another local ordinance. For example, a neighbor who is running a backyard machine shop business at night and on weekends might be violating a zoning ordinance. Any business conducted at home that creates customers and traffic probably doesn’t fit residential-only zoning.

    Other miscellaneous laws also have an effect on noise. Discharging firearms and shooting off firecrackers are forbidden by separate laws. Having too many animals on one property can violate another law. Even working on a broken car for too long might be prohibited.

    Noises in some of these situations can be highly annoying without quite fitting the noise ordinance. To find out what other local laws might be applicable, read your particular local ordinances. (See Chapter 18.)

    State Laws on Noise

    If a neighbor’s noise is excessive and deliberate, it could be a violation of state laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct. For example, New Mexico law says that anyone whose conduct is boisterous or unreasonably loud and tends to disturb the peace is guilty of a misdemeanor.6 This means that the police can arrest anyone who is being unreasonably loud. Misdemeanors are minor criminal offense usually punishable by fines and less than a year of jail time. And California has a criminal law that provides for a fine (up to $400) or jail time or both for any person who willfully and maliciously disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise.7 You can find out what state laws a neighbor might be violating by asking the police or researching the law. (See Chapter 18.)

    Also, many states have noise control laws that address problems affecting the general public, such as airport, heavy industry, and transportation noises. Some states have an office to receive complaints and a staff that works with the federal government in its efforts to curb unnecessary noise. If a “big neighbor” is making your life miserable, contact your city attorney’s office for guidance on how to proceed under these state provisions, or look up your state’s law. (See Chapter 18.)

    Rental Agreements and Restrictive Covenants

    If you live in a planned community or rent an apartment, extra remedies might be available to you. You might not even need to ask for help from the city or other government authorities.

    Renting: An Additional Weapon Against Noise

    When your residence is a rented apartment in a large complex, you can be more vulnerable to noise. The walls can be thin, and you have more neighbors with whom you must contend. Sometimes the neighbor creating a problem is a complete stranger.

    Many apartment dwellers seem to think they have given up a right to quiet, and they tolerate too much noise. They are afraid to be labeled as troublemakers and don’t insist on their rights.

    People who live next door to apartment complexes also sometimes take excessive noise for granted.

    If you are in either of these groups, you have a lot of avenues open to you to regain your quiet. Laws that prohibit unreasonable noise apply to apartments, as do decibel level laws (though a lower level of noise is usually allowed within buildings than would be permissible outdoors). You can potentially also sue the noisy neighbor for a private nuisance.

    But there is more. The person making the noise can be evicted, and you can sue the landlord. (See “Additional Rights If You’re a Tenant (or Your Neighbors Are),” in Chapter 1.)

    Standard rental and lease agreements contain a clause entitled “Quiet Enjoyment.” In this clause you will find wording somewhat like this:

    Tenant(s) shall be entitled to quiet enjoyment of the premises.
    Tenant(s) shall not use the premises in such a way as to violate any law or ordinance, commit waste or nuisance, or annoy, disturb, inconvenience, or interfere with the quiet enjoyment of any other tenant or nearby resident.

    If the neighbor’s stereo is keeping you up every night, the tenants are probably violating the rental agreement. They can be evicted for the violation. Informing the neighbor of the lease restrictions might do the trick. If not, complaining to the landlord can be effective.

    Most apartment owners don’t want problems among their tenants, and they won’t put up with somebody who ignores the signed agreement and causes trouble. Especially if several tenants complain at the same time, the landlord will probably order the tenant to comply with the lease or face eviction.

    The landlord also might know that a tenant’s activity can form the basis for a “private nuisance” lawsuit against the landlord. If you have the same landlord as the noisemaker, you might not want to sue, but you have the right to do so. If you are just a neighbor, going after the landlord can often solve the problem.

    Planned Communities and Condos

    When you buy a condominium or a house in a planned community, the deed often contains restrictions called restrictive covenants. These can range all the way from what color you can paint your fence to what activities are allowed on your property. You agree to the restrictions (called covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or CC&Rs) when you buy the residence.

    Restrictions against excessive noise are quite common. The restrictions apply to you, your neighbors, and any tenants who are renting. What’s more, they place responsibility for a tenant’s actions on an owner. The owner is the one who agreed to the restrictions, and when a tenant breaks the rules, the owner can be disciplined and even sued to conform.

    In planned communities and condos, the right to enforce the rules is usually placed in the hands of a residents’ committee. Someone who violates the rules can be sanctioned, for example, by having to pay a fine or having privileges to common areas (such as a swimming pool) revoked. These remedies are above and beyond the regular noise laws, which are also applicable to people in these locales. They provide another possible step to take before calling in the law. Some owners’ associations have the power to sue members of the group to enforce the restriction. One neighbor can also sue another neighbor for violation of a restrictive covenant, but the time and expense probably won’t be worthwhile unless the problem is very serious.

    What to Do First About Neighbor Noise

    There are two common reactions to noise coming from a neighbor. The first is a sense of helplessness and resignation. You hate the noise, but you do nothing. The second is anger. You lose your temper and call the cops. There are better ways to handle the situation—and middle ground to be found.

    Approach the Neighbor

    Discussing the problem with a neighbor is not easy. In fact, it can be painful. But it is always the first step and, if done with respect and sensitivity, will hopefully be the last.

    Often the neighbor is unaware of a problem (for instance, the dog barks only when nobody is home). Or the neighbor might just not realize that the noise is bothering someone else. An effective approach is to assume that the neighbor doesn’t know, would like to be a good neighbor, and would like to be told. Before you complain behind the neighbor’s back, and certainly before you think of calling the police, tell the neighbor. Step over there or pick up the phone and give communication a chance.

    Example: Here’s a real-life account from one of this book’s original authors: “When I began writing this chapter, the puppy belonging to my lovely new next-door neighbors decided, as if on cue, to serenade me. I had only met the neighbors once, and I could not believe what was happening. It was as if the puppy knew when I sat down to write. Every word was punctuated with a yelp. He barked until he became exhausted, slept for a while, and then started again. He barked only when the neighbors were not at home.

    “Several days of this went by, much to the amusement of my family. It was not the least bit funny to me. I began to make mistakes in the text and had to rewrite whole paragraphs. For several nights, I looked at the telephone and cringed, wanting to call the neighbors but more strongly not wanting to call.

    “I knew the dog’s name and discovered if I yelled loudly enough at him, he would be quiet for a few minutes. My family became more amused.

    Now the neighborhood had turned into “bark, bark, yell; bark, bark, yell.” I was becoming part of the problem. “Finally, I had to call. How could I tell my readers to do something I couldn’t do myself? The neighbors were horrified to learn that there was a problem and very apologetic. They placed the puppy inside and now I write this in silence.”

    This example is typical. Most of us really hate to complain. Yet look what happened. The dog isn’t barking, the owners were grateful to be told, and the lines of communication stayed open. Once all of the apologies settle, these neighbors will probably be friends for years. All it took was one phone call.

    Warn the Neighbor About the Consequences of Noise Violations

    When informing the neighbor of the problem doesn’t work, the next step is to get a copy of your local noise ordinance. (See Chapter 18 regarding legal research.) Send it to the neighbor accompanied with a letter like the following:

    Sample Noise Complaint Letter

    September 2, 20xx

    Dear Mr. Thoughtless,

    I have enclosed our local noise laws so that you can read them. You will see that playing your stereo so loudly is against the law. It is very disturbing to me. Please turn down the volume as I have asked you to do in the past. Otherwise, I will be forced to notify the authorities.

    Sincerely yours,
    Bob Bothered

     

    Keep a copy of the letter because you might want it later if you sue the neighbor. (See “Sue for Nuisance,” below.) Then see what happens. The neighbor might not know the law, and finding out about it might put an end to the problem. Putting the complaint in writing also lets the neighbor know you mean business.

    Bring in the Landlord or Homeowners’ Association (If Any)

    If you live in a rental unit or restricted housing area, send a copy of the lease agreement or special rules to the neighbor along with your written complaint. This can result in prompt action, especially if you suggest that your next complaint will be to the landlord or the neighborhood association. In an area with a homeowners’ association, if a neighbor does not respond, notify the association.

    If a tenant refuses to comply with your requests, report it to the landlord in writing. You are not a troublemaker. In fact, you are assisting in protecting the landlord’s interests. A sample letter is below.

    Sample Noise Complaint Letter to Landlord

    May 14, 20xx

    Dear Mr. Wilson:

    I live in Unit 5 of your Ridgeland Apartments complex. Mr. Jones in Unit 7 plays his stereo at such a loud volume that it is a serious disturbance to me. I have asked him several times to please turn it down and he has not responded. Last week, I sent him the enclosed letter pointing out to him that he was violating his lease.

    I regret having to bother you, but I know that you would want to be alerted to this situation so it can be corrected. Thank you for your cooperation.

    Sincerely yours,
    Teri Tenant

     

    Strength in Numbers

    In dealing with a landlord or a hostile neighbor, one of the most effective things you can do is to get someone else to complain also. If you are being bothered, someone else probably is too. They are probably just waiting and hoping somebody will do something. They don’t want to act alone either. The greater the number of people complaining, the faster the relief should be.

    Suggest Mediation

    When a neighbor is uncooperative, before you call the cops or rush to court, consider using mediation. You and the neighbor can sit down together with an impartial, unbiased mediator and resolve your own problems. Mediation services are available in most cities and often are free or available at a nominal cost. You simply contact the mediation center, and most will then contact the neighbor for you.

    In a noise dispute, you could try to not only settle the current problem but also work out an agreement that would avoid problems in the future. This is a much better solution than simply calling a police cruiser to the door, which will guarantee hard feelings from then on. And especially when there are more problems than just the noise, the neighbor might be delighted at a chance to be heard. If you value the neighbor relationship at all or just want peace in the future, give mediation a try. (See Chapter 19 for more on this method of dispute resolution.)

    Call the Police or Other Authorities

    No response from the neighbor? Stereo turned up another notch? Now is the time to bring in law enforcement authorities. (If the problem is a barking dog, this could be the animal control officer in your town. And some cities have special noise units that respond to complaints.) You are in a very different position than you were originally. You have done what you could on your own and even have a copy of a letter to prove it.

    Of course, you don’t have to take all these steps before calling the law. But look at the difference between you, standing there with the written ordinance and the letter in your hand, and the thousands of people who call the cops over the slightest (and often most frivolous) matter. The police know the difference. They will know your complaint is serious and that you need help.

    Try to notify the police while the noise is continuing. If they are using a decibel meter, they need to be able to measure the noise level to see if it is above the allowed limit.

    Sue for Nuisance

    Whenever someone else’s unreasonable action interferes with your enjoyment of your property, that action creates what is called a private nuisance. If you are the one affected by it, you can sue the neighbor and/ or the neighbor’s landlord. You can ask the court for money damages or to make the neighbor stop the noise (that is, to have the nuisance abated). For money damages alone, you can use small claims court; for a court order to stop the noise, you might have to sue in regular court. Some states limit what subjects can be addressed in small claims court. (See Chapter 20 for small claims limitations.)

    What you really want is for the noise to disappear. However, having the neighbor ordered to pay you money can be amazingly effective in regaining your quiet. If the noise continues, you have a “continuing nuisance” and can sue again and again.

    A lot of neighbors are using small claims court for noise situations. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and you don’t need a lawyer.

    To sue for private nuisance due to noise, this is what you need to show:

    • There is excessive and disturbing noise.
    • The person you are suing either is creating the noise or is the landlord and therefore responsible.
    • Your enjoyment of your property is affected. (You don’t have to own the property—you can be a tenant.)
    • You have asked the person to stop the noise (a letter should be enough).

    These various items can be shown by police reports, other witnesses, your own testimony, or even a recording.

    The effect on you is called your damages. This might include loss of sleep, annoyance, or the inability to carry on normal activity without interference. You can ask for a reasonable dollar amount per day for damages. The amount you can sue for in small claims court is limited, usually between $2,500 and $20,000. (Chapter 20 lists each state’s limit.) If you have been bothered for 20 days and want $20 a day for it, this would usually be considered reasonable and would be well within the limit. If the noise problem is really severe—keeping you from sleeping or working and making you completely frazzled—$100 a day wouldn’t be too much to ask.

    Once you have sued in small claims court, if the noise continues, you can sue again. Also, if other people are affected, get together with your neighbors. If ten people sue for $2,500 each, that’s $25,000. Do it again—another $25,000. Sooner or later, the noise should stop.

    If you choose to sue in regular court and hire a lawyer, get the attorney to write a threatening letter before you sue; that might be all that it takes. Sadly, some neighbors and landlords can be pretty rotten, and nothing short of a judge’s order or high money damages will change the situation.

    For example, consider one nasty neighbor and an owner attempting to rent his house next door. Every time a prospective tenant looks at the property, the neighbor revs up his huge motorcycle. When the police come out, all is quiet. Damages can mount up quickly for the owner of the house. For extreme situations like this, you will need an attorney.

    Most noise problems between neighbors (and most neighbor disputes in general) can be solved by following a few simple guidelines:

    • Know the law and stay within it.
    • Be reasonably tolerant of your neighbors.
    • Be assertive with regard to your rights.
    • Communicate with your neighbors—both the neighbor causing the problem and others affected by it.
    • Ask the police for help when it is appropriate.
    • Use the courts when necessary.

    Endnotes

    1. “Noise, Health, and Place,” HAPI, 2015.
    2. Cal. Civ. Code § 1102.6(c).
    3. Oxford, Miss., Mun. Code § 34-62.
    4. San Francisco, CA, SFPC 29 § 2900.
    5. Schild v. Rubin, 232 Cal. App. 3d 755 (1991).
    6. N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-20-1.
    7. Cal. Penal Code § 415.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample chapter. The complete book is available for sale here at Nolo.com.

4.8

12 Reviews
5 Star
83%
4 Star
17%
3 Star
0%
2 Star
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I own the fence

By Jackie B.

Neighbor Law supported what I had read on other search sights about fence issues.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Review

By Philip B.

Very well written in practical everyday language addressing the full range of neighbor relations quandaries. This also makes for entertaining reading for a few minutes here and there and can drive friendly conversations. This should be on every homeowner's shelf.

Posted on 5/30/2023

A must have for every home owner.

By Jean O.

Very well written and easy to understand. Helped me tremendously with a new neighbor who cut 18 trees down that were on my property.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Good Information on Neighbor Laws

By Charles G.

This has some good information on general neighbor violations that gives you a starting point of typical problems you may encounter with neighbors.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Must have for anyone living amongst neighbors not just dealing with disputes

By William L.

Informative, easy to navigate, and even easier to read and comprehend. Really impressed by the information contained in this book.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Review

By Carl S.

Very informative and helpful.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Review

By Paul W.

Will aid residents to tackling conflict with neighbors.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Wealth of knowledge

By Wisconsin

Very informative and covers an array of topics. Anyone that ever had neighbor issues would definitely benefit from this book. I highly recommend. You won't be disappointed with it's wealth of knowledge.

Posted on 5/30/2023

Review

By Mary F.

I have not had needed for this information of a long time, and my last Neighbor Law was out of date. This edition is very well-written, clarifies some of the issues (trees, roots, branches and who is responsible for what). THANK YOU!!

Posted on 5/30/2023

Good Source

By Anonymous

This is a good source to turn to when you want answers. I found my answer here.

Posted on 5/30/2023

GREAT

By Anonymous

GREAT

Posted on 5/30/2023

Review

By Anonymous

Hello
The information provided is excellent. My only suggestion is that you help infividuals, such as myself, take the next step. This would be to suggest Nevada lawyers with varying levels of expperience. This would allow me to contact ones with experience (and pricing) appropriate to my needs. I would be happy to pay additionally for this advice. (This would move you up to a 5 star rating).
([email protected]).

Posted on 5/30/2023

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