1. “Complaining will cost you.”
Falling out with your neighbors can mean more than just uncomfortable meetings in the hallway or front yard, added stress and sleepless nights. When Richard Laermer and his partner moved into a Manhattan co-op, his next-door neighbor invited them over to dinner. “We had a lovely wine-infused time,” recalls Laermer, a PR executive. But those good times didn’t last. A few short weeks after breaking bread, Laermer left a sticky note on the neighbor’s door asking if her kids could be quieter in the mornings. “Tone is impossible to convey,” he says. “She was sure I was yelling at her, but really I was explaining how connected our pads were.” The neighbor cut off all contact. After that, things got really bad.
As Laermer discovered, a bitter neighbor has the power to sue you over anything from a barking dog to street parking. When Laermer, for example, wanted to change the position of his apartment’s front door to create an alcove, his neighbor threatened to sue because it would infringe on her privacy. “It would have added $75,000 to the value of our home,” he says. After five years of the silent treatment, the couple moved in 2007 to friendlier climes in Connecticut, he says. “Try to build a good relationship with your neighbors, because friends usually don’t sue friends,” says Robert W. Zierman, a lawyer who practices boundary dispute law in Seattle.
Laermer is more careful these days. “I think the tough economy has made people keen not to ruffle feathers,” he says. Not everyone can afford to move. Around 10.7 million homeowners, or 22%, owed more on their mortgages than their home was worth in the third quarter of 2012, according to the latest figures from CoreLogic, a mortgage-data firm. That is down from around 23% in 2011. Laermer was the one that got away – by moving to a new neighborhood – but he has regrets. “My bad neighbors ruined decades of anonymous Manhattan dwelling fun. Apartment living will never be the life for me again.”
2. “I will use your Wi-Fi — and might get you arrested.”
Nearly one-third of Americans admit to using their neighbor’s Internet service, nearly double the number from two years ago, according to a national survey by the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance. Such thieving can push your data usage above its monthly limit and increase your Wi-Fi bill, according to a spokeswoman for AT&T, who recommends that customers protect their Wi-Fi network with a password and change it regularly. Worse, there’s no controlling what Wi-Fi thieves do with your signal, and if what they’re doing is illegal, you could be in hot water.
Barry Covert, a lawyer based in Buffalo, N.Y., and recently represented two clients — one in Buffalo, N.Y. and one in Milford, Mass. — who he says had their wireless Internet hijacked by neighbors downloading child pornography. The clients are no longer facing charges: The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, issued an official apology in March to the family in Buffalo, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has since said that it believed the people in Milford were innocent. Neither case went to court, but if they had, Covert says, legal fees could have run to $100,000. To be sure, the more common result of Wi-Fi mooching is simply a slow Internet connection. But experts say it is so difficult for investigators to determine whether the person using a network is the account owner, almost anyone could wind up in legal trouble.
The solution: Secure your Wi-Fi, and change the password regularly. It isn’t fail-safe, but it sets up an obstacle, pros say, and that can be enough to encourage a thief to move on to the house down the block. “If you use technology, you need to know how it can be used against you,” Covert says.
3. “Good luck blocking out our din.”
The biggest complaint people have about their neighbors is noise, says Bob Borzotta, whose annual online poll at his website NeighborsFromHell.com has ranked it as No. 1 year after year. That includes barking dogs, loud music, car and house alarms and domestic arguments. And these aren’t the constant complaints of a neighborhood killjoy. “I know two people who ended up having intestinal surgery because of anxiety related to long-running disputes with neighbors over noise,” Borzotta says. Like Richard Laermer, he advises caution when complaining. “If you complain to the wrong person, a genuine neighbor from hell, he or she will make a point of making you miserable,” he says.