1. "Complaining will cost you dearly."
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 Post-It note on the neighbor's door asking if her kids could be quieter in the mornings. The neighbor responded by cutting off all contact.
Falling out with your neighbors can mean more than just uncomfortable meetings in the hallway or front yard, added stress and sleepless nights. A bitter neighbor has the power to block renovations that could improve the value of your home and 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.
2. "I will use your Wi-Fi -- and 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 non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance. Such thieving can push your data usage above its monthly limit and increase your Wi-Fi bill, says McCall Butler, 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., is currently representing two clients -- one in Buffalo, N.Y. and one in Milford, Mass. -- who he says had their wireless internet hijacked by neighbors to download 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 Investigations told SmartMoney.com that the agency 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.
The solution is simple: Secure your Wi-Fi, and change the password regularly. It's not failsafe, but it sets up an obstacle, 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."
Unofficially, the biggest complaint people have about their neighbors is noise, says Bob Borzotta, who has conducted online polls on the issue at his website NeighborsFromHell.com. 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. Lost sleep and noisy neighbors can mean hefty doctor's bills to deal with anxiety and stress. People who suffer from psychological distress spend an average of $1,735 more on health care each year than lower-stress folks, according to research published last month by researchers at the Medical University at South Carolina. Another option -- soundproofing -- can cost $200 for one wall between you and the noisy neighbor and $300 for the ceiling, according to Ted White, president of the Michigan-based Soundproofing Company. Soundproof Windows range from $350 to $900 per window, according to Reno, Nevada-based Soundproof Windows Inc.
4. "I'm a registered sex offender."
For obvious reasons, this may be the last thing in the world your neighbor will tell you, but it's important, even for people who don't have children. Thanks to the Sexual Offender Act of 1994, also called "Megan's Law," people convicted of sex crimes must notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment post-prison. That information is then made public, via the National Sex Offender Registry. And as would-be home buyers use these tools right along with Zillow to evaluate their future neighborhoods, the presence of a convicted sex-offender can hurt property values. A study by the researchers in Longwood College and Longwood University in Virginia said that registered sex offenders living nearby can reduce your home's value by 9% and homes near registered sex offenders can take over 70% longer to sell.
5. "We're ripping up the flower beds and planting corn."
Forget Farmville. About 43 million Americans now grow their own fruits, vegetables, berries and herbs, according to a 2009 National Gardening Association report, up 19% over the previous year. But what's good for the farmer isn't necessarily so good for his neighbors. A Virginia Tech study from 2009 suggested that landscaping and pristine lawns help increase property values by an average of 7.5%. A home valued at $150,000 with no landscaping could be worth up to from $8,000 to $19,000 more with a sophisticated landscape with color and large plants, the study said: "Relatively large landscape expenditures significantly increase perceived home value and will result in a higher selling price than homes with a minimal landscape."
At least if your neighbor decides to plow her garden, perhaps she'll share the harvest. Cat Rocketship, 27, ripped up her lawn when she moved to a settled neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, and planted soy beans, corn, squash, tomatoes and peppers. But now, she says, "we're feeding at least two families with the vegetables we're growing."
6. "My apartment has bed bugs."
It only takes one embarrassed and silent neighbor with a mattress full of bed bugs to infect an entire apartment building. In one recent study, the arrival of a single suspected bedbug resulted in infestation in 45% of the units in a 233-unit apartment building within three years. Getting rid of the pests is hard -- it may take several cycles of extreme extermination, and around $550 for a typical one-bedroom apartment, according to San Francisco-based exterminator Dan Fitzsimmons.
In some cases, landlords have to tell new tenants about infestations. New York, which has suffered from a rise in bed bugs infestations in recent years, requires it by law. But neighbors can keep their own bed bug problems to themselves, and if the critters creep from their apartment to yours, it's not always clear who's on the hook. In some cases, the landlord will cover the costs; in others it's the tenant's responsibility. The only thing would-be tenants can look for, beyond asking the landlord, is obvious signs of filth: The more unhygienic the neighbor, the greater the odds of an infestation.
7. "I'm secretly stealing your land."
Few homeowners have heard of "adverse possession," but it's the legal grounds on which a neighbor can claim rights to your land. Say a neighbor moves a fence or wall, or plants trees or a bush. If he encroaches on your property, and no one notices, he can claim "continuous, exclusive, open and notorious" use of that land -- and if he's able to do so for an average of 10 years in most states, he may be able to claim ownership. This could potentially add tens of thousands of dollars onto the value of his property while reducing the value of yours. But most people don't check their land boundaries until it's too late, Zierman says. "You may not want to make a fuss because you're neighbors," he says. By the time it becomes a real issue -- you're selling your house, or your neighbor is -- securing the boundaries is important, and fighting to get the land back can cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
8. "Our bad behavior will give the street a bad name."
When Ariel Stallings moved into her first home in a quiet suburb of Seattle, she thought she would be the one who would make curtains twitch, considering her rainbow-colored dreadlocks. But the real trouble was brewing at the house across the street. "It soon became obvious they were selling drugs," says Stallings. Eventually, the police raided the house and dealt with the problem.
Not everyone is so lucky. If forced to stay in a house next door to lawbreaking (or just troublesome) neighbors, security isn't cheap. Fences, stronger gates and a top-of-the-range security system with multiple cameras and window-and-door sensors can cost up to $10,000 for a large house, says Bob Tucker, a spokesman for Florida-based ADT Security Services, which has 6.3 million clients.
9. "We're not paying our mortgage."
When your neighbors can't keep up with their house payments, it can spell trouble for the whole neighborhood. Foreclosed homes are not only more likely to fall into disrepair and blight the landscape, they can reduce the value of nearby homes. On average, home property values drop nearly 1% when they're within one-eighth of a mile from a foreclosed single-family residence, according to the Woodstock Institute, a research group, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. And real estate analysts project there are more foreclosures ahead. Banks repossessed 69,532 homes in April, down 5% from March, but this was due to delays in the foreclosure process rather a sign of an improving market, according to foreclosure-listing firm RealtyTrac. Mortgage tracker firm CoreLogic says 23% of all residential properties with a mortgage were underwater -- meaning they owe more than the house is worth -- in the first quarter, roughly the same as the previous quarter. An additional 5% of homeowners were nearly underwater.
10. "You're moving? I'll cut $20,000 off your sale price."
Those casual over-the-fence conversations about your flooded basement or the incipient kudzu problem could end up costing you when it's time to sell. Realtors often advise home buyers to find out what the neighbors think about a property. "I do encourage any buyer to drive around the neighborhood and, if they see a neighbor out front, to stop and talk," says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, a broker with Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Coldwell Banker AJS Schmidt Realtors. We've gotten some really cool information from people that way."
Some realtors will do their own investigations. Robert Earl, from The Earl of Real Estate agency based in Reston, Va., says he's one of many agents who check with local busybodies when representing a buyer. Earl says knowledge of a "distressed sale" or divorce could knock 5% off your asking price -- that's $20,000 off the average sale price in Northern Virginia. Neighbors have told him about flood damage on a property he was looking at on behalf of a client, and "sure enough we saw evidence of water damage hidden away."