The Dump Next Door 

How do you get your neighbors to clean their messy yard, or stop throwing loud parties?

Miles Kaplan thought he had the worst neighbors in the world. It wasn't just that they left a rusting Ford pickup in the parking lot, or dumped a rotting couch in the apartment complex courtyard. It was also that when they practiced dribbling basketballs indoors at night, he could hear it through his ceiling. And when they held all-night parties, blasting music in the wee hours, Kaplan had to do without sleep. They dropped cigarette butts and beer bottles over their balcony railing to smash onto his patio below, and he often woke on Sunday mornings to find puddles of vomit smeared across his terrace. "I'd dream about that 'Who Let the Dogs Out' song all the time," he said, "because they would play it every time they had a party. These guys were relentless."

Kaplan and his roommates trudged upstairs almost every week to complain, they banged broom handles against the ceiling, they shouted threats and pleas, but nothing seemed to work. "Finally, we gave up and moved," he said. "They just outlasted us."

Bad neighbors -- with rowdy parties, blaring music, or trash-strewn yards -- are a perpetual annoyance of city living, but few people have any idea what to do when their neighbors act up. But that doesn't mean that people don't try.

Sometimes some strong words are enough to rectify a situation. Karen Mockrin remembered her Berkeley condo, where a teenage neighbor practiced his bagpipes on the balcony every night at 10 o'clock. In the next building over lived a very large, muscular man, who finally threw open his window to scream obscenities at the bagpipe enthusiast.

"To my surprise and delight, the pimple-faced nerd began to scream back," she said. "Muscle-man threatened to come over to our building, bust down the door, and hurl both pimple-face and his bagpipes off the balcony. Pimple-face yelled back, 'There's no way you'll get in, motherfucker. Our building is secured tight as a drum.' That was a big mistake. I yelled out, 'I'll let you in!'"

There was a loud round of applause, and other neighbors began shouting out suggestions to the muscle-man on their favorite murder methods. The bagpiper ran back inside his apartment, never to be heard again. "For all I know, he moved out the next day," Mockrin said.

In apartment buildings, tenants can take complaints to an on-site manager or landlord. R. Hohman lives in a San Francisco duplex where the family next door piles trash -- including bikes, ladders, old miniblinds, and boxes of magazines -- in front of her door. When the pile started to attract mice, she had enough. "I finally asked my landlord to intervene," she said, "and [the neighbor's] husband yelled at me over the phone when he called to ask him to clean it up. I hope they die in a fiery crash."

Traditionally, if you owned your own home there were few outside authorities keeping obnoxious neighbors in line. That has started to change in recent years, with some neighborhoods forming condominium or homeowner associations, complete with their own property managers, to force residents to live up to certain standards. Homeowners living in planned communities agree to CCR (conditions, covenants, and restrictions) that prescribe minimum maintenance and proper conduct.

"If you're having trouble with your neighbors, the first thing you do is go to learn what your CCR covers," said Tom Murphy, a manager with Stockton-based property managers M& C Management Co. "The CCR is the bible of the association."

Usually, if neighbors refuse to abide by the CCR, the board starts out by sending letters telling them to bring their home up to standard. If that doesn't work, the next step is to request a hearing where homeowners can make their cases. "If the board finds that something needs to be fixed and that person still refuses, some boards will give you permission to go onto the neighbor's property and fix the thing yourself," said Laurence Steffan, an Alameda-based attorney who serves as general counsel to homeowner and condominium associations. "That's only in extreme cases, if it's something potentially hazardous, like leaky plumbing and the owner is on vacation and can't deal with it."

Outside of neighborhood associations, forcing neighbors to shape up is more difficult, but not impossible. And the best way to do it is the venerable American tradition of taking them to court. If you can prove the neighbors are creating a nuisance by refusing to clean up or shut up -- that is, they're interfering with your ability to enjoy your own property nearby -- you can get a court to order them to change.

"It's hard to prove a nuisance suit," Steffan said. "It takes a lot to be a nuisance, a lot more than just some weeds on the lawn. Maybe if you've got a male gingko tree that stinks to high heaven, or broken-down fridges or cars on the lawn."

Sometimes you can get the city code enforcement to solve your problem for you. For neighbors who let their grass grow wild, many cities have a weed abatement division that will hack down a tangled lawn to reduce the risk of fire. For rat infestations, vector control takes charge. For noisy parties and parking violations, the police are the natural choice to call, unless your neighborhood contracts with a private security firm.

But cities usually get involved only in extreme cases. For a neighbor who has only fallen a little behind on the housekeeping, there's little that can be done. "There are usually three reasons for messy neighbors," Oakland Realtor Anne Feste said. "It could be an elderly person who can't do maintenance on their house anymore. It could be a person with great intentions but who believes in fixing things himself. It could be a rental property where the owner doesn't even know what's going on."

In the case of a rental property, tracking down the owner and sending them digital photos of what has happened to their property would be the logical next step if a tenant refuses to clean up. In the other two scenarios, Feste said, there's little cause for alarm: "With an elderly person, it's really more important that they're still safe and healthy in their home than that it's immaculate. And I've sold many houses where a self-fixer-upper lived across the street. When I know there's a self-fixer in the area, I encourage the buyer to do a little door-knock."

Feste says it's important to be understanding of your neighbor's quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, one couple in their early twenties inherited a dilapidated house in Feste's Oakland neighborhood. They spent every dollar and every moment trying to make the house livable again. Sofas and area carpets appeared in the rear yard, plumbing leaks made their wet furnishings begin to smell, and an uprooted toilet stood on the lawn for a year, long enough that hedges began to envelop it. Eventually, Feste's husband hauled the toilet to the dump himself and nothing more was ever said.

While it was easy to get annoyed at the eyesore, Feste emphasized it was important to see things from the neighbor's point of view. "They intended to haul it away, but they couldn't afford to get a vehicle to do it," she said. "When you talk to your neighbors, they'll find that we all have our quirks. If you can figure out what's going on in that house, it often makes sense to everyone then."

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