Neighbours – they can affect your blood pressure!

In this day and age, unless you are out there on the wallaby all alone, we all have neighbours. 

Even if you are in a caravan then you are going to have neighbours at various campsites or caravan parks. 

Having a good healthy relationship with your neighbours whether living in a suburban block, a strata unit or on a rural property can be a very rewarding experience. For example, neighbours can keep an eye on your house while you are away, collect your mail, water your plants, feed your pets and provide good social company. 

However, unfortunately disputes can arise between neighbours. There are many sorts of issues that can cause a falling out. These can include noise, dividing fences, overhanging tree branches, dogs and other pets, rubbish, access to properties, renovations and building works, use of common property and the behaviour of children. 

A poor relationship with your neighbour can make your life very stressful and we already have enough stress in our lives and having an uncomfortable or unsafe relationship with your neighbour can just add to that. 

What To Do

So how do we deal with our neighbours if there is a problem? The first step is to try to talk to your neighbour before whatever issues you have escalate, whether it be their son playing the drums late at night or loud music from the teenagers’ bedroom. Often it is best to talk to the neighbours as soon as the problem arises as you do not want to let the issue go too far. It is often how you have the conversation and in what context, rather than what the conversation is about, that is important. 

You need to be calm, clearly articulate the problems you have and how their behaviour is affecting you. You need to try to get them to see your point of view, just as you should listen to your neighbour so you can understand their point of view and respond to any of their concerns. However, often neighbours may be of such a personality that they are never going to be told how to live, however nicely and compromising you are. 

Mediate

If talking to your neighbour or attempting to talk to your neighbour does not work, maybe you could ask a third party to help to try to mediate. This could be a mutual friend, a family member or another neighbour who knows you both and can act as an informal mediator. 

If that does not work, then you could contact the Community Justice Centre to arrange a mediation. Statistics show that more than 80% of the disputes that come before the Community Justice Centre resolve in an agreement. They can be contacted on 1800 990 777. 

Finally, you can take legal action. This should only be used as the last resort. More often than not, if you do make an application to the Court which may involve an application for a restraining order, the Court will order that you have a mediation with the Community Justice Centre. Therefore, it is a good idea to try that path first. Further, if you do go to Court that will probably damage your relationship with your neighbour even more. Obviously a mutually agreed solution is by far the best way to resolve your problems. Before you go off and engage with your neighbour, it is important to know the law, your rights and obligations. 

Free legal advice can be obtained from Law Access on 1300 888 529. 

You may also which to contact your local council to enquire whether there are any local laws or regulations that apply to your particular area. Some of the more common issues are summarised below.

Noise 

A common complaint between neighbours is noise. It can be annoying especially if you are a shift worker, elderly or have sleeping patterns that are different from your neighbour. The first step would be to try to talk to your neighbour pointing out the problems that their behaviour is causing. If you are unable to reach an agreement, then the next step would be to try a mediation through the Community Justice Centre. 

If you are unable to do that then you may need to approach your local council, especially if the noise is a consistently barking dog. In that case, you will need to keep a diary and logbook of the times and durations that the dog barks. (Or record it on your phone.)  This will help the council ranger to decide whether or not it is worthwhile for them to pursue any legal action. Remember that this is an expense to council, so the more help you can be the better.  

Sometimes there are parties or loud music very late at night. At this stage, you can make a complaint to the police who can either telephone your neighbour if you know their details or visit them. If it continues and is not just a one off, you can approach the local council or local court to seek a noise abatement order. This could arise because of things such as noisy air conditioners, barking dogs, noisy pool filters, early morning leaf blowers etc. Often this will involve an expert report on the level of noise. 

Trees

Overhanging trees and invading roots can be a potential risk to neighbours. This could be as trivial as falling leaves and more serious as large branches falling on structures causing financial damage to buildings. Disputes could also amount to affecting your view or amount of sunlight that reaches your property. 

The general rule is that if your neighbour’s tree has branches or roots that overhang, invade or interfere with your property, you have rights to cut back those branches and roots. If the tree causes damage to your property you are able to seek damages. As in all cases it is advisable to talk to your neighbour about the problem before taking any serious action. 

You should also be mindful that if you damage or kill the tree causing the problem, you could be liable for compensation to the neighbours. These days you are now able to measure the financial value that a tree adds to a property. I have been involved in one case where a tree was valued at $18,000 which was poisoned by a neighbour. You also may need to check with your council as to what permission you need before pruning a tree, especially if it is large. Interestingly, you should be aware that any fruit, roots or branches you remove from your neighbour’s tree belongs to your neighbour and in theory you should ask them if they would like these returned. Maybe it is not a good idea to throw them back over the fence unless it is a block of chocolate.

Fences

A very common dispute is the dividing fence. The Dividing Fences Act 1991 (NSW) provides by general principle that adjoining owners must share the cost of a “sufficient dividing fence”. Therefore, both parties are to share equally in the cost of either repairing a fence or providing a new fence. The next issue is what is sufficient. This will depend upon a number of factors including the standard of the existing fence, the use or intended use of the properties, for example keeping stock or animals enclosed and any privacy or security concerns. The common or usual kind of fence in the area and finally any local government of environmental planning rules and regulations that apply especially to height. 

It is also important to know where the fence is to be built. Sometimes fences encroach on your neighbour’s land or vice versa. In that regard, it is very advisable to obtain a survey report showing exactly where the boundary is. Sometimes you might even find survey pegs. If you want a fence that is more than “sufficient” it is usually the person who wants the extra features to pay the additional cost.

In the event that you are unable to reach an agreement, you then under the Dividing Fences Act can serve a fencing notice. You should follow the procedure set out in the Act before spending money on building a new fence or at least have the agreement in writing. This is a notice that should be served on your neighbour including the position, type and estimated cost of the fence as well as the contribution that you are seeking. In rural areas it can be a little more difficult given there are creeks and other geographical issues. In that case there is the ‘give and take’ rule which means that you may lose or gain especially if there is a creek, gully or river as a boundary. Often issues arise when a rural property changes hands and the new purchasers are perhaps not quite “au fait” with a long-standing historic relationship between neighbours. 

However, you should also remember that the most constant thing in life is change. Again, approaching your neighbour and trying to discuss the problem and solution in a calm and logical way is by far the best way to resolve these issues. 

If you anticipate that you will have a problem with your neighbour, then understand and make enquiries in relation to your legal rights and then sit down calmly around your kitchen table and work out a strategy as to the best way to resolve your problem with your neighbour. Remember you may have your neighbour as a neighbour for a very long time, so you do not want to mess that relationship up if you can. 

Pollution

In these times you are really only allowed to “burn off” if you are cooking, i.e. a barbeque or doing it for an agricultural or recreation purpose. Gone are the days when you could rake up the leaves and burn them off. Your neighbour should be notified.  Often you need permission but that will depend upon the season and what type of burning off you need. If you are concerned about a burn off by your neighbour, you can report it to your local council or fire brigade. If the burn off is illegal or there is a fire prevention order in place your neighbour could be prosecuted. 

So, the moral of the story is a good and healthy relationship with your neighbour can make a huge difference to your health and blood pressure, so think before you act impulsively in attempting to solve your neighbourly dispute. 

Consider all the above before the alternative of up stakes and moving because of a neighbour, which can be a depressing last option.

James Paton  

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