Property: Friends or neighbours?

Mad, bad or dangerous - the people next door can ruin your life. By Ginetta Vedrickas
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Your home is a haven. A retreat from the stresses of modern life where peace prevails. Or does it? The proliferation of "neighbours from hell" articles and programmes would suggest otherwise. But can you minimise risks when buying and could falling out with your neighbours prevent you selling?

Jane and Andrew bought their 1930s house in Wood Green, north London, in 1988, "right in that completely mad time" and believe the buying frenzy contributed to their failure to spot the warning signs: "We had visited the house a few times and loved it. We saw an overgrown garden and dingy curtains next door, but thought no more of it."

They moved in and all stayed quiet for a few weeks - until they finally met their neighbour: "When we introduced ourselves, he looked terrified and ran back into his house. When we saw him again we realised he was in a bad way. He obviously hadn't washed in ages and looked dishevelled."

It became apparent their neighbour had mental health problems and, while Jane felt sympathetic, living in an adjoining house was not easy: "He would sing and yell at all times of the day and night, and when I was in the garden I would catch him watching me." After finding strange objects lying in their garden - "an old kettle and some cutlery" - Jane contacted the local Social Services department for help. A social worker visited, but found that while the house was dilapidated there was little that could be done for their neighbour, who refused all offers of help.

Jane notes this as a turning point: "I think he knew we had contacted Social Services and was angry with us. His bouts of screaming and shouting became more frequent, and he sometimes threw things when I was in the garden. It got to the point where I hated sitting out there."

The couple tolerated the situation but shortly after having a baby they sold the house, at a loss, to an unsuspecting couple: "We dreaded them asking what the neighbours were like, but they didn't, so we didn't tell them. After all, nobody told us when we bought the house. I felt guilty, but we had our baby to think about and I was worried about the effect on her."

Were Jane and Andrew breaking the law? In the late Eighties probably not, but shortly afterwards the Law Society introduced a property information form which asks vendors to disclose disputes about their own or any neighbouring property, and to detail any complaints they have received as owners.

Conveyancing solicitor Caroline Sherry, a partner at Glazer Delmar, sees an irony: "If you haven't actually complained about something, you are protected. Lots of clients ask if they have to complete this section but the form specifically asks for this information and if you don't answer truthfully potentially a buyer could sue."

Ms Sherry does not find that admitting to a dispute scuppers sales: "I think probably 90 per cent of neighbour disputes arise from character differences. One person may have a problem with their neighbour while the next may think they are absolutely wonderful. It's often the slightly difficult client who has a problem with their neighbour and you pity the poor neighbour."

Fellow conveyancing solicitor Elizabeth Ajagbe finds vendors "fairly candid" when admitting to disputes, but warns buyers to be wary of who completes the form: "Solicitors are more likely to limit any information given and to couch it in particular terms putting the responsibility back on to the buyers to make their own inquiries."

In which case, the best advice for buyers who want to avoid problems is to visit the property at different times throughout the day, ask specific questions about noise and boundaries, and, if a neighbouring property looks problematic, investigate further before exchanging contracts.

But what should you do if you've bought, and a problem with neighbours becomes irreconcilable. If selling or suing is not an option, then for some, the answer can lie in mediation using a specialist organisation specifically set up to act as an intermediary.

Bridget Canavan is joint co-ordinator of Lambeth Mediation Service, a charity committed to improving neighbour relationships. With 10 years' experience, she prefers this route to litigation: "Mediation is a method of resolving disputes which doesn't ask if there's a right or wrong as we don't take sides. It's recognising that there's a problem and bringing together everyone who has a stake to put it right."

Bridget's clients come from all sectors. Last year she dealt with 148 cases of which 25 per cent were known to be owner occupiers. Some 49 per cent of these cases arose from noise problems, with half concentrating on everyday household noise - washing machines and vacuum cleaners, rather than music.

Bridget finds owner occupiers "much more litigious" and they are more likely to argue about boundaries than noise: "A big problem is that deeds are not to scale, so that it is impossible to identify where one person's property ends and another's begins. On the surface the dispute may be about a couple of inches of ground, which seems trivial, but underneath it's about encroachment."

She cites the case of the young couple who move into a house and immediately start to erect a large fence. In the process, they take about an inch off the garden of the elderly couple next door. "They may have lived there for 60 years. So it's not really about that lost inch, it is about encroaching on someone else's territory," she says.

There are more than 150 mediation groups across the country and the number is growing. Bridget believes that mediation should not be overly prescriptive: "If people generate their own solutions they are much more likely to stick to them."

Ajai-Ajagbe solicitors, 0171-735 4788; Glazer Delmar, 0171-639 8801; Mediation UK, 0117-904 6661

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