A good neighbour is a valuable asset, but backyard squabbles are on the rise.

When you buy a new home, one of the greatest unknowns is over the fence. You can inspect the building, scope the drains, and survey the boundaries – but you never really know what you’re buying into next door.

During the past two years we’ve all seen (and heard) a lot more of our neighbours. And it hasn’t been a bonding experience for everyone.

Mediation services have reported calls from feuding neighbours – already on the rise pre-Covid – have skyrocketed. WA’s Citizens Advice Bureau told ABC news they averaged 40 calls a week in 2021, a massive surge from just one every two weeks in 2014.

So, what gives? Are we becoming more annoying, less tolerant, or both? And have we forgotten how to simply knock on a door and sort it out ourselves? More and more people are resorting to legal action, mediation or calling in the council. Many disputes begin over minor matters that escalate. According to mediation services, the top causes of fallouts include:

Fences: the condition and location.

Trees: branches that overhang or block views and roots that damage property.

Animals: barking dogs and other noisy or smelly pets.

Privacy: structures that overlook other properties or the removal of screening plants.

Noise: blowers, power tools, air-conditioners and pool pumps.

Children: noisy or rude kids.

Access: parking across driveways or on shared easements.

Retaining walls: can cause visual or drainage issues.

Get off on the right foot

The best way to avoid a dispute is to have a friendly relationship in the first place. Sunday March 27 is Relationship’s Australia’s 20th annual Neighbour Day. It aims to highlight how neighbourly bonds alleviate loneliness and boost mental health and is a timely reason to launch a charm offensive. Remember some golden rules.

Say hello: Make sure the first time you meet your neighbour isn’t when you’re screaming at them about their Spotify playlist at 1am. An occasional wave is all it takes, but remember the line between friendly and nosy.

Build brownie points: Taking in or putting out a neighbour’s wheelie bin goes a long way to generating goodwill. Let them know you’re happy to watch their house or collect mail when they’re away and they’re likely to reciprocate.

Show respect and tolerance: We’re all going to annoy our neighbours at some point, so exercise a bit of give and take. Give advance warning if you have a party or noisy project planned and try to roll with it when they’re rowdier than usual.

Mending fences

If an issue does arise, you don’t want to end up on a current affairs program brandishing security cam footage of each other. Nothing beats a face-to-face chat. Leaving a note in a letterbox is easier, but can seem abrupt and confrontational. And it’s particularly provocative to film people. Consider how you’d feel on the receiving end.

Before making an initial approach, think carefully about what you want to say and get your timing right. Don’t stroll up when they are rushing off to work or taking the kids to school.

Listen

Once you have explained your issue, be prepared to hear their side. Resolving it may involve compromise on both sides so be prepared to give some ground. In fact, before you approach them, spend some time considering this and go armed with solutions not just problems.

Neighbour from hell?

Sometimes being reasonable just doesn’t work. In these rare instances, it’s worth keeping a record (dates and times) of incidents and interactions. Your local council or police may help if behaviour amounts to a breach of council or state laws.

Don’t underestimate the mental and physical toll – not to mention monetary – if it ends up in legal action. If all else fails, you can seek free and independent mediation services:

  • NSW: Community Justice Centre
  • Victoria: Dispute Settlement Centre
  • Queensland: Dispute Resolution Centre
  • WA: Citizens Advice Bureau
  • SA: Uniting Communities Mediation Service
  • ACT: Conflict Resolution Service
  • NT: Community Justice Centre
  • Tasmania: Legal Aid

Did you know?

Simmering tension with neighbours can affect not only your health and happiness, but your resale value in some countries.

In England it’s illegal to sell a house without declaring an ongoing dispute with a neighbour that affects liveability. And it doesn’t just apply to a documented legal stoush, it covers any continuing friction.

In 2003 a couple in Hampshire had to refund $125,000 (£67,500) – more than half the original sale price of their home – when a court found they failed to declare a long-running dispute with a neighbour over parking on a shared access road.1

On the flipside, having a good neighbour can be helpful, and amusing. Queensland resident Nick Doherty texted his neighbour Carl Stanojevic in December last year to ask him to “take his bin out.” Carl dutifully loaded his neighbour’s wheelie bin into the back of his car and took it on a wonderful day out – to the beach, the local surf club and a local pub, sharing photographs on Facebook. The neighbourly prank gained both men international attention.

(And, yes, Carl did empty and wash the bin before taking it out).

Photo credit: Carl Stanojevic

1 Dyer, C., £67,000: The price of lying to the people buying your house, The Guardian, 4 March, 2003.

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