The Problem Next Door

(Illustration by Lou Beach for The Washington Post)
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By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Chuck Rattmann paid little attention to the cars parked in his neighbor's yard, the numerous old lawn mowers and the unkempt look of the place -- until he tried to sell his Woodbridge house.

Potential buyers balked at what they saw next door, Rattmann said, prompting him to tentatively air his concerns in a casual face-to-face chat with his longtime neighbor.

"The lawn is now cut, and two cars have been removed," Rattmann said. "It's starting to look better. It needs more help, but the guy's headed in the right direction."

The potential for conflicts between neighbors can deepen during a housing slump like this one. Homeowners worried about their property values are prone to get more agitated more quickly about smaller things. Add to that today's mounting economic worries, and the likelihood for disputes grows because people have fewer financial or emotional reserves to tap.

At county government offices, complaints are piling up in areas hard hit by foreclosures and plummeting home prices. In Prince William County, for instance, the number of "tall grass" cases has soared to 450 this month from 80 this time last year. In certain regions, the rancor is obvious on neighborhood e-mail lists and Web sites such as, a search engine that allows users to post comments about homeowners anonymously.

"As the economy has gotten worse, the number of problems between neighbors seems to be increasing, and the size of what rises to the level of a problem seems to be decreasing," said Daniel R. Burk, a mediator and founder of Resolution Point in Great Falls. "People get less flexible as they get more stressed."

In these high-pressure times, it becomes more critical than usual to tactfully raise your concerns with a neighbor and to enlist the help of others. You may choose to file an anonymous complaint with county zoning officials, work with a trained mediator, speak to a lawyer about your options or file a lawsuit.

Whatever route you take, conflict-resolution experts recommend trying the old "sleep on it" method before acting.

The moment may pass.

If it doesn't, then it's time to pinpoint what is bothering you, what you want to achieve and how to engage the other person in a way that motivates him or her to work toward that outcome -- all of which should be done before you confront the neighbor, Burk said.

"The one person you need to convince about the benefits of this outcome is the person on the other side," Burk said. "They are least likely to be convinced if they have been trashed directly or indirectly."

That means you should avoid gossiping about them to other neighbors. Resist blame words such as "why" (as in, "Why is your dog digging in my yard?"), and try phrases such as "I feel" and "My intention is . . . ."

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