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Caught in the Middle Successful Managers Need to Deal with Inter-Neighbor Conflicts

Caught in the Middle

Conflict among neighbors is something every property manager must face. As long as people have different viewpoints and varied lifestyles, they will argue and bicker and call each other names. Add to that the close living quarters of some New England condominiums, and the problems can get even worse.

What are the most common types of neighbor disputes? And when should managers intervene in the affairs of their residents? What specific methods can managers use to alleviate problems among neighbors, especially those instances where police might be called in or, worse, huge lawsuits ensue?

Main Areas of Conflict

The three most common areas of disagreement are excessive noise, cars and dogs. Property manager Phil Lambert, AMS, CMCA, says problems with animals generally originate outside of the pets themselves.

“Animals aren’t the problem, it’s the owners,” says Lambert, vice president of The Dartmouth Group, in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Dog owners can be found walking their pets outside of designated areas, not picking up their animal’s waste, or allowing them to bark when they shouldn’t be, Lambert says.

Almost all problems with animals, he says, result from owners not adhering to specific rules and regulations about animals contained in condominium documents.

When complaints come in about an animal owner breaking the rules, Lambert says he typically requests “written verification from any witnesses relating to the incident,” which sets in motion disciplinary action–generally warnings for first-time offenders, and fines for those who disregard the rules.

“All you’re looking for is compliance,” says Lambert. “You’re not looking to have the pet removed from the property.” The actual removal of a pet, he says, is quite rare and typically follows a pattern of “total non-compliance and disregard of the rules and regulations.”

‘Can You Keep it Down?’

Another perennial complaint owners make in condominiums is that their fellow residents are too noisy. Shared walls and cramped spaces contribute to the problem and can make ordinarily sanguine neighbors into rabid enemiesin very short order.

The lion’s share of noise complaints come from high-density, multifamily housing units, as opposed to stand-alone or townhouse condominiums. Also playing a role in the frequency of complaints is the role of ownership versus rental. Managers whose portfolios contain both condominiums and rentals report that those who own generally expect a greater level of peace and quiet.

Also cropping up more often in condos are disputes over common spaces. For instance, the common area of the hallway directly outside a resident’s door may seem like the perfect spot to store a bicycle, a baby stroller, or garbage bags waiting to go downstairs. But this storage of items is sometimes not acceptable to all residents, who have to walk past all the stuff.

A renter may not object to hallway or common space issues because they aren’t part owners of the space. The shared ownership of community associations, however, makes every owner more aware of the space and any problems there.

When considering the issue of unacceptable noise levels, there can be different standards for different communities, according to Patricia Salaris, CMCA, AMS, with The Windsor Management Company in Windsor, Connecticut.

“Some associations have timing rules where it says, ‘No noise will be made after 10 p.m. at night’ or some of the older associations have it in their documents that ‘No musical instrument, radios or televisions, etc. will be played at a loud level,’ so it really depends on what your documents say,” says Salaris.

Whatever the documents say, “If it’s loud enough for the police to be called in, it must be pretty loud,” she says.

Once a noise complaint is logged, Salaris says she is obligated to follow both condominium documents and Connecticut state law, which she says requires a hearing before fines can be levied.

Salaris says most of her condominiums will generally send out a friendly letter on the first offense which may say, “Hello. Perhaps you didn’t realize that this radio or music was a little loud.”

If the noise doesn’t abate, Salaris says, most condominiumswill then have the offender come in for a hearing, usually before an arbitration committee, the association attorney, or the board of directors.

Repeat offenders who are called in for hearings can be fined to discourage further offenses, she says.

‘Get Out of My Spot!’

Parking is another area in which most of the trouble results from owners not following condo regulations –particularly when spaces are not assigned, says Lambert. In the winter, says Lambert, most illegal parking occurs when snow removal is taking place in the parking areas. When residents are asked to move their vehicles from a first area to second area to allow snow clearance, many lazy residents just leave their cars in the first area for plows to work around, says Lambert. Then whenthe second area is cleared, the lazy residents from the first area will move their cars there, displacing others who followed the rules in the first place.

Lambert is not impressed with people who refuse to move their cars for snow removal, noting, “These are the same people” who complain about the qualityof snow removal.

A second kind of parking problem happens when owners have parties and their guests park in someone else’s designated space. To counter this problem, Lambert says that “more and more associations are starting to go with vehicle registration and guest registration so it’s under control and to protect the property in relation to emergency vehicle passage.”

Conflict inevitable

It’s inevitable that, as long as peoplelive alongside other people, disagreements will arise. This is why property managers are hired—partly to be an objective third party to put some of these grievances into perspective. But what should property managers do to solve problems among residents?

When tempers first flare, many managers will try the personal touch of a personal phone call, an in-person meeting, or a letter.

Many managers advise listening to each party separately, and then trying to bring them together in a neutral environment to negotiate a solution.

If the residents continue to battle it out, many managers will have the association’s attorney write a letter to both parties telling them to stand down. If it gets to the point where the police are called, most managers will back off and let law enforcement take over. The same advice – to stand down – is advised in the event of a lawsuit between owners.

Before conflict develops between neighbors, the best course is to have a set of procedures written and published, so everyone knows what’s acceptable and what to expect if rules aren’t followed. After that, managers should make it a habit to use this protocol for any disputes that might crop up, including the imposition of fines.

When faced with problems between neighbors, owners will pay much more attention to the rules when they knowthere is a monetary price for breaking them.

The Reason for Rules

For Lambert, the most important thing is for owners to realize that rules and fines exist for a reason, not to punish people but to facilitate community living.

When he deals with rule-breakers, or disputes, Lambert says he reminds people that rules are just part of life in a condominium.

“You try and educate people,” he says, “making sure that they understand what they’ve bought into, make them understand that there are restrictions, and unfortunately, that comes with community living.”

Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer and an aspiring novelist living in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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