Every neighborhood has problems: the house in disrepair, traffic noise, and trees blocking views are just a few examples. Fortunately, if neighbors work together, these problems can often be resolved.

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Homes needing repairs
Larry and Janet R. lived an older well established neighborhood. The homes were the most expensive in their town, with deep lots, narrow front yards, and attractive landscaping. Their home was one of the smaller, less expensive homes. The home next door had a well-tended front lawn, but was in disrepair, with peeling paint and a leaking roof, affecting the value of Larry and Janet’s home.

When I asked Larry about the home next door, he said it was occupied by an elderly woman, Margaret T., who didn’t have much money. Her husband had died many years ago, leaving her with a small pension. She was able to obtain a special exemption from property taxes, but did not have enough money for upkeep. She and her husband had one child, who died about 10 years ago.

Although she was in her 80’s, Margaret T. was still active, volunteering at a local day care center and the battered women’s shelter. Whenever any local charitable group needed assistance, they could count on Margaret.

Larry and the neighbor on the other side of Margaret’s home took turns mowing her small front lawn. They mowed it at the same time they mowed their own front lawns. The rear yard had a very large concrete patio, a few fruit trees, and a small vegetable garden. Larry and his neighbor pruned the trees every year. Margaret tended her vegetable garden, and gave most of the fruit to her neighbors.

Unfortunately, the poor condition of Margaret T’s house affected the value of Larry and Janet’s home. They were planning on selling their home in three years when their children were older, and moving to a larger home in the neighborhood.

Larry and Janet weren’t sure what to do. They didn’t want to file a complaint with the building department, and couldn’t afford to fix up the house themselves. I suggested contacting the local association of Realtors in their town. Once a year, they fix up the home of a local resident. Last year they had worked on a home owned by another elderly woman who could not afford the repairs.

Some elderly people don’t like help, considering it “charity,” but Margaret T. was already accepting help from her next door neighbors. Margaret was well known in the community for her volunteer efforts, and had received several awards. Many people would feel it was an honor to help her out now.

Larry and Janet contacted the local association of Realtors, who were very willing to help out Margaret M. Six months later, roofers, painters, electricians, carpenters, landscapers and other members of the community spent three days working on Margaret’s house and yard. Her house was painted inside and outside, the front and rear porches and roof were replaced, electrical system upgraded, and automatic sprinkler systems for both the front and rear yards were installed. Materials were supplied by a special fund of the local association of Realtors.

Larry and Janet increased the value of their home and, more important, helped their neighbor.
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Abandoned properties
The abandoned gas station down the street from Julie and Stuart R.’s home was a real eyesore. The building was boarded up and the concrete was cracked and weed choked. The owner of the site, the TCB Corporation, a multinational oil company, put up a chain link fence around the property, but didn’t do any maintenance. The gas tanks and contaminated soil had been removed, and the site had been declared toxic-free by the county environmental department.

The location was no longer viable for a gas station, so it was shut down six years ago. The retail gasoline business had changed, and TCB Corporation had many vacant service station sites around the country. The property was zoned for commercial uses, such as offices or stores. But for various reasons, the site was not a good commercial location.

When I appraised Julie and Stuart’s home, I mentioned that the gas station affected the home’s value, as well as the values of other nearby homes. Some buyers may even see it as an indication of a declining neighborhood. I told Julie and Stuart that other gas stations had been turned into parks in other cities.

Julie and Stuart decided to do something about the abandoned gas station. They sent flyers to all their neighbors, asking them to come to a meeting at their home to discuss what they could do about the problem. Ten neighbors showed up for the meeting. Looking at all the possible alternatives, they decided on a park. The neighborhood had many families with small children, and needed more parks with playgrounds.

None of the people at the meeting had ever tried to do anything like this, and weren’t sure how to proceed. One of the neighbors, Jane R., used to work as a secretary for a local subsidiary of the multinational company who owned the site. She volunteered to find out who to contact at the main office. Another neighbor, Sally Q., volunteered to search the Internet for information on other neighborhoods that had succeeded in changing a gas station site to a park, and contact them. Julie and Stuart offered to go to city hall, and find out what needed to be done to rezone the site. The neighbors decided to meet again in a month.

At the next meeting, Jane R. reported that she had spoken with the department responsible for disposing of excess land at TCB Corporation. They sent her a copy of the standard proposal form for selling the site. Sally Q. found information on the Internet about two other neighborhoods that had succeeded in converting an abandoned gas station to a park. Both of them were willing to help. Julie and Stuart reported that the city planning department was very receptive to rezoning to a park, but the city lacked any funds for land purchases or park construction now or in the immediate future. However, if the neighbors could get funding for the land purchase and park construction, the city agreed to maintain the park.

One of the neighbors remembered that many years ago, when the neighborhood was first developed, it had a voluntary association called the Oakwood Home Owners Association. Another neighbor, who recently purchased his home, said the association was mentioned in the title report on his home. They decided to reactivate the association.

As they read over the form provided by the TCB Corporation for selling the land, they noticed that there was a reference to a special community program, where TCB donated the land to the local community. Sally Q. said that both the neighborhood associations she contacted had obtained their park land for free. One had also received a substantial grant from the oil company for park construction. Julie and Stuart R. reported that when they spoke with the city planner, Charlene M., she indicated that her department was willing to help in any way they could.

Jane R., who used to work for a subsidiary of the TCB Corporation, said that another local company, Johnson Medical Supply Company was owned by TCB. Jane said that TCB was trying to expand their medical products division, which included Johnson Supply. Both TCB and Johnson had been mentioned unfavorably in the local newspaper several times. They wanted to build a large warehouse for their expanding medical supply business, but some residents were concerned about truck traffic.

The newly reactivated Oakwood Home Owners Association sent flyers out to all the home owners, notifying them about the next meeting to discuss the park. This time they met at the local school and had 100 attendees. They elected Julie R. as President, Jane R. as Secretary, and Tom T., a local CPA, as Treasurer. Jane R. had contacted the local newspaper, who sent a reporter.

The next day, the local newspaper had a story on the meeting, focusing on a small group of neighbors trying to do change an abandoned gas station site into a park for the local children. The president of Johnson Supply, the local TCB subsidiary, saw a great opportunity and told his public relations department to get busy. The day after the story appeared in the newspaper, they contacted Julie R., the association’s new president, saying they would start working on a plan for the park immediately.

Within a week, Johnson Supply had persuaded TCB to donate the gas station site to the city, notifying the Home Owners Association and the local newspaper. They set up a joint committee with Johnson Supply, the city planning department, and the Oakwood Home Owners Association, to work out the details of the park. The planning department expedited the rezoning and provided assistance in park design. Many employees of Johnson Supply, including the president, lived in the city. They volunteered to help build the playground. Johnson Supply agreed to pay for all the materials.

Three months later, members of the Oakwood Home Owners Association and employees of Johnson Supply spent two weekends building the park. A local landscape construction company provided supervision and heavy equipment, a deli donated lunch, and a local massage center provided on-site massages at the end of the day for tired muscles.

Johnson Supply finally got their warehouse expansion approved and became more active in the local community. When their employees drove by children playing in the completed park, they felt good. They had helped out the neighborhood.

The Oakwood Home Owners Association continued to work on making their neighborhood better, and increasing their property values. Even more important, they were now a real neighborhood, where they worked together and knew each other.
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Traffic problems
Many years ago, Anne B.’s very small neighborhood was occupied by owners of nearby small farms. Over the past 30 years, all the farms were sold to home developers. Her neighborhood had always been considered “second class” as it was separated from the main part of the city by a small river and used to be the “farm” area. Although the farms had been sold to developers, her small neighborhood of much older homes still remained the same, and was still considered “second class” by many people, including residents of the neighborhood.

I had appraised many homes in her neighborhood over the past ten years, and always mentioned the traffic problems. The home owners were concerned, but had never made any objections, as a group, to the increasing traffic. A business park had been developed ten years ago, but vacancy had been high until about three years ago, when the local economy became much stronger. The neighborhood’s narrow streets were a convenient way to get to the business park. A four-lane street had been built for access, but it was less convenient for commuters than Ann B.’s street. More and more noisy busses were also traveling down the street.

Anne B.’s home was located on a corner of two of the busiest streets. The city was planning on re-routing even more traffic to her small neighborhood, including more bus traffic. Anne was thinking about selling her home, and asked me to tell her what her home was worth now, and what it would be worth after the re-routing of traffic by the city. She liked her home and her neighborhood, and didn’t want to move. But she didn’t want to own a home that would decrease in value because of the increasing traffic.

She had spoken several times at city council meetings about the traffic problems, but no one seemed to listen. Recently, the local newspaper had published a letter she wrote about the problem. I suggested she join with her neighbors to fight back against the plans for increased traffic. Anne said she had tried to get a petition started, but was a very private person and knew few of her neighbors. Going door to door was difficult for her. She had public speaking experience and was comfortable speaking at the city council meetings. Writing reports was part of her job as a personnel vice president at a large company, so writing the letter to the local newspaper was also easy.

Several years ago, I had appraised another home on her street, owned by Burt N., who was also very concerned about the traffic. He was very outgoing, lived in the home his parents built, and knew everyone in the neighborhood, including owners who rented their homes to tenants. Burt had quit school in the eighth grade to help out his family during the Depression, and wasn’t confident dealing with city officials. He had never spoken with the city, or even written a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.

Burt was one of the few neighbors that Anne knew, but she had never thought about working with him to reduce traffic. I suggested she contact Burt, as they were well matched, with complementary skills. Anne was the “brainy” educated person, with an advanced college degree and experience writing and speaking. Burt was the “people person” who knew everyone.

In their city, history and tradition was very important, including how long you had lived in the city. At city council meetings, everyone, including the city council members, mentioned how long they had lived there. Living in the city your entire life, and being a second or third generation resident, was important. Anne had only lived there for 5 years, but Burt was third generation. His family was one of the founding farm families.

Anne called Burt that same day, and they became a winning combination. They decided to ask the city to change the bus routes to other streets, and close off the entrance to their neighborhood from the business park, so commuters would not drive through.

Anne wrote the petition, and Burt got everyone in the neighborhood, even absentee owners, to sign it. Anne made sure that all the proper procedures were followed in obtaining the signatures. As an experienced personnel executive, Anne was familiar with working with the media. She and Burt planned a press conference before presenting their petition at a city council meeting.

They both knew that Burt would have to speak in public, so Anne coached him. Although he was not well educated, he spoke well. With some coaching by Anne, he was able to use his natural skills and showed that he had the ability to become a dynamic and persuasive speaker, surprising both himself and Anne.

They set up a news conference the day before the city council meeting, at a bus stop on the busiest corner in the neighborhood. The home next to the bus stop was occupied by a family with three small children who had put up a large chain link fence to keep their children and pets from going into the street and getting injured. It was summertime and the children were not in school. The three children, and their two small dogs, would be in the front yard playing. The time was during peak morning commute hours.

Anne contacted the local newspapers, and radio and TV stations. The press conference was attended by a local TV station and a reporter for the local newspaper. The buses belching smoke as they pulled away from the curb, the heavy car traffic on the narrow street, and the children looking through the chain link fence provided some good shots for the TV and newspaper reporters. Burt was disappointed with the low turnout, but Anne knew they only needed one good story in the media. Other stories would follow later.

Anne was the polished professional speaker, providing information on what the problems were, and what they wanted the city to do. But Burt was the star. His anecdotes about what the neighborhood was like when his parents first moved there, and how he wasn’t opposed to progress, but really missed his dog Spike that got run over by a car last year, were great human interest stories.

That evening, both Anne and Burt appeared on a five-minute segment on the TV station’s news hour. The next day, the morning paper had pictures of the buses belching smoke and the children behind the chain link fence on the front page.

Anne and Burt had persuaded many of their neighbors to attend the city council meetings in support of their petition. The media publicity packed the city council chambers. So many people were in the hallway trying to get in that they set up speakers so everyone could hear the proceedings.

Anne and Burt didn’t get everything they wanted. The street was closed to through t traffic, but most of the bus routes stayed. However, the traffic situation was greatly improved. Their property values increased, and Anne didn’t have to sell her house.
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Big trees next door
Sam S. purchased his “dream” home 15 years ago, on a hillside with a beautiful view of the lake. In the daytime during the summer he loved to watch the boats. In the spring and fall, migrating birds came to the lake for a brief rest. In the evenings he watched the twinkling lights in the homes surrounding the lake. His excellent lake view increased the value of his property by 10 percent.

When Sam purchased his home, neighbors had an informal agreement not to let their trees block the views of their neighbors. His neighbor down the hill had always kept her trees trimmed so they didn’t block Sam’s view of the lake.

Then Sam’s neighbor sold her home. The new neighbors, Jason and Carol C., had two teenagers with noisy motorcycles, who had their friends over for backyard pool parties which lasted late into the night. Sam’s children were grown, but he remembered their teenage years, and could live with the disruption until they were older. But the neighbors didn’t trim their trees, and Sam’s view was blocked.

When Sam asked his Jason and Carol several times to trim their trees, they said they would “think about it” but never did anything. Then Sam decided to retaliate. Every time the teenagers pool parties got noisy, he called the police. Sam purchased some old, beat-up cars and parked them in front of their house. He even considered sneaking into their yard late at night and poisoning their trees, but was afraid their dog would bark and wake up his neighbors.

Sam’s next door neighbor, Sarah, had been listening to Sam complain for over a year. She was concerned that violence would erupt, started either by Sam or his neighbors. Sarah had read in the local newspaper about a new arbitration board set up by the city to help neighbors resolve their differences. The arbitration board had helped two nearby home owners solve a problem with a barking dog.

Sarah persuaded Sam and his neighbors to let the arbitration board help the resolve their problem. Fortunately, the solution was very easy. Sam paid for the annual tree trimming and his view wasn’t blocked. His neighbors didn’t have to worry about an expensive tree trimming bill in four or five years when the trees started to overhang their pool and drop leaves in the fall, clogging the drain and staining the pool.
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How to work with your neighbors

When I appraise a home, I always look at nearby homes and the neighborhood, which significantly affect value. All neighborhoods have problems. Home owners complain about neighborhood eyesores, trees, traffic, and many other problems, but surprisingly few try to resolve them.

The days of doing whatever you want with your property are long gone. Local, state, and federal rules restrict property owners, even in Alaska, where there are no zoning laws. If there were no government regulations, we would still live in neighborhoods, even if our closest neighbor is a mile away.

The keys to solving problems are communication and cooperation. The best way to resolve them is to look for a “win-win” solution, where both parties win. In all the examples above, both parties won. The sooner you start to work together, the easier it will be to find a solution.

Unfortunately, sometimes adversarial relationships develop. Neighbors don’t speak to each other, property gets damaged, and lawsuits get started. Everyone is looking for a “I win/You lose” outcome.

The first step is to speak with the property owner and see if you can resolve the problem. Find out why the problem exists, and what the owner wants. Explain what you want. If the problem property affects other neighbors, get everyone to work together to resolve the problem.

If the situation has escalated, with letter writing and name calling (or worse), see if you can get a neutral third party, such as a friend, neighbor, or community arbitration board to help.

If the property owner is a large corporation or government agency, getting the support of your neighbors can really help. Media attention on a problem usually will encourage a response.
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