How NOT to Deal with Bad Neighbors in Your Building

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There are a lot of landlord and apartment problems that RentConfident can detect and warn renters about in our rental safety reports, but we can't tell you what your new neighbors will be like. You can try to suss out truly problematic neighbors by asking the local police, but they'll only know if something has occurred that was bad enough to attract police attention. You can check business licenses - and we do in our reports - for potentially noisy businesses on site. But you're really flying blind when it comes to moving into a high density building with people living on all sides.

Tenants may feel overwhelming levels of rage towards obnoxious neighbors, especially if disruptive behavior continues day in and day out. These situations often prompt tenants to file complaints with their landlord about their neighbors, thinking the landlord will immediately solve the problem. Speaking from years of experience on the property management side of things, this is a very bad way to approach the situation. You're basically throwing a boomerang that has a very small chance of hitting the target, and a very good chance of coming back and hitting you instead. Today we're going to review reasons why you should find some other means of resolving your neighbor conflicts that doesn't involve the landlord at all.

Your landlord is not a high school teacher.

Some renters seem to have the idea that landlords keep a running rap sheet on each tenant and operate on some sort of "three strikes and you're out" policy. Many younger renters especially are coming out of school environments where rule breaking can be resolved by telling the teacher. Renting doesn't work like that. If you file a complaint, the landlord might say something to your neighbor, they may or may not send them a letter, but that's about all they can do. Larger landlords may have computerized systems where they can keep a record of your complaints, but the chances of them actually going back and noticing a trend of complaints is very slim.

There's no guaranteed confidentiality.

Landlords expect their tenants to behave like adults and sort out their differences like adults. Landlords do not expect to have to serve as referees in these arguments. Even if you ask your landlord to keep your complaint anonymous, there is no guarantee that the landlord will do so. You need to be ready for your neighbor to find out the source of any complaint you file about them.

Your landlord is not a police officer.

If you're too scared of your neighbor to go and talk to them yourself, you can't expect that your landlord will somehow be braver than you.

Landlords have only slightly more control over your neighbors' behavior than you have. With rare exceptions for live-in landlords, they aren't on site most of the time. They have limited means to correct problems, none of which include the right to use force, arrest people, or intimidate them with weapons. The fact that they are a landlord will not spare them from being on the receiving end of neighbor wrath - if anything they might get worse kickback from a renter than you would, since problematic renters can be hostile towards authority figures.

They can't just magically make a neighbor to stop a disruptive activity. Any route they would take to fix the problem short of evicting the neighbor is probably something you could do yourself in a shorter amount of time.

Future landlords will never know about your complaints.

Renters may think that their reports will be disclosed to future landlords when their neighbors attempt to move. They may think they're getting some sort of revenge by making their troublesome neighbors' lives more difficult at some point in the distant future. There's two big problems with this line of thinking.

First, if a neighbor cannot find a new place to live because of complaints on their record, they will just stay right where they are, next to you.

Second, no sane landlord would disclose complaints to another landlord during a rental history check, if such questions even arise. When a landlord calls another landlord during a background check they will ask if a tenant paid rent on time. They'll ask about any eviction proceedings. They might ask if the tenant gave proper notice that they were moving out. They will not ask about behavioral problems because such matters are subjective and invite future lawsuits. In fact, many landlords now refuse to provide any rental history data to other landlords.

Neighbor disputes are very common.

Property managers and landlords with even a few years of experience will already know that neighbor conflicts are a constant and unending thing. When I was working an 800 unit portfolio we got about 5-10 neighbor complaints from our tenants every day. Compared with more urgent matters like maintenance requests and filing evictions against the real problem tenants, we had to triage neighbor conflicts to the bottom of the list.

Landlords also eventually learn that neighbor complaints are often a way for angry tenants to blow off some steam in a mostly harmless direction. With so many renters crying "wolf" about their neighbors it becomes difficult for a landlord to figure out which complaints really need their input.

Many problems don't seem as bad from the outside.

Any renter should already know going into a high density building that personal space is at an absolute minimum. That doesn't mean people are always accepting of the necessary sacrifices that come with city apartment living.

A lot of neighbor vs neighbor problems are things that are only apparent to someone living within your apartment at certain hours of the day. They might bother you, but be totally invisible to everyone else. Many common causes of conflict like odors and early morning noise may seem so minor that the landlord can't understand why it's such a big issue for you.

Your landlord may think you're overreacting to sounds and stresses that are simply part of everyone's apartment experience. People need to walk around and a lot of the time they will be wearing shoes when they do so. People drop things on the floor. I don't know about you, but I accidentally drop things almost every day and if I don't, my cat will push something off the counter instead. I feel bad for my downstairs neighbors when it happens, but there's not much I can do about being clumsy or about my cat's experiments with gravity.

There is a big difference between a neighbor who practices their drums every day and a neighbor whose dog jumps off the sofa on a regular basis. Both may seem horribly disruptive to the person living beneath them, but only one might be a valid problem to anyone else outside your apartment.

Money will always talk louder than you.

To you your neighbor is just a neighbor. To your landlord they are a source of income, just like you. In fact, there's a 50/50 chance that they're a greater source of income than you are. Before a landlord gets involved in a complaint they have to consider if their action or inaction will result in losing either of you, and which of you they'd rather lose in a worst case scenario.

Usually they'd rather not lose either of you. Chances are that if they remain uninvolved the matter will resolve itself without hurting their wallet. A landlord has to approach your problems as a business decision, and as we all know, a business can't always satisfy every customer.

It's tougher to evict them than it is to remove you.

In Chicago an eviction takes about six months from the day you file to the day the sheriff shows up at the door. However, behavior-based evictions are much, much tougher for a landlord to win than non-payment cases are. It can take thousands of dollars in attorney fees and court costs and huge numbers of man hours to get a disruptive tenant thrown out of a building. The only exception to this is truly illegal behavior with police involvement, which can sometimes be fast-tracked if you know how to pull the right strings.

For squabbling renters this means that both leases could expire before an eviction case would get all the way through the system, making all of the time and effort unnecessary. It's easier for a landlord to send one or both renters a notice of non-renewal at the end of the lease. Alternately they might raise your rent a little more than they normally would to encourage you to move out.

So when should you report your neighbor to your landlord?

There are still definitely some situations where snitching on your neighbor is worth the effort.

If something in your neighbor's apartment is damaging the building itself, the landlord will want to know. This includes leaking pipes, beeping smoke detector batteries and excess trash or pet waste.

If you ever have to call the cops on your neighbor, call them first and report it to the landlord later.

If you are worried that your neighbor may have a severe injury or illness, that's worth getting the landlord involved.

If a neighbor is disturbing tenants in multiple apartments or in neighboring buildings, that's worth a complaint.

But if your neighbor is living their life within reasonable parameters, you might have to just accept that they're part of your city life and learn to cope with it.

Have you ever dealt with really nasty neighbors? Have you ever gotten positive results from complaining to your landlord about a neighbor? Have you ever had a complaint backfire on you? Let us know in the comments!

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Published by

Kay Cleaves