“Mr. Beaver, I have read a number of your articles about neighbors refusing to maintain their property–especially trees--in a safe condition, or failing to keep a common fence in good repair.
“Of course, most people do not want to be at war with their neighbors, but that’s what I am facing:
–To the south, they refuse to trim or remove a clearly dangerous Pine tree that is leaning towards our property, its limbs and branches are on our roof. When I mention this, they just say, “The tree looks fine to us.” It is as if they cannot see the danger.
–To the north, we share a wooden fence and large, wide driveway serves both properties. This neighbor refuses to participate in the repair or replacement of the fence or re-paving our common driveway.
“Both of these families are very well off. What makes people who can obviously afford to maintain their property act in such an uncaring way and what’s the best way to respond? Thanks, Ken.”
Blame Their Lack of Mental Accounting
We ran Ken’s question by a friend of this column, Dr. Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “These are very common situations which cause a lot of unpleasantness. Often it comes down to a form of not seeing the problem, what we call mental accounting–being aware that we will have certain expenses and planning for them.
“For lawn care–or care of our teeth--we have mental accounts and plan for those expenses. In large part because trees are slow-moving targets, unless wind or a bolt of lightning brings one down, we just do not notice most things about our trees. We look at a tree and it seems fine to us, so why worry?
“Regular tree-trimming is something most people ignore as it is expensive, and because it has not been mentally budgeted, even a millionaire might think, ‘I can’t afford to do this now.’”
Do You Really Want to Have This Fight?
In speaking with Markman, two far more important aspects of this cheapskate neighbor scenario became apparent:
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(1) An obsession to force the neighbor’s compliance, and;
(2) Destructive stress at home.
“By allowing yourself to be obsessed with someone’s refusal to act, you are allowing them to control you. Once you recognize that, it becomes easy to walk away, you need to ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to have this fight? Am I angry about this primarily on principal, which means feeling that if I go ahead and fix the problem myself, that person would have gotten away with something? What is this stress doing to our family life?”
No Cooperation? Don’t Let Cheapskate Neighbor Ruin Your Day
So, how do we deal with a neighbor who is blind to the danger his property is creating for others nearby? “This is as much about psychological well-being as it is the law,” Markman strongly maintains. “Don’t let other people’s actions determine how you are living your life,” he underscores, and offers these suggestions:
(1) If it is clear there will be no cooperation, do whatever work needs to be done that makes you safe after providing written notice of your plans. You obviously can’t trespass on their property, and so when you are having your own trees done–trimming back anything that would be dangerous to you–and if the fence needs to be rebuilt, do it, send your neighbor the bill for half with the expectation it will not be paid.
(2) This does not mean that you have to be nice to your neighbor. The good side of the fence should face you. If it needs to be painted or stained, have it done on your side.
“This is not forgiveness. It means that you are not allowing your neighbor’s action to define how you are acting. If you turn it into a fight, you give the neighbor the ability of controlling you! He’s making your life miserable. He’s making you go through all sorts of gyrations to change his behavior. He is making it all about him.”
Confrontation Less Satisfying Than You Think It Will Be
“There are people in this world who are petty jerks and often it is tempting to engage with them at their level. In general, when you confront someone it is not as satisfying as your think it will be. But if you trim those branches encroaching on your property, rebuild the fence and give your neighbor the ugly side, you get to enjoy that for the next 20 years!” Markman concluded with a broad smile.