Stay off my lawn!

Most of us have heard of or maybe even experienced a bad neighbor.  That lady who yells at your kids whenever they walk on her lawn or the guy that pumps the shotgun when you or your dog strays onto his property.  These extreme cases are bad, but are not the only ones out there that can give you massive headaches as you move forward on your project.  Keep in mind that even a “nice” neighbor can ruin your project if you anger them.

Most people underestimate the importance of neighbors when it comes to their construction projects.  All too often they ignore them until things go sour and then they try to deal with whatever problems have arisen by “fighting back.”  This is not productive and usually ends in both parties disliking each other.  Even if the initial conflict is resolved the fact that you now have a neighbor that you don’t like and that doesn’t like you can be a drag for the rest of your years in your new home.  Even a great home can be turned sour by a bad neighbor.

I have heard of neighbors calling the building department several times during a job to shut down construction out of spite.  Sometimes the neighbors are successful and sometimes they are not, but the efforts they throw out there must be dealt with and this takes time away from your production on the site and thus costs you money.  I have also heard of neighbors calling the police on contractors saying they are illegally working during “quiet hours” of the week.  Whether the charge is true or not, the police will respond and have a discussion with the contractor (or owner in this case) which once again impacts your efficiency.

So why do good neighbors turn bad and what can you do about it?  The main reason that good neighbors turn bad is that they believe they are being ignored and that no one cares about their well being.  If they feel they are not cared for, then they are less likely to care for you.  Whenever my company would start a new job, the first thing I would do was to contact the neighbors, even before the work began.  I would introduce myself and let them know what was about to happen.  This simple act let them feel like they were part of the process and that I, as the contractor, cared about their well being.

In your initial conversation with your neighbors, be sure to discuss the details of what will be happening on site.  Let them know that you plan to work from 7am to 5pm (or whatever the legal hours are in your location) Monday through Friday.  Be sure to let them know that you are aware that they will be impacted by your job.  There will be dust and dirt in the air, especially when things first get underway.  There will be noise.  There will be traffic as a result of workers and material deliveries.  All of these things will have an impact on the lives of your neighbors.  Show them you care by acknowledging these truths and asking them if there is anything you can do to help lessen that impact.  They may ask for something that you cannot give them, so be clear as to what you can and cannot offer before you enter into conversation with them.

Most importantly, let them know that you want to have open communication with them throughout the project.  Prepare a spot on site where they (and subcontractors and suppliers for that matter) can leave you notes.  A small whiteboard and a corkboard make a great communication station and the inclusion of a small, lockable mailbox can also help for notes that need a little more security.   This moves the neighbors from a place of victim to that of involved member of the neighborhood.  Some simple things like a subcontractor parking his or her van in the way of a neighbor’s driveway could become major sticking points if there is no way for the neighbor to address the issue early on.  The communication station and your willingness to hear from the neighbors will go a long way to stop minor problems before they snowball into major issues.

Of course, there are always neighbors who are just disgruntled and there may not be much you can do about that.  You will simply have to do your best to act as a mediator with these people.  They may call you every day and complain about just about everything.  You will have to know when to draw the line with people like this.  Sometimes drawing a clear line will actually help by not only stopping the constant onslaught of complaints but also by showing the neighbor you can’t be pushed around.  Strangely enough, some of these “mean” neighbors may end up respecting you more when you tell them they have crossed a line and that you won’t put up with their unrealistic expectations and demands.  And if they don’t, any further action taken by them will be less impactful as you can show any third party that you have made a lot of effort to work with the neighbor and they are simply unappeasable.

I have done some big jobs where I knew that the impact on the neighbors would be very negative for a short while.  There is nothing like tearing up the road to the neighbors’ homes for a day or two and asking them to park on the main street and walk up to their homes.  In cases like this, it can be a good idea to offer to put up the affected neighbors at a hotel for the night.  Once again, the cost of say 3 hotel rooms for a night will likely be less than the cost of three neighbors complaining about you for 6 months while you build.  In most cases, the neighbors will see your level of care and will appreciate you for it.  In fact, they may actually become your ally as you complete your project.

I have, on several occasions, had neighbors act as my personal security force.  When building a new home in a city or town, you will not be actually on site after hours as most jurisdictions will not let you camp on the site while you build.  Having a set of eyes on your site all night long is a great asset.  I had a neighbor call the police once when they saw suspicious behavior on my job site after hours.  Turned out that they stopped someone from stealing a bunch of lumber and plywood from my site.  On another occasion, a neighbor stopped someone from trying to steal a tool chest with about $5000 worth of tools in it.  I was most grateful and the neighbors, in both cases, felt like they had made a difference (which they indeed had).

Most contractors and home owners never bother to connect with their neighbors about the construction process.  In fact, most simply ignore them and assume that they will just “deal with it” like the rest of us.  Make no mistake, your neighbors will be impacted by your construction project whether it be new construction, a remodel or an addition.  They will be annoyed with the dust and dirt and they will want their quiet neighborhood back soon after the saws start spinning.  Be proactive and meet the situation head on.  Doing so will be well worth the effort; it will save you time and money and it will lessen the amount of frustration you have to deal with in regards to you project.  You may even make some new friends in the process.