It's not neighborly to sue the folks who live across the street, but that's what one reader would like to do. The problem is a house so run down that it has lowered property values, complains a homeowner in Riverside County.
Besides exterior stucco that has never been replaced, "the unpainted trim, lawn-less yard, broken garage door, incomplete masonry walls and vehicles parked everywhere constitute an eyesore the likes of which no neighborhood should have to tolerate."
"A home appraiser freely admitted that my valuation is sharply degraded because of the condition of the house across the street," the reader continues. "Has anyone ever sued an indifferent neighbor for loss of property value? Could it be done? What might be the pitfalls? What other solutions might you suggest for abating such a long-running nuisance?"
There are very few court cases resolving this dilemma, explains Robert C. Ellickson, a Yale University law professor, for several reasons. Often, neighbors are able to informally work out these disputes without resorting to the legal system. If that doesn't work, public agencies can often help by enforcing city ordinances and zoning regulations. And neighbors who can't afford to fix up their houses are not good targets for lawsuits, because they may not be able to pay, even if they lose. This obviously discourages a frustrated neighbor from filing suit.
New York Case
There is, however, a New York case (Puritan Holding Co. v. Holloschitz) in which a court did award a neighbor $30,000 for the loss of property value stemming from the legal "nuisance" of a neighbor's abandoned building that had "deteriorated, become unsightly and been taken over by derelicts," according to the court.
Nuisance is a legal term used to define a concept developed in feudal England to protect the right of a landowner to use and enjoy his land. Nearly anything that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of your property can be construed as a legal nuisance. Loud noises, offensive odors, fumes or dust, and even the branches of a neighbor's tree have been ruled to be nuisances.
"The question whether a particular thing is a nuisance is to be determined . . . by considering it in connection with the circumstances and the locality," the Supreme Court once observed. "A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, like a pig in a parlor instead of a barnyard."
You can sue for damages that arise from a nuisance, such as the loss in property value, or you can seek an injunction to halt the nuisance, and force the neighbor to fix up the mess.
You may also be able to sue to enforce covenants that restrict the way in which your neighbor's property may be used. Developers of modern subdivisions often include covenants in the ownership deeds that restrict use to residential purposes only. You can use the covenants as the basis for your suit if a neighbor is using the property for other purposes, such as storing automobiles or operating a business. You should examine your title report, or review deeds and related documents at the county recorder's office, to determine if such covenants apply to your neighbor's property.
But filing a lawsuit should be the last resort, warns Prof. Ellickson. "Usually, people work this stuff out by talking to their neighbors. For most people, that should be enough." But he concedes that some "eccentric, independent cusses," who are often the kind of people who let their property deteriorate, may not be amenable to neighborly pressure.
"Don't be a bad neighbor yourself, by suing before you talk," says Ellickson. Before you even consider a lawsuit, you should be confident that informal negotiation won't work. If necessary, bring in several neighbors to show that your concern is shared by others.
If neighborly persuasion won't work, try contacting the appropriate public authorities and ask that the nuisance be abated. Most cities have ordinances against public nuisances, and zoning regulations may limit some of your neighbor's annoying habits, such as storing old cars on the lawn. And if the public agency takes the initiative, that relieves you of the financial burden of a lawsuit and may not cause as many hard feelings. After all, you will still be neighbors.
If nothing else works, then you might consider a lawsuit. You may even want the neighbors to join in with you. Consult an experienced real estate lawyer. Make sure you understand the costs and your realistic chances of winning and collecting before you file suit.
Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.