5 Types of Neighbors and How to Handle Them

You can pick your friends, but not your family -- or your neighbors. Here’s what you need to know.
By: Geoff Williams
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It used to be that everyone knew their neighbors. At the very least, you’d meet them after the kid next door accidentally hit a baseball through your living room window, or an apron-clad housewife appeared on your back porch to borrow a cup of sugar. But that’s so 1950s. During these days of two-paycheck parents commuting and cocooning because they’re afraid to let their kids run unsupervised outside, it is becoming increasingly common to buy a house and eight years later realize that you have never met your neighbors.

If that’s your situation, consider yourself lucky, because oddball and unusual neighbors do still exist. You may find yourself in constant contact with them, especially if you live in a community with yards that are just about a yard long. How you co-exist can make all the difference between living happily ever after or litigiously ever after. That’s why we’ve created a primer on some of the neighbor archetypes you might expect to find and how to handle them.

The Home Devaluers

Who they are: They’re friendly enough. They just never seem to mow their lawn more than once or twice a year, and they have a 1978 Buick rusting in their front yard. Granted, if they’re bad enough, you may have noticed this before moving in, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day: They may have looked presentable when you gave them the once-over.

How to handle them: Communicate, communicate, communicate, suggests Jodi R. R. Smith, author and etiquette consultant in Marblehead, Mass.

She knew a group of neighbors who were upset that a house on their block wasn’t taking care of the lawn. The neighbors assigned a delegate to knock on the door to discuss the yard, and when the owner came out of the house and the problem was explained, she broke into tears. It had turned out that she was in the midst of a divorce and an aggressive chemo treatment. The neighbors then organized a rotating schedule of lawn care for the ill neighbor.

“Things are not always what they seem,” says Smith.

The Dangerous Neighbor

Who they are: Sad but true, some neighbors are not worth getting to know well -- but it’s still good to know something about their dislikes and boundaries, so you don’t cross them. In 2006, for instance, headlines were made when Charles Martin, an elderly man living in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, shot a 15-year-old boy to death because he had apparently made the error of walking across his meticulously manicured lawn.

How to handle them: Martin -- who is in jail -- may have been destined to snap no matter what his neighbors did or didn’t do, but he was well known for the care he lavished on his lawn, and in theory, if that 15-year-old had been more aware of the kook’s devotion to his lawn, it might have kept him from going anywhere near the home.

You can’t consume yourself with worry looking for red flags in your neighbors. However, if you’re aware of them, it may help you from igniting their fury.

And if you have young kids, you really should look at www.familywatchdog.us, the website for the National Sex Offender Registry. If there is anyone in your neighborhood you need to be aware of, and they’re on this list, they’ll pop up on a map of your community.

The Richer Than You Are Neighbor

Who they are: These are the Joneses who you try valiantly to keep up with, but can’t. They’re always getting a new addition onto their home. They have the perfect blades of grass treated by a team of dedicated lawn professionals. They have the new Maserati parked in the driveway. And, of course, what’s so maddening is that they’re doing nothing wrong. You can’t walk up to their front door and say, “Excuse me, but you’re being too rich.”

How to handle them: “The best you can do is learn to cope,” suggests Long Island novelist Saralee Rosenberg, author of Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead (HarperCollins, July 2008).

Rosenberg, who did a lot of nonfiction research for the tale of a harried mother who often feels inferior to her wealthier neighbor, says it’s important to remember that “every family is dysfunctional to some degree, and that just because a lawn is beautifully maintained and a house is immaculate, doesn’t mean that trouble isn’t brewing. Not that you’d wish that on someone, but if you find yourself envious, it’s important to remember that you probably don’t know the whole story.”

The Wacky Neighbor

Who they are: They’re the folks who barge into your living room and convince you to invest in their new ferret farm, and suddenly, within a half hour, you’ve been fired after getting into a raucous pie fight in the employee lunchroom.

How to handle them: Wait, sorry -- that only happens on TV. If a neighbor actually pulls a Kramer and barges into your living room and then starts to raid your refrigerator, feel free to call the police and press charges.

The Difficult Neighbor

Who they are: Who aren’t they? They’re the aforementioned neighbors as well as anyone who makes your life more complicated than it needs to be.

How to handle them: “The thing I do is keep a good rapport,” says Susan Nelson, a landscape designer in Tampa, Fla. “I really feel that the small amount of physical contact goes a long way with neighbors. I notice who keeps to themselves and it comes off as being unfriendly. These days, there aren't many chances of making impressions with your neighbors, so a simple wave or hello can represent you well.”

Rosenberg concurs, piling onto Smith’s plea for a little communication. “If you explain your problem in a reasonable, nice way, suddenly you’re no longer anonymous. Often we have an issue with a neighbor we don’t know, and so we hate their guts, and we don’t even know their name.”

And if you don’t say something to your neighbor, why should they stop doing whatever they’re doing? If you do talk, a solution may just be forthcoming. After all, Rosenberg adds, “Most people don’t want to be that neighbor.”

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