Leaseholders with disputes - Love thy Neighbour

Roger Southam, property management company Chainbow, reveals his personal experience with neighbour disputes and provides practical advice for leaseholders that face this dilemma.

Living in a block of flats comes with responsibility and a need for all to be considerate to each other. Some of the situations we as property managers have seen demonstrate just how differently people live, as well as how much some wish to dictate their neighbours’ lifestyle. This can be from general annoyances right through to fragrant abuse.

It is always extremely difficult for the block manager to intervene or get embroiled in neighbour disputes. However, from our perspective this does not mean an agent buries their head in the sand. You only have to watch the occasional TV programme of ‘Neighbours from Hell’ to very quickly see that nothing is ever as it first seems. I remember one show where both neighbours complained about each other; one said that the other caused a lot of noise and the other that his neighbour was OCD on complaining about everything when nothing was wrong. Guess what? There wasn’t a lot of noise at all and the OCD guy was an obsessive complainer!

Some say that the proliferation of Buy-to-Let’s have added to the issue on neighbour disputes, as it is felt people on assured shorthold don’t care as much as lease owners. From our experience, this is certainly not the case. It is an even balance between the two. Some owners are irresponsible and some tenants are irresponsible; it is certainly not all one way. Which brings it down to human nature and people either know how to live and let live and co-exist amicably or they don’t.

PEOPLE MEDDLING

It would also be fair to say that disputes can arise from people meddling or wanting everything perfect as much as playing music loud. Over the years we have seen extremes where one tenant wanted someone stopped from smoking in a communal garden and talking on his mobile in an annoying voice! We had one resident management company director who wanted the resident of the flat opposite him stopped from hanging shirts in his window (as the lease only allowed curtains) and then went on to complain about the mess in the flat he could see!

One would always assume that the lease would be the arbiter of all matters and the foundation to avoid disputes. Well, it really depends on how well drafted they are and what residential regulations have been provided. For example, if a lease prohibits pets or barbecues how much is it worth spending on legal fees or surveyors to pursue the breaches and how can a leaseholder be forced to comply at reasonable cost? Therefore, in some instances the lease terms can be a source for dispute and in these situations the managing agent needs to be firm and fair to ensure even handedness to all or real problems will result.

POTENTIAL DISPUTES

So whilst the lease dictates living and environment standards for leaseholders it does not really avoid potential disputes. We have had serious situations where there has been threatening and abusive behaviour or music played loudly all night. The police and the local authorities are there for handling such matters but it is important that the managing agent brokers the situation to try and mitigate the situation and avoid it exacerbating. In doing this it is vital that a clear statement is given from the start to manage expectation and that the person or people affected need to engage with the authorities. The Local Authority noise control departments are normally fairly responsible and handle matters well. It does rely on working with them and not “calling wolf” on the situation.

The one thing that can heighten conflict is to ignore matters and hope they go away. They seldom do. Matters normally become exaggerated in the mind of the affected person. If it is an issue for which there is little or no solution such as leaving rubbish outside of a bin store or noise that isn’t as bad as someone thinks then the only answer is to acknowledge and try and convince through effective communication the need to be respectful to all. We once had someone who claimed the lift was too noisy and must have a fault. We had out consultants, lift engineers, independent reports, none of whom found anything wrong. We took these actions because the individual was looking for legal redress and we felt we must cover all options to save a lot of needless legal expense for the rest of the leaseholders. So being proactive is safeguarding potentially large expenses for the majority of homeowners.

COURT ACTION

The worst we ever came across was a tenant who habitually brought court action against the Resident Management Company directors while, at the same time, the block’s managing agent with made up charges such as scratching his car, denying him access to amenities, stealing plants and soil but leaving the plant pot! This racked up tens of thousands in pounds in legal fees, needlessly, which the previous agents put through the service charge. The result was all homeowners were paying for a personal dispute. When we took over the development as managing agents we incurred no legal fees and I wouldn’t let anyone else in my office but me deal with him. He was basically a bully and just needed someone to stand up to him and not be intimidated. Why he was like that I have no idea, and care even less, it just needed someone to protect the interests of the majority of homeowners!

So sometimes there is nothing you can do but to accept that everyone is different. But generally the best course is for the agent to make sure they have effective communication tools, are there to work with all and to do what their title suggests – manage. This means letting all leaseholders having access to documents, reports, meeting minutes, contractor quotes, etc. It won’t solve all the problems but it does make it easier for the awkward people to see evenness in dealing, and to try and build, a community.

Dealing with disputes – a summary:

If you find yourself in the difficult position of mediating between warring neighbours, here is a quick guide to dealing with the problem fast and effectively.

  • Don’t ignore the situation – acknowledge they cannot deal with the problem (no matter how trivial it may appear) and deal with it in a fair manner.
  • If the RMC directors find they cannot deal with the problem themselves by talking to the parties involved and coming to an amicable agreement, the issue should be escalated, not allowed to fester.
  • If your block has a managing agent, they may be able to help deal with the problem as objective neutral parties. However, not all agents are willing to get involved and RMCs may have to fall back on their own good judgement. If all else fails, a professional mediator may be enlisted to help.
  • Depending on the nature of the dispute, a surveyor or solicitor may be needed to resolve the issue fairly and to the satisfaction of both parties. Bear in mind that this may become costly and that both parties to the dispute must be prepared to accept the outcome as final.