It was 5 a.m. when my neighbor’s three dogs started barking and three hours later when they finally stopped. By then, it seemed like everyone on the street was awake and annoyed. The dog owner came home from work that afternoon to find an angry anonymous note pinned to his front door.
“I have no idea what happened,” he told me when I stopped by to inquire about it. “The dogs are usually so well behaved.”
It turned out that his dogs had treed a raccoon in the backyard shortly after he’d left for work. My neighbor never found out which of us had left him the nasty note. (It wasn’t me, I swear!)
Neighbor disputes — about loud parties, barking dogs, illegal construction, garbage cans, property lines and more — keep area agencies, including animal control and police, busy around the clock. When it’s really bad, attorneys and the courts get involved.
It’s amazing how quickly neighbors who barely know each other can become angry combatants. The issues range from the legally complex to the pretty ridiculous. Alcohol, drugs, lack of sleep, poor health and even bad weather can transform a mild annoyance into a feud that lasts years.
“We think of our home as our sanctuary,” says Caroline Davenport, who directs Mediation Services at the King County Dispute Resolution Center. “That’s why these issues can escalate very quickly.”
Grounds for complaint
In 2020, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) received more than 10,000 complaints from people alleging violations of city codes against their neighbors. The leading concerns were land-use issues (such as junk buildup and storage structures) and overgrown yards. Complaints about new construction, mechanical noise, vacant buildings and trees were close behind.
Wendy Shark, SDCI’s media relations officer, says they investigate all complaints. If they find a violation, they send warning letters and may impose fines. But they don’t get directly involved in arguments between neighbors.
“We suggest they seek mediation,” Shark says.
Over at the Seattle Animal Shelter, Animal Control handles more than 1,000 complaints a year about neighbors’ animals. The vast majority of these complaints involved dogs.
“About 75% of those are noise complaints, followed by leash issues,” says Animal Control Officer Kevin Mack. Third on the list are complaints about neighbors who fail to scoop their dog’s poop.
It turns out that barking problems, like the one in my neighborhood, can be surprisingly complex.
“Sometimes owners go to work and the dogs bark because they have separation anxiety,” Mack says. “The owners are gone, so they don’t hear it — but the neighbors do.”
Whether it’s barking dogs or loud music, many of the issues at the root of neighbor-to-neighbor disputes are aggravated by the fact that life in the city puts you right on top of your neighbors. Issues like old construction, lack of parking and Seattle’s odd tradition of shared driveways can make things worse.
Angie owns an older house on First Hill and, like the other residents interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her first name. She says she underestimated the inconvenience of having a driveway with a property line down the middle — and next-door neighbors who insisted the shared driveway was historically theirs.
“I was as pleasant to them as possible, but every time we parked a car there, even for a few minutes, they were knocking on the door to say that we were blocking the driveway,” she recalls. Despite her best efforts, the standoff continued for the six years she owned the property.
Apartment living, with shared walls, floors or ceilings, is even trickier.
“Many people expect they are going to have a quiet place to live, but in reality they are living with other people,” says Lydia Rubenstein, a housing organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington. “A lot of folks get frustrated with their neighbors, when it’s really the overall living situation.”
Some of the most complex neighbor disputes occur in condominiums or communities governed by a homeowners’ association. Although these communities have rules, efforts to enforce them often end in a standoff.
Ellen, who lives in a Queen Anne condominium and has served on the condo board, sighs when she talks about their difficulties with a family whose noise and other activities brought police to the building.
“Part of the problem is that the building is full of Pacific Northwest folks who are not confrontational,” she says. “And we were all a little afraid of this guy.”
The difficult owner finally moved — after being required to undo unauthorized renovations to the exterior of his unit.
Investing in a solution
Every official and expert interviewed for this story said that compromise, rather than conflict, is the best way to resolve a neighbor dispute. They define “success” as getting the problem behavior to stop — not winning the argument or proving your neighbor is “bad” or wrong.
“We urge people to talk to one another, communicate directly,” Rubenstein says. “We have tools that can help.”
For instance, what if a fellow tenant is filling up more than their share of the apartment building’s garbage can? Sure, you could complain to the building manager. But it might be less stressful, and more productive, to band with other tenants to get the landlord to provide additional garbage cans.
Davenport encourages those who are upset to resist the urge to rush over and accuse the neighbor of bad behavior. That’s almost guaranteed to be met with resistance.
“We recommend stating how you feel about the situation,” she says. “Use ‘I’ statements.”
If a dispute drags on, the Dispute Resolution Center offers mediation services. It costs as little as $50 for a three-hour session.
“Having that neutral third party facilitate the discussion can be all that’s needed to mend the relationship,” Davenport says. She recalls an instance in which feuding neighbors reconciled after new information, involving a health issue, emerged during the mediation.
Megan, a Kirkland homeowner recovering from major surgery, says that emphasizing her own feelings and needs was key to gaining understanding from a noisy neighbor. When her neighbor’s birthday bash with loud music and alcohol was still rocking at 2 a.m., she did not call the police. She went over with her cane, wished them a happy birthday, and said she really needed to get some sleep.
“They invited us to come party,” she says. “I declined, but the volume immediately went down. These guys are good neighbors.”
Steps to take for conflict-resolution
The Dispute Resolution Center of King County’s tips for handling a neighbor conflict include:
• Step back and slow down when you’re upset to avoid saying something that will further escalate the conflict.
• Be clear about your intentions and goals for the conversation before you approach your neighbor. What would you like to see happen?
• When you do approach your neighbor, start by asking if they are willing to have a conversation.
• Tell your neighbor what you want to discuss and emphasize that you want to have the conversation in order to maintain a good relationship with them.
• Don’t corner the neighbor; allow them to save face.
• Express your feelings without blaming the other person — use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.
• Listen, ask questions and be open to learning new information about the neighbor and the situation. Try to find common ground and get to the heart of what both parties really want.
For more tips, visit kcdrc.org/resources/resolution-tips