You don't have to be going through a bitter divorce or family rift to be involved in regular shouting matches these days. All you need is a disagreement over who owns a four-inch strip of land and you can be at loggerheads for years with your neighbours, and as well as causing you heartache, such fights can cost you dearly and even make your house unsaleable.
"The people concerned can be extraordinarily vitriolic," says solicitor Sue Satchell of Withers, recalling a satellite dish being ripped down by a neighbour following a boundary dispute and threats of violence. "These disputes can be more violent and protracted than if someone has gone on trial for murder," says surveyor Mark Hunter of estate agent Grice & Hunter in Doncaster.
And as a nation we are complaining more and becoming less willing to compromise. The latest annual national noise survey shows complaints have increased five-fold in the past 20 years, reaching 330,000 in 2005, equal to one a year for every 170 citizens.
"There is a definite increase in claims in neighbour disputes," says Frankie Nicholson of insurer Norwich Union.
So what are the potential flash points, and how can you prevent problems or deal with them if they arise? As more and more flats are being built instead of houses, and density levels rise, residents are living closer together. When quizzed in the national noise survey local authorities cited the main causes of disputes were selfish attitudes, a higher expectation of quiet, incompatible lifestyles with neighbours, modern sound insulation and more powerful sound equipment.
"The trend for wooden flooring is causing an awful lot of problems in flats," says Satchell, while Hunter notes that boundary disputes over tiny bits of land can flare up when triggered by another cause - smoke from a barbeque or a disagreement over parking, for example.
If you want to prevent boundary disputes you should get an exact map of your land and borders drawn up by a surveyor when you buy a property, says Hunter.
Be very much on your guard if the person you buy your house from says there is an ongoing dispute with the neighbours. There is a standard declaration for vendors to alert you to this, and if they conceal a problem they are guilty of misrepresentation and may have to subsequently reimburse buyers for any costs incurred as a result.
Also look at the terms of your lease if you have one. You will see that in many cases floors have to be carpeted and you will be breaking the terms of the lease if you strip them down to the wood. If the situation does get nasty try to negotiate with your neighbours.
It's good to talk it over
Paul Crosland is a mediator with Bristol Mediation: "Mediate, don't litigate," he says. Neighbourly disputes, he says, "are usually about what people think about each other, with layers of presumption to be removed."
Mediation by a community mediation service can help find a way through a seemingly impossible situation. "We're looking for a win-win scenario," he says.
The process starts when one party approaches the mediation service - local authorites hold lists of services, or they can found online. A mediator will then pay you a visit, talk the issues over with you and approach the other party, usually by letter. Parties can then choose to have either "face-to-face" or "shuttle" mediation, where the mediator acts as a go between.
"We look at what's really behind the dispute, and once that's resolved the rest usually follows," says Mr Crosland. Once an agreement - either verbal or written - is reached, the mediator backs off. They check back in a month to make sure the agreement is holding up.
Mediation services can be free if funded by councils or charities, but it depends where you live. If they are not free then Mr Crosland says the most it should cost will be around £500 for the whole process. Both parties must reach agreement about splitting the cost early on, but either way it is, as Crosland points out, far cheaper than going to court.
Taking someone to the county court is expensive and time consuming. And if you haven't already been through mediation, the outcome might be that you are both ordered to seek it and come to a resolution that way - court can end up simply being an unnecessary and costly diversion.
If you are determined to proceed however, look to see if you have legal expenses insurance in your home contents policy. If you don't you can buy it, usually for a fairly reasonable price (around £20 a year). Check it specifically covers neighbour or "civil" disputes, which is vital to filing a claim says legal expenses expert Steve Manton of M Consulting.
However, don't expect total support if you have legal expenses insurance. Insurers will only fund claims that have a reasonable prospect of success, and the Financial Ombudsman Service is seeing a steady flow of complaints in this area. The maximum cover they will usually provide is around £50,000, a sum that can rapidly be eaten up if you have to go to court.
If you have any plans to sell up in the near future think twice about starting a row with your neighbour. "For most people the easiest approach might be to make no complaint - because then you don't have to disclose it [to potential buyers] - and then sell up," says Satchell.
If you do make a complaint and then disclose it, solicitors would usually advise potential buyers to not complete the purchase until the issue is resolved. However, if you live next to a fanatic the issue may never be resolved.
Even complaining to your local environmental health officer could leave you in a similar position. Of such complaints, only one in six eventually leads to an officer issuing an abatement order, and getting to that stage can take months as you have to prove the problem is a continuing one and not just a one-off. This year could be a notable one for such disputes. The introduction of home information packs on June 1, which require upfront disclosure on all issues from house vendors, will make buyers more aware of potential problems.
And if the hot summer we are all expecting actually materialises, windows will be open and people will be out in their gardens - two of the main ingredients in increasing neighbourly friction.
Source: Guardian Unlimited, May 3, 2007.