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Here’s to being a good neighbor! Helpful answers about neighbor law

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Cats fouling the sandbox, cigarette smoke, noisy vacuum cleaners – arguments and legal disputes between neighbors are common, and they often end up in court. How can you resolve a conflict in a way that means you can continue to live side by side?

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    Alexandra Pestalozzi

    Alexandra Pestalozzi, legal expert at AXA-ARAG specializing in real estate law, explains your rights and obligations when you have arguments with your neighbors.

The man in the apartment next to mine is threatening to report me because I sometimes do my laundry and hang it up to dry on my balcony on a Sunday. Is that really not allowed?

Under your rental contract, the house or laundry room rules govern when you can do your laundry. If they specify that you’re not allowed to do it on a Sunday, you have to abide by that. That said, there are no grounds these days for objecting to you hanging your laundry out on your balcony.

We have a pool in our garden that’s also popular with the neighbors’ children. Can I be held liable if a child gets injured?

Yes, that is possible. It can’t be ruled out completely because construction owner liability is what we call a causal liability. We would strongly advise that you make the pool safe so that accidents can be avoided as far as possible. Simply putting up a sign saying that you don’t accept liability isn’t enough.

I sometimes leave my robot vacuum cleaner running while I go out for the evening. My downstairs neighbors complain about the noise. What are the rules on vacuum cleaners?

The rules laid down by the police on quiet hours generally prohibit noisy activities, including vacuum cleaning, in the evenings. The exact nighttime quiet hours where you live can be found in the Police Regulations for your commune or canton. Our advice is to let the robot run during the day, not in the evening.

The couple in the apartment next door always have their TV on really loud, often late into the night. Is there anything I can do about that?

In principle, your neighbors are allowed to watch TV, but the volume should be kept to a reasonable level at night. The local quiet hours must be observed. We would advise you to talk to your neighbors. If you’re renting your apartment, you can also ask your landlord or landlady for help. 

My neighbor often spends hours on her balcony talking loudly on the phone in the evening when I want to unwind and read a book. What can I do?

Lengthy phone calls at a normal volume are allowed, even on the balcony, but the volume should be kept low during quiet hours. 

I live on the ground floor, and my apartment has a patio and a small lawn. My neighbor always uses the lawn as a shortcut to his parking space. Is that allowed? 

No. It would be different if there were a right of way across your property or if it were a shared lawn belonging to the whole building.

It’s important to know that taking your neighbors to court can take a long time, and the outcome is far from certain, not least because judges have extensive powers of discretion. With this in mind, we advise talking things out and trying to find an amicable solution.

Alexandra Pestalozzi, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

My neighbor smokes on his balcony, and his smoke drifts into my apartment. I’m a non-smoker, so it really bothers me. What can I do about it?

Just like barbecues and phone calls, smoking is in principle permitted. However, if your neighbor is chain-smoking cigars from morning to evening, that counts as a nuisance, and you can take legal action.

Our neighbors always mow their lawn on a Saturday afternoon when I want to relax in my garden. It usually takes them over an hour. Do I just have to live with it? 

As long as your neighbors observe quiet hours in the middle of the day and the evening, one hour’s mowing per week with a standard mower is considered reasonable. Here too, you should start by talking to them and maybe suggesting a time window that suits both of you.

I have windchimes on my balcony. My neighbor says they annoy her, and she wants me to take them down. Do I have to do that?

No. As a rule, a few small windchimes don’t generate enough noise to be regarded as a nuisance.

What the law says about nuisances

Lawyers distinguish between three main kinds of nuisance: material (e.g. noise or smoke), negative (e.g. a tree depriving you of sunlight or a wall blocking your view), and non-material (e.g. if plans to build a slaughterhouse near your home cause you psychological distress).

The neighbor whose balcony is next to mine loves barbecues. In the summer, he’s grilling sausages, steaks or fish almost every night. Do I have to live with these strong smells?

Grilling in your own garden is essentially allowed, but excessive smoke and smells could potentially constitute a nuisance. If a dispute goes to court, the judge has the power of decision. Perhaps the neighbor can move his barbecue to a position where the smoke doesn’t bother you so much. Agreeing days when he can grill might help to prevent disputes.

Our neighbors tend to clean their barbecue late on a Sunday evening, just as we’re airing our apartment before bedtime. Is that allowed? It takes them about half an hour, and the smell is terrible. 

Here too, the question is whether the smoke and smells are excessive enough to constitute a nuisance. The judge has the power to decide. Since it only takes half an hour, and cleaning your barbecue regularly is good hygiene, it would be fair to assume that this is acceptable behavior, even on a Sunday. 

My neighbors have dug a pond in their garden. We’re concerned that our two-year-old daughter might fall in and potentially drown. As parents, can we ask them to take precautions? 

Yes. The owner of the pond is required to take appropriate safety precautions. If they don’t, they could face a claim for damages under construction owner liability.

Our neighbors have bought a bull terrier. It’s not well trained, and there’s only a wooden fence separating our two gardens. I’m worried that the dog could attack our baby. What are my rights?

The dog’s owner is responsible for its behavior and can be held liable. We recommend talking to your neighbor so as to prevent any future problems.

The best way to ensure that you get along with your neighbors is to talk to them and show a certain amount of tolerance. As a rule of thumb, avoid doing anything that you yourself would find annoying.

Alexandra Pestalozzi, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

A family in our neighborhood keeps four huge dogs in a kennel that bark at almost anything during the day. Do the rest of us have to accept this?

Barking that goes on for hours and into the night can probably be regarded as a nuisance. Occasional barking is a matter of deciding what counts as unreasonable. At any rate, it would be worth checking whether keeping dogs this way is permitted in your residential area.

Our neighbor’s cat likes to do its business in our sandbox. What can I do about this legally?

Unlike dog owners, cat owners aren’t normally held liable for their pet’s behavior because cats can’t be constantly supervised. Simply covering the sandbox after use should have the desired effect. Alternatively, you could research special water- and sound-based devices that repel cats. 

Our neighbors have set up a trampoline in their garden. It’s huge and bright red, and it blocks our view. Can I do anything about it?

Trampolines are commonplace in residential areas. The question of whether they cause a nuisance through noise, shadows or blocked views must be assessed separately in each case. It’s best to discuss where the trampoline will go with the neighbors before buying it. If you live in a rented apartment, you can’t set up a large trampoline without the consent of your landlord or landlady. 

My downstairs neighbors’ ivy has grown up to my apartment. Am I allowed to cut it?

In principle, no. In a rented property, the ivy belongs to the landlord or landlady. In a condominium, the ivy normally belongs to the community of owners if it’s growing out of the ground.

Otherwise, you should agree a date for your neighbors to remove the plants growing across your property if you find them a nuisance. If they haven’t done anything by that date, you have a legal right to get the plants cut back by a professional at your own expense. Excessive cutting would constitute criminal damage.

You can find out more about the right to have plants cut back here.

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