All the owners except one keep their homes sharp. One owner's house looks like a junkyard. Can we sue the owner for loss of property value?

September 1, 2015

Yes, but you may not win. There is a better way.

© 2015 Richard Montgomery

Reader Question: Can you tell me if a homeowner can sue a sloppy neighbor or the city for not taking action on a neglected property? We have owned our home for fourteen years now. The neighbors take good care of their property. But, three years ago the pristine property across the street was sold. The persons (renters) have completely trashed this once beautiful home. To the point, it has deterred buyers from buying property behind it. Cars go by and even stop, making comments about it. We are very concerned about our property now along with the other neighbors who pay mortgages and have a financial investment in their property. People tell us we won’t get anyone to buy our property that we have worked so hard to make nice. I would be glad to send pictures of it. I hope you can help us. Martha G.

Monty’s Answer: Unfortunately, the situation you described is common. You suggest the city has not taken action. If they have not taken action, did they give you a reason? Or did they say they would, but not follow up? Have you contacted the owner of the home? Do these owners realize that they are the biggest losers? The owner may be a first-time investor needing good advice to correct the situation. Have you read the municipal ordinance or code to understand if the property is in violation?

It will be a good practice for you to keep accurate notes about who you called, when you called, the purpose of the call and the response of the other party. Save the photographs for your file. If you can utilize email to have these conversations in writing, it is even better. It may take a time to build a case unless you have been doing these things all along.

Municipalities are cooperative

If you contacted an employee at city hall who has stonewalled you, perhaps the employee is a slum landlord and sympathetic toward all offenders. Most municipalities elect aldermen, trustees or zone captains whose function is to handle issues similar to yours. This route might be a better alternative. These officials raised their hand to help people in the neighborhood. In these changing times, communities have shown more interest in helping with situations as you describe than in years past.

Organize the neighborhood

Consider organizing a group of neighbors to join in the effort because they are affected by what sounds like an incompetent landlord as well. The landlord must share the responsibility or take most of the burden as they can evict the tenant. Bringing neighborhood pressure to focus on the situation may be superior to a lawsuit because it happens in the open with a large group of people. It will get a lot more attention, which is often the only action to which offenders respond, unwanted public attention. It also happens to be less expensive if a group is chipping in for legal fees, should this strategy fail to produce results..

Start with a small meeting, possibly a coffee at your home to build some awareness and test for other interest in building a coalition to get action. If some pressure is required, twenty or thirty distressed property owners at a city council meeting may attract the attention of a television station to move the municipality to action. It is amazing what happens when the local investigative reporter is filmed knocking on the door of the property owner, or the mayor, that is allowing this to happen in your neighborhood.

You may have a good attorney living in the neighborhood, or has a family member living in the neighborhood, who will advise the group pro bono from the sidelines. When you hold the coffee, ask if anyone knows someone with an attorney in the family.

Litigate as a last resort

In this country, anyone can sue anyone else at the drop of a hat. The question is, can you win? Every case that comes into the courthouse has a lawyer on each side, only one of whom will win. Building a good case is one exercise that will help if you get to that point.

If this sounds like too much effort, or you cannot find time to make it a priority call an attorney and set up a meeting to get their opinion. Here is a link to an article; https://dearmonty.com/8-tips-find-good-real-estate-attorney/. Like most service businesses, attorneys are not all created equal.