- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

The countdown to putting their house on the market was well under way when the sellers approached their neighbor and asked him to kindly do something about his overgrown, weed-infested yard so it wouldn't detract from their asking price.

Touchy as the subject was, the guy was receptive and, like a good neighbor, he tackled the project with gusto.

"Unfortunately, it was a case of ignorance," Burke, Va., real estate agent Eliza Cocke says. "He fertilized on a hot day and turned the grass brown."

Mrs. Cocke calls neighborhood eyesores the "single-most perplexing problem facing the seller and real estate agent."

Short of invoking neighborly obligation, sellers and agents are limited in what they can do about a neglected property. Frequently, they ignore it and allow sagging garages or junk-strewn lawns to repel potential buyers and, ultimately, cut potential profits.

Boyd Campbell, president of the Prince George's County Association of Realtors, counsels his clients on the "soft" approach to getting neighbors to clean up their act.

"I tell them to go over to their neighbor and say something like, 'It was great knowing you all these years, but did I mention that I'm moving and I need your help desperately,'" Mr. Campbell says. "Use sugar. It usually works."

A seller could help find a buyer for that neglected car on cinder blocks, for instance. Or he could suggest a lawn-care company.

The second prong of the soft approach is to step in and either do the work yourself or volunteer to pay for work to be done.

"I have suggested to my clients that they volunteer to help their neighbor take care of a neglected property," says Mr. Campbell, who adds that the seller must take into account their neighbor's ability to care for their home as well as their financial situation. "Many times, the person in the house is frail and elderly and just isn't able to get to the problems, anymore."

Mrs. Cocke suggests soliciting the help of other neighbors in the clean-up effort, since they, too, might someday want to sell their houses.

"Being nice and pitching in is usually the way to go," she says, "but it can also antagonize the daylights out of some people."

In cases where niceness doesn't cut it, Mrs. Cocke says, bribery might work but don't bother with chintzy bribes.

"It might work to say, 'It is worth $5,000 to me if you will do this list of things to your property until my house sells,'" Mrs. Cocke says.

When the soft approach fails and bribes don't work, it may be time to call in the proper authorities.

Most jurisdictions have rules protecting the health and safety of the community that can be invoked should a rodent infestation result from neglect. Police can also step in if an unlicensed vehicle is involved.

Associate broker Emmanuel Ukwandu of Ekubana Real Estate in Takoma Park says that the Department of Public Works in the District has become more responsive to such calls in the past two years.

"You can call the city and tell them the property next door has a problem, and they'll come. They will even do the cleaning if the owner can't be found," says Mr. Ukwandu, who calls the degradation of property the "progression of regression."

"If you don't do something, it only gets worse," he says.

Short of an unregistered car on cinder blocks or a rodent infestation, there is little the city can do about more aesthetic problems, such as a bad case of dandelions or gutters that are falling off the house.

This is when belonging to a community association comes in especially handy.

A community association has three major tools available for dealing with neighbors who don't comply with association bylaws. First, the association can demand that repairs be made. Next, it can assess charges such as the $10-a-day rate permitted in Virginia for offenses such as broken windows or peeling paint. Finally, community associations can get a court order to force the homeowner to fix the problem.

"One of the primary objectives of a community association is to maintain and preserve property values, with the idea that the whole neighborhood should profit from these controls," says Brendan Bunn, a lawyer and partner at Chadwick, Washington, Olters, Moriarty & Lynn, a Fairfax-based firm that specializes in community association law. One of the primary advantages of invoking the community association's powers, Mr. Bunn says, is that it is less likely that the interaction will be taken personally.

"People like it because there is less likelihood of interpersonal situations," Mr. Bunn says. "It separates the homeowners from dealing directly with each other and takes a lower toll psychologically. Of course, you may have to get in line behind other property owners, and that might take time."

Timetables aside, certain battles cannot be won.

Mr. Campbell was once walking clients through the back yard of a College Park house when a foul odor wafted over from the neighbor's garden.

The neighbor, as it turned out, was a horticulture teacher at the University of Maryland, where he regularly helped himself to copious amounts of free horse manure to enrich his garden soil.

"There wasn't anything we would be able to do to stop him from growing his corn and cucumbers. That's his prerogative," Mr. Campbell says but it did stop the seller from getting a contract that day.

Ultimately, some properties will continue to fester. For Mr. Ukwandu, who sometimes offers to buy eyesore properties and renovate them, there is one solution that never fails: a fence.

"At least you can block some of the view out," Mr. Ukwandu says.

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