Tim lives in a comfortable 5-bedroom home in an upmarket Eastern Melbourne suburb. The house was built just 3 years ago, and he is rather pleased with it. Also, the family loves living in the area, and the kids have lots of friends around. One Wednesday afternoon Tim gets a text from the neighbour who is about to start renovating their house saying “Can we meet? There might be an issue with the boundary”. Tim’s “trouble antennae” go up – he knows that boundary disputes between neighbours are notorious. After all, you regularly see this kind of stuff on one of the 6.30pm local affairs shows on TV. Tim goes over to the neighbor’s home that same evening with some apprehension, and the neighbor confirms his worst suspicions – the neighbour’s surveyor has reported that Tim’s fence is 10cm into the neighbour’s property line. And for their planned renovation, the neighbor really does need that fence line put back as is his right. You realize aghast that if all this is true, then at the very least you will have to share half the cost of the new fence, if not the whole cost because after all, you are the transgressing party.
If you were Tim, what happens next?
The untrained mind’s response
Well, if you are like pretty much most other people you would naturally feel upset, defensive, perhaps even a little angry. Who does the neighbor think he is? You even start to think that there might be some funny business going on with the surveyor just to get the neighbor that extra space he needs for his renovation.
But you know you shouldn’t just lash out, so you ask for some time to think about it. You then contact the builder who built your house and ask him what he knows about this fence situation. He says the fence was already there when they started the work, so they don’t bother checking against the council’s plans in such cases. He gives you a number of another surveyor if you wish to have the situation independently cross-checked. You feel that you can’t really trust someone else’s assertion so you go ahead and engage the other surveyor at a cost of A$1,000.
Your surveyor may or may not agree with the neighbour’s. In case the surveyors agree (which is rather likely if they are both licensed!), then at the very least, you are in for the extra cost over and above the surveyor’s cost. If they don’t agree, then well you are really in it. What are your options? Either one of you relents, or you escalate the matter to your local civil court. And in so doing, sour your good relations with your neigbhour, adding to the little stresses of life. Can you imagine that? Not being able to say a friendly “hello” across the fence, avoiding each other if you both happen to step out at the same time, not being able to ask for help if your house lights go out, etc. And even if the surveyors do agree and you foot the additional cost, the message you have sent to your neighbor is subtle but clear – “I didn’t take you for your word, so I had to have it independently verified”.
A trained mind’s response
You straight away notice the churn in your gut and rush of blood to your head. You realize that you are upset and maybe even a little angry. You take a deep breath or two and then pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breath for perhaps just a few seconds. You find that it calms you down. You are now back on more or less even keel. You think a bit more clearly, and realize that the matter is complex and potentially important, and so worth taking some time over. So you turn to your neighbor and say “this is unexpected for both of us I guess. But I do value your friendship and the good relations we have enjoyed as neighbours for years, so let’s aim to come to a mutually satisfactory outcome. Would it be OK if I could go away to think about it, and come back to you with some ideas?”
Now back at home, you contact your builder and ask what surveying was done when they built the new house. He says the fence was already there when they started the work, so they don’t bother checking against the council’s plans in such cases. He gives you a number of another surveyor if you wish to have the situation independently cross-checked. You then sit back and think, if the neighbor has used a licensed surveyor, what is the chance that he/she would have it wrong or worse still, be faking it? Pretty small really. You therefore conclude that it’s not really worth the effort and cost of engaging an independent surveyor. In fact the whole thing could well be over and done with for the same cost as engaging that second surveyor. You also realize that though you are well within your rights to do so, if you do engage the second surveyor, what message you have sent to your neighbor – “I didn’t take you for your word, so I had to have it independently verified”.
So you go back to your neighbor and tell him you’re happy to go ahead on having the fence moved to the correct position. The neighbor thanks you for being so reasonable and tells you how concerned he was about the situation blowing over into one of those nasty neighbourly spats you see on the evening local affairs shows on TV.
You feel good that you have overcome a situation that could have caused low level, but long-term grief.
A master mind’s response
You smile because you know that even though this situation has the potential to sour neighbourly relations, it’s not going to happen that way. You trust your own emotions and ability to handle a situation like this calmly and rationally. You also know that the outcome needs to be just. It’s not just you and your neighbor involved in this, but also potentially others that will live in these houses long after you have both moved on.
You know that your neighbor is trustworthy, and takes care to do things well. So you confirm that he has used a licensed surveyor. He has (you probably couldn’t practice without a license anyway), so the description of the situation must be correct. At some point in the past, your fence line must have been accidentally moved into the neighbour’s property. “This is unexpected for both of us. But I value your friendship and the good relations we have enjoyed as neighbours for years and I trust your judgment, so please go ahead and do whatever is needed to fix the problem, and I’ll wear my share of the cost”.
The neighbor is taken by surprise, and thanks you for being so reasonable. He goes on to say “Oh by the way, I only really need the front half of the fence moved, so let’s not worry about the back half, and given I was going to have some work done on the fence anyway, I’ll just absorb all the cost“.
You are (always) happy.