Austin Fence Dramas – Dealing With Unreasonable Neighbors

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on September 29, 2011 · 17 comments

Austin FenceMost homes in Austin have fenced back yards. Most fences are built on the property line. The standard wood fence lasts about 8-15 years before it needs replacing (less if it’s a cheap starter home fence).

Usually, when replacement is needed, reasonable neighbors work it out and get it done, sharing materials and labor in a way agreeable to both, depending on who gets the “good” side and who wants the fence the most. Ideally, this is just an old fashioned handshake agreement and all goes well, and both neighbors are happy with the result.

But often things don’t go well. It only takes one unreasonable neighbor to make things difficult. Having managed and owned rentals in Austin for 20+ years, I’ve had many more “fence encounters” the past three months alone than most Austinites will encounter in 2 decades. What have I learned? … there are some very weird Austin kooks out there when it comes to dealing with fence issues.

Scenario #1 – Petulant ManBoy Brat and his Parents, Fiancee and Great Dane
I own a duplex in South Austin. I use to own the duplex next door as well. I purchased both in 1999 and sold one in 2003, keeping the other. There had never been a fence between the two duplexes, though there had always been fences along the surrounding lot lines in back and the outer sides. I’ve never rented to tenants with pets at the duplex, so I never needed or wanted a fence for each individual yard.

At some point, the new owner next door, without my knowledge or permission, installed a chain-link fence connecting the front corners of the two duplexes, thus creating a large combined “shared” fenced yard in back encompassing the back yard of my Unit B and their Unit A. Apparently, the tenant (daughter of the owner) asked my tenant at the time if it would be ok for them to have a dog. My tenant, as I’m told by the neighbor, said it would be ok. I never knew of this. Besides, the tenant wasn’t the proper person to ask as they don’t own the property.

Recently my new tenant reported to me ongoing problems with the neighbor, now the owner’s son, and dogs roaming the back yard, crapping in it, and making the yard a health hazard for her small kids because of all the dung.

At this point, and perhaps I expect too much of people, one would think:

A) Good pet owners don’t let their dogs run loose and crap in their neighbor’s yard.

B) it should take no more than a simple request to keep someone else’s dogs off my property.

That’s not how it went.

Upon talking in person with the ManBoy/tenant, a petulant college punk with no common sense, he took the brazen position of “if you don’t want my dog crapping in your yard, pay me to build a fence”.

Reason and logic failed to persuade the young man, so I gave him my business card and asked him to have the property owner, his father, call me. I never received a call. I eventually mailed a Certified Demand Letter to the owner address listed in the County Tax Records stating, in short, “keep your dog off my property and pick up your dog feces”. No response, the letter was never signed for. I explained to my tenant the steps I had taken and told her to let me know if the problems continue.

Next, another email letter from my tenant:

Dog Poop

Neighbors Dog Poop Picked up from My Property

“So sorry to be a bother again.  I try so hard not to complain :(.  The dogs next door, or more correctly the neighbors next door, are just too much.  They are back to two dogs and double the poop.  I’ve included a pic of the amount I’ve picked up in the last three weeks just from our side of the yard.

I guess I’m thinking that if you have the contact info for their land owner and if you felt comfortable with me contacting him, I would like to ask him to take care of the yard problem. I think it is worth a shot, especially considering my kids have to play in this backyard that is just covered in poop. :(

If you don’t think this is the right approach let me know what you think might work. I thought that leaving a mountain of poop by their back door step would give them the hint but they simply don’t seem to care”.

(Landlord/Tenant Legal Sidebar: The above represents notice from my tenant that a condition exists on my property that constitutes, as Texas Property Code terms it, “a threat to the health and safety of an ordinary person”. The average person may read it as a polite request from a frustrated tenant, but experienced landlords will see the red flags and understand that there are legal ramifications if I don’t take immediate steps to address the problem, regardless of who caused it.)

Having attempted to resolve this through conversation with the ManBoy/tenant, and finding him to be a recalcitrant moron unwilling to even admit that his dog’s poop doesn’t belong on my property, and having received no response from the letter sent to the owner, I felt there was no reason to attempt further dialog.

I sent my fence guy to my property the next day and had him simply remove the portion of fence on my side of the property line. This eliminated the existence of the enclosed yard and meant that the dog-owner neighbor would no longer be able to let the dogs out, lest they leave the yard and run off. It’s illegal to chain dogs outside in Austin, so a dog owner has the obligation to provide a fenced yard for the dog, or only let it outside while being walked on a leash.

I also called the City of Austin Health Department, which resulted in a visit the same day and a citation for accumulated dog feces. I even received a call from the health official updating me. He said “yeah, it was a significant amount of accumulation … and lots of flies”. Tell me about it. ManBoy thinks it’s all cool though. I’m the jerk.

Removal of the fence from my side, along with the health violation notice, got the attention of the neighbor/tenant. Starting the same day, I received separate phone calls from his Father, his Fiancee, the ManBoy/tenant himself, and finally his Mother. The content of all these conversations was essentially about their dismay at how unreasonable and rude I am and how a “good” neighbor would have simply offered to pay half for a new fence to divide the yards.

These conversations were truly bizarre, to any normal person. I mean, bizzare might not even be a strong enough word. Here’s an example:

Me: What I want is simple; keep your dogs off my property and pick up your poop. How you accomplish that is up to you and doesn’t involve me.
ManBoy:
The dogs aren’t even mine, they’re my Fiancees’.
Me:
Then tell your Fiancee to keep her dogs off my property and to pick up the poop.
ManBoy:
She’s 6 month’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be out in the heat picking up Poop.
Me:
Then do it for her.
ManBoy:
But they’re not my dogs. I don’t see why you won’t just pay me half the cost to build a new fence. That would solve everything.

The above is just an example snippet of the mindset I was dealing with. Astoundingly stupid, self-absorbed people. Would I have been willing to pay half under different circumstances? Maybe. But I never could, and still can’t, get past the fact that I’d have to be willing to do business with people who think like this and can’t understand much less accept the concepts of responsibility, accountability and responsible pet ownership. Paying for half a fence isn’t going to cure that core problem. It would be no different than giving an alcoholic more booze in exchange for a promise to not act drunk anymore. Sharing the cost, in this particular case, is not something I would consider a good and wise investment, and it was an easy conclusion to arrive at.

The saga resulted, nevertheless, in me agreeing to come look yesterday at where ManBoy staked out his new fence line. He wanted me to “approve” it. A simple glance instantly revealed a crooked (diagonal) line splitting the fence line about 1/3 my side and 2/3 his side, between the units. Clearly off-center and improperly placed. Even a kindergartner could make a straighter line down the middle of two buildings.

“That’s obviously not the middle” I said, thinking silently that the stupidity of this kid knows no bounds. “These side lot lines are 5 foot setbacks, you need to measure it properly and put the fence in the middle”. He wanted instead to attach the fence to the remaining part of the existing fence on his side, which still extended a couple of feet across my lot line. I said “no, build it in the proper location, you can’t have part of my yard inside your fence line”.

I asked him if he smelled the strong stench while we were standing there. Literally, it smells like a pig farm. Not just slightly, but a strong putrid odor of dog shit. The kind of smell that causes a normal person to wince and wave her hand in front of her nose while saying “peeww”. These are Great Dane turds remember, many dozens of them peppering the yard in the hot 100 degree sun. Baking there every day in the hot grass, attracting flies.

Not responding to the smell question, he again started in on how rude it is of me to not pay for half the fence. I calmly listened as this escalated into a full blown verbal assault as I simply kept saying “no, it’s your dog, your fence”. He progressed to shouting, complete with expletives telling me “F… You. Build your own damn fence”. I thanked him for his input, told him I heard what he was saying and that we just don’t agree, and I left.

He followed that encounter up with the following emails:

ManBoy: You are a terrible person. Your mother should be ashamed of herself. I was trying to be a peaceful person this morning but your rudeness has no end, I regret my outburst. But seriously Mr. Crossland, you are a very terrible person. Either build your own fence or pay me both labor and half for the materials to do it. We are out.

My Reply: Thanks for your helpful note. I think you’re making the wrong move here. Since you’ve left the ball in my court, and seem unwilling to take responsibility for your situation, I will be taking the appropriate next steps legally.

I’m sorry you’re not able to see the absurdness of your position and how your failure to be a responsible pet owner and good neighbor has created this entire scenario. I won’t try to convince you further but will instead allow that to happen through the legal system and through City of Austin Code Enforcement.

ManBoy: You shouldnt try to be convincing us to build the fence on our own, it splits our property so we should be splitting the costs. Just split the cost for the materials and ill put up the damn fence. I guarantee you would be saving a lot more money splitting the cost than dealing with lawyers. Be a good neighbor and stop being an asshole.

My Reply: Thanks again for another kind and helpful note. My previous email stands. I’ll allow the authorities to educate and inform you regarding your obligations and responsibilities as a pet owner in the city of Austin.

I next heard from the Mother of the ManBoy, who called to apologize on behalf of her son. He’s under a lot of stress with school work, his job, a pregnant fiancee, and now having this fence issue “thrust” upon him “out of nowhere”, by me.

Incredible. Mom thinks her precious boy does no wrong and, like her son, thinks the only problem is me. If I would simply act right and agree to pay for the fence, all of this strife could be avoided. She was just as incapable as the boy of understanding the basic facts of the case and why I removed the fence from my side of the property. To the Mom, I was just an unreasonable person causing undo stress on her poor, sweet boy, which caused him to lose his composure and curse at me and send nasty emails.

I had previously heard from the Fiancee as well.  She wanted to lodge a complaint that my tenant’s small boys (2 and 4) were allowed to play naked in the back yard. This, she explained, was illegal and prevented her from being able to grill in her back yard with friends, because of the offensive sight of naked little boys frolicking in the grass (the grass from which my tenant had picked up the Fiancee’s dog’s pile of turds pictured above).

This was helpful for me to know. That a 6-month pregnant fiancee of ManBoy feels deprived of her right to relax with friends in her stench-filled back yard – surrounded by dozens, if not 100’s, of human-sized festering dog turds and swarms of flies – and grill up some tasty burgers. I guess I can see how the sight of the young naked boys could completely ruin the carefully established ambiance that the poop, flies and odor provide to the outdoor burger grilling experience. Frankly, I’m suprised a pregnat woman could be exposed to that back yard odor without vomiting.

In case you’re wondering, the conversation with the father was no less absent of reason than the conversations with ManBoy, Mom and the Fiancee. I’m still wondering if I might hear from the Grandparents next.

As it stands, these dog-owner neighbors are either going to start acting like responsible Austin pet owners or I’ll just keep sending City Code Enforcement to the property each week to write citations. If the fence is built improperly or substandard, code enforcement will be sent. If it’s not where it’s suppose to be, it will have to be moved. The dog poop must be picked up and not allowed to accumulate or attract flies. Unfortunately, with some people, anything less than a firm, unbending stance, including involvement of City of Austin Health Department is required. When reason fails, forced compliance becomes the only effective tool.

Scenario #2 – Neighbor Doesn’t like Instant, Free Repair to Fence

On another fence episode this past summer, high winds blew down the fence at a rental home I manage. Tenant reported it to me. I immediately sent my guy to replace two snapped posts and put the fence back up and make sure it’s stable. On small repairs like this, I just get the job done and don’t drag my feet trying to find the neighbor and have discussions. This was less than a $100 repair, not worth the logistics of asking for a shared expense.

The adjoining neighbor called to complain that the the new wood posts and the one new top stringer added doesn’t match the old wood and looks ugly. (her side has the exposed posts and framing). There was no thanks for simply handling it quickly at our own expense. No offer to share the cost. Just complaining. I told her my efforts were complete and that I’m sorry she is unhappy with how it looks, but that new treated lumber looks like that and it will eventually fade and blend in. She said she was going to get a bid to “make it look right”, but I never heard back and it ended there.

Scenario #3 – Petulant Home Owner Angry We Won’t Split Cost on Unneeded New Fence

Finally, last month, owner adjacent to another rental property calls and wants me to split the cost of replacing a 6 year old fence. It was supposedly “falling apart”. I sent my guy, he evaluated the fence, tightened up a couple of spots and replaced one broken picket. He reported back to me “the fence is in really good shape, is stable and isn’t even close to needing replacement”.

I informed the neighboring owner of this and explained that we won’t be doing anything further, that the fence is in good shape and performing as expected.

He responded with an email with photos showing his side of the fence. The photo reveals dog damage on his side from the dogs knawing and scratching and jumping on the fence. In fact, the broken picket we replaced was broken from the other side by the dog, as indicated by the manner, height and direction from which the slat was split.

The photos also reveal that his mal-adjusted sprinklers were soaking the fence, as evidenced by the arc-shaped degraded and faded areas where the water sprays directly on the fence. His side does visibly look worse than ours, but it’s because of his dogs and his sprinkler. I explained that to him and advised that he should keep his dogs away from and off the fence and adjust the sprinklers to prevent further deterioration of his side of the fence.

His email response:

“I have all the evidence I need to provide efficient information to ensure you take responsibility for your property. I don’t need or asked for your opinion, just fix what is clearly your responsibility and in a timely manner. I will take whatever action is necessary to ensure it happens.

Now you say that it’s my fault. I don’t think making excuses or coming up with theories of the dog and sprinklers being the cause. I’ve been willing to work with you but now I will make sure you fix your own problems.”

I didn’t respond. I did notify my client (the owner of that property) that if he hears from a concerned neighbor regarding my unwillingness to spend my owner’s money to replace a perfectly good fence, just refer him back to me and I’ll handle it. The owner was perplexed as well, having occupied the home not long ago and knowing the fence is in really good shape.

Conclusion

For those lucky enough to rarely encounter unreasonable people and situations like these, count yourself lucky. Those of us in Real Estate and Property Management in Austin have interface with hundreds of strangers every year under all sorts of scenarios. We have to learn to set boundaries with others and make decisions about things. Learn when to stand ground and when to give in. When to be flexible and reasonable and when to go hard core straight by the rules and law with no give at all.

Fences create these scenarios more than any other issue. Trees are right up there also, when they are on property lines and/or have branches hanging over, but fences have much less of an easy outcome than trees, and there are clear laws controlling trees whereas fences are, unless in volation of code, mostly a neighbor-to-neighbor issue.

If you’re a home owner with a fence, you have to have the proper mindset and expectations, depending on which side of the equation (or yard) you’re operating from. Splitting things 50/50 is what happens in an ideal world, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Fences are highly subjective with regard to appearance and condition. One neighbor’s “needs replacing” might be another’s “looks great and has plenty of useful life remaining”. Fences are subject to dogs abusing them, digging under them, kids throwing balls against them, climbing and breaking them, trees falling on them, blowing down in high wind, water damage from sprinklers, posts snapping off, boards curling, nails popping, and just plain aging and falling apart.

If you want a new fence real bad and your neighbor doesn’t, then you buy yourself a new fence and move on.

The burden of cost  falls primarily on the person with the greatest need or motivation. No neighbor can force another neighbor to pay anything whatsoever. The law isn’t set up that way. This truly is one of those “reasonable people will work it out” things in life. If you build a new fence at your own expense, then think you can bill the neighbor half the cost and sue in Small Claims Court if they refuse to pay, you will lose. Your neighbor’s obligation to participate financially in your new fence simply does not exist.

In the ManBoy scenario above,  had the owner approached me at the beginning, prior to obtaining a dog, and said:

“We’re thinking about getting a dog. Obviously we can’t have it running loose in your back yard and crapping in your grass, so we’re going to build a fence before we get the dog so we can provide it with its own private yard. Are you interested in participating in the design and cost of the fence? If not, we’ll take care of it on our own since it’s us who wants a dog and we know you never rent to tenants with dogs, but we just wanted to see if you’re interested anyway”.

Under that scenario, the neighbor would have found me to be an extremely reasonable and willing neighbor, ready to work out a fair deal. I love making win/win deals. I like to make improvements to my properties. I would have shared in the cost. I was never given that opportunity though, to come to a reasonable agreement with reasonable people. Thus, plan B ensued.

If you want to build a fence, give your neighbor a chance to help, but don’t act bitter or offended if they don’t. Life isn’t fair. I explain that to my kids constantly. Life doesn’t owe you fairness. Take responsibility for what you want and don’t expect others to act in your best interest. In the end, what comes around goes around. If I want to build a new fence at a property I own and my neighbor doesn’t want (or maybe can’t afford) to help, it’s ok. Not a problem. My expectation is already that I’ll pay the entire cost if I really want the fence. Something good will come my way in some other way in life, and it all balances out in the end.

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