In Focus 

Q: What do people who live in high-rise condos, townhouses, urban bungalows, suburban homes, zero-lot-line neighborhoods or on 10-acre farms all have in common?

A: The guy next door.

No matter where you hang your hat, you've got to contend with neighbors, especially if you own your living space. Ownership means membership — in your community, in your neighborhood, on your street, in your building, or on your floor — and membership means responsibility: responsibility to hold the line on your neighborhood's curb appeal and responsibility to make nicey-nice with the folks who live nearby. What that level of responsibility entails depends on you, but a lot of it depends on your neighbors.

How involved you are will go a long way in defining your standing in the neighborhood. Here's a primer on one of the vital aspects of the exciting world of being alive: neighbors. (And let me take this moment to say how much I like my own neighbors — especially the ones who might be reading this — and to say I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have them in my life.)

The Arms Race

This option is only for those born to neighbor and who long to win at the endeavor. When Jimmy down the street gets the latest self-propelled lawnmower, you get a riding mower. When Pam brings fried chicken to the street potluck, you bring pheasant.

PRO: No one will ever badmouth the appearance of your property. CONS: It's hard to make friends, and, with escalation, there'll undoubtedly be some casualties along the way.

The Importance of Being Earnest

No other single factor is as necessary in keeping your neighbors happy as giving the appearance that you care — that you care about your yard and exterior spaces and improvements inside and that you're invested in the upkeep of your place. And, just as importantly, that you care what your neighbors think. Of course, it helps if you really do care. But it's not enough alone. You've got to wave your flag and remind everybody, lest they forget, that you're just as committed as they.

PROS: Keeps everybody on an even keel, and it's easier to get to actually know people rather than just the value of their belongings. CON: You're following the crowd rather than leading the charge.

Safety in Numbers

Short of equaling your neighbors' zeal, you must at least not be the weakest link in your neighborhood. Treat it as a law of the jungle: You don't have to be the fastest gazelle; you just can't be the slowest. It's action with due diligence rather than with all diligence. It's procrastinating bringing your trashcan in but not being the last yahoo on the street with it still on the curb.

PRO: Frees you up for couch time in front of the tube or goofing off online. CON: It hits you in the bottom line: your own property value.

Your guiding principle in dealing with neighbors should be the Golden Rule: Do unto others' property values and opinions as you would have them do unto yours. Ask yourself, What Would My Neighbor Do — WWMND? Take a long view at being neighborly, doing what's going to serve you best and make you happiest over the course of a 15-year or 30-year mortgage. And if you ever live near me, remember: I love homemade ice cream and am not above being bribed. ■

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