From the December 1999 issue of Startups

Gladys Kravitz was one. Cosmo Kramer was another. And so was Mr. Bentley. As annoying as those neighbors from Bewitched, Seinfeld and The Jeffersons may have seemed, they were entertaining, sometimes even lovable.

Charles Downey isn't so lucky. A freelance writer in Big Bear City, California, Downey says his neighbor is from hell. When he's in a better mood, Downey refers to him as "the neighborhood kook."

When this neighbor gets bugged by Downey's barking dogs, he routinely leaves nasty notes on his doorstep. He also routinely blasts the air with a loud buzzer, sounds an air-horn and aims a spotlight into Downey's office at night.

Neighbors can be nice, a nightmare or not seen-and while you don't have control over their personalities, you can use certain strategies to get your neighbors to send over brownies rather than restraining orders.

Geoff Williams often freelances for Entrepreneur and its sister magazines from his home office. He wouldn't recognize his current neighbors if they were placed in a line-up

Setting Boundaries

You've just moved your office into your home. Or maybe you're already there, but new neighbors are moving in. Quick! What do you do?

Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career ($14.95, Amacom, www.amanet.org/books), suggests you don't hide your business. Be upfront about it, and, just to be safe, have all your zoning law paperwork intact. Then you can refer to your home office ad nauseam to your closest neighbors, says Casperson, who works in a cottage next to her house. But she adds that even with the paperwork straightened out, "I don't see why you have to make an announcement to your neighbors if it's not pertinent to them." Of course, if you have enough visitors dropping by that it's clear there's more to you than being a social butterfly, then it may be worth mentioning your homebased business to your neighbors out of courtesy. Or you may just want someone to recognize your business mail and let you know when it's delivered to the wrong address.

It's not that your neighbors will be out to get you once they learn you work at home. Quite the opposite. They might be all too happy to pop over in the middle of the afternoon--to chat or to see whether you can play instant babysitter. After all, you're at home, so you're not really working, right?

In that case, "use some common sense," says Casperson. "My suggestion is to tell your neighbors that from 9 to 12, or whatever hours you're hardest at work, you don't have visitors." And if you work hard all day, tell them. Sound a little harsh? Then stick a note on your door that reads, "Working on a project, please do not disturb," or something along those lines.

If neighbors aren't dropping by but are disrupting your business anyway (children shrieking in their swimming pool; the goofball constantly revving up his car motor), always make it a win-win situation, says Casperson. Explain, don't complain. "When you confront people, if you ask them to help you out, most people want to help you," she says. "Most people are not in this world to cut you down."

Keep them engaged in your work. Casperson even recommends sending a plate of cookies over, perhaps with a sample of your work and a note that reads, "This is what you helped me complete!"

Says Casperson, "Make your neighbors your allies, rather than your enemies."

Nightmare Neighbors

Even top home-office experts like Marilyn Zelinsky, author of Practical Home Office Solutions ($24.95, McGraw-Hill, www.bookstore.mcgraw-hill.com), can be perplexed about what to do with pesky neighbors. Zelinsky has a semi-retired hard-of-hearing neighbor next door. During the summers, he plays the television in his screened porch so loud the entire neighborhood can hear it. "I always have to have a fan or air-conditioner on in my office to mask his TV sound," notes Zelinsky. "This becomes a problem if I'm on the phone." The air-conditioner and fan drown her out, so Zelinsky turns them off, keeps the windows shut and hopes she doesn't melt from the heat. "I have yet to figure out a better solution," she says, "so I'm waiting until he moves to Florida to retire!"

Meanwhile, Cora Jordan, an Oxford, Mississippi, attorney who also has her own home office and is the co-author of Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise ($24.95, Nolo.com, www.nolo.com) had a bit of a neighborhood scrape herself. One of her neighbors built a beagle run . just a few feet from Jordan's home office. And so Jordan did what she advises everybody to do:

  • Make a list. Before you confront your neighbor, have details ready of the types of problems that are occurring and the times they are happening.
  • Have suggested solutions with that list, so when your neighbors say, "Well, whaddya want me to do about it?" you can tell them.
  • See whether other neighbors are annoyed. If so, team up and confront your neighbor together.
  • If the problem is about noise, get a copy of your local ordinance. "There will be one," assures Jordan. "You can get [a copy] at your public library." She suggests you make two copies and send one to your neighbor, with a persuasive letter, explaining that calling the authorities may be next on the agenda.
  • Try a mediator. In your local Yellow Pages, Jordan suggests looking up "mediation" or "alternative dispute resolutions."

Though these are obviously all reasonable ideas, what ended up working for Jordan was having her husband call next door and speak to the proverbial man of the house. This guy apparently respected men more than women, and he quickly moved the beagle to the other end of the yard. Which leads to Jordan's final suggestion: Understand the culture, or mindset, of the neighbors you're dealing with.

Nice Neighbors

If you can't live in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, you should consider moving to Lise Schleicher's. Schleicher runs Northbrook, Illinois-based BasketWorks (www.basketworks.nu), making personal and corporate gift baskets in what she calls "a regular 1950s kind of neighborhood. Our driveway and our next door neighbor's driveway are only separated by six feet of grass, and a few trees and bushes."

Not much room, but it hardly matters. "They're all really supportive," Schleicher says of her neighbors. "They've all used my business. They've even taken my brochures to their offices."

In fact, Schleicher's neighbors have helped her out quite a bit beyond just word-of-mouth. "They've helped me carry stuff in, because I get really large, heavy boxes sometimes," she says. "Neighbors have offered the use of their vehicles to transport heavy stuff. Occasionally, a package will get left at the wrong address, and it's never a big deal."

In return, Schleicher tries to be an equally good neighbor. For instance, UPS makes a pick-up at her house every day, so neighbors can drop any packages off at Schleicher's house. They still pay for their postage, of course, but it saves them the time and money of having to visit the UPS office downtown.

Tom Adams, meanwhile, has "a seamless business, where neighbors don't even necessarily know it's a business. If people are coming over, my neighbors think they're coming to visit." Adams is fortunate: His home base of Montague, Massachusetts, may look old-fashioned on the outside (all the houses were built in the 1800s), but many of them are wired on the inside. As the owner of a multimedia production company called Reelife, Adams just happens to live in one of the nation's select communities that are filled with home-office entrepreneurs. Adams has more than just neighbors--he has built-in moral support.

The Welcome Mat

"I think most people who work at home are so focused on their work, they don't have time to deal with neighbors," remarks Peggy Mackinnon, a home-office public relations consultant in Denver. Deborah Schwartz, a home-office publicist from Bethesda, Maryland, observes, "Our immediate next-door neighbors also work from home, as do a few others on our street. We help each other out, picking up kids at the bus on rainy days-things like that."

All that may sound like an afternoon in Andy Griffith's Mayberry. But if your neighbors are more akin to The Addams Family, there's always something you can do to improve the situation. The trick, of course, is finding what that something is. But home-office entrepreneurs shouldn't allow themselves to be bullied, insists Neighbor Law author Cora Jordan. "You have to remember," she says, "that the law simply doesn't allow one neighbor to annoy another."

Dream House

Wish your neighbors would just move away? Maybe you're the one that should find a new neighborhood. Here's a few that may be just right for a homebased entrepreneur.

The future is finally here. Neighborhoods are being built with home-office entrepreneurs in mind, neighborhoods like that of Ladera Ranch and Coto de Caza in Orange County, California. The homes are pricey, though keep in mind we're talking about Southern California: from $200,000 to $700,000 in Ladera Ranch and $400,000 to more than $1 million in Coto de Caza, according to real estate agent Beverly Dauman (www.laderaranchhomes.com, www.cotohomesforsale.com).

And you get what you pay for, says Dauman, who admits that not all home offices are created equal. Some of the cheaper homes in Coto de Caza, for instance, have home offices that are adjoining to the bedrooms. Meanwhile, the more extravagant homes boast offices "off by themselves, away from the kitchen and family rooms," says Dauman. "And many of them have their own doors, leading to the exterior of the house."

But Ladera Ranch in particular, which is still being completed, is being marketed as a neighborhood ideal for the home-office entrepreneur. And it's offering more than spacious offices, a community center with a swimming pool and 1950s-style front porches--each house is being wired for the Web, and residents of the neighborhood will receive free Internet and intranet service. Well, free isn't quite accurate: The charge is included in their neighborhood's association dues, which range from $138 to $170 per month.