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posted: 5/11/2012 5:25 AM

About real estate: Neighbor's pesky pooches make home seller growl

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Even though sellers may offer a home that's in prime shape, they may be required to tell a buyer about the noisy dogs next door.

Q. You recently wrote about the various problems that an owner must disclose about his own house when he puts it up for sale. We are planning to put our own home on the market in July, and it's in mint condition, but our neighbor's three dogs often wake us up at night by their incessant barking and howling in his backyard. Is this something that we must disclose when we eventually get an offer?

A. That's a timely question, considering that May 6 began "National Pet Week." I'm devoting this entire column to answering (or re-answering) questions readers have asked about real-estate-related issues concerning pesky pooches, wayfaring cats and the like in the past few years.

Only a handful of states have real estate disclosure laws that specifically address barking dogs or other annoying animals. But most states require that sellers must disclose any "nuisance" -- and a few courts have ruled that definition should include a barking dog, stray cats or even a neighbor's constantly crying baby.

Talk to your neighbors to see if there's something they can do to keep the dogs quiet at night. Simply bringing them indoors might do the trick.

If that fails, call your local city attorney's office and see if your community is among the hundreds of areas that have approved "anti-barking" ordinances. These laws typically allow local authorities to cite dog owners for the first or second offense, and then begin fining them until the problem gets under control.

A real estate agent or attorney could give you more details. But frankly, I would lean toward disclosing the problem to a potential buyer upfront and risk blowing a sale rather than face the prospect of an expensive lawsuit later.

Q. My neighbor's dog gets out of his backyard a few times a month and always seems to make a beeline for my garden, where he digs up my flowers and shrubs and dumps a you-know-what on my grass. I have talked to my neighbor about the problem a few times, but he laughs and says "dogs will be dogs." What are my legal rights here? Is there an alternative to simply calling the dogcatcher?

A. I love dogs, but don't like irresponsible dog owners.

You certainly have the right to remove the dog from your property, but you do not have the right to harm it. That means you can use "reasonable force" to shoo it away, such as chasing it with a soft broom. However, hurting or killing the dog -- even though it's trespassing -- would be illegal unless you were acting in self-defense. It also could trigger a lawsuit by the dog's owner, and maybe even criminal charges against you.

Phoning the local dogcatcher might not be a bad idea if the dog wanders onto your yard again. Many cities and counties now charge more than $75 to an owner who retrieves a dog, cat or other pet that was corralled and then taken to a community's animal shelter. After paying such charges one or two times, your neighbor might build a fence or take other measures to ensure his pooch won't get out again to ravage your garden and poop on your lawn.

An alternative is to sue your neighbor in small claims court because he has been unresponsive to your verbal pleas.

Start by putting everything in writing. The next time the dog comes onto your property, send the man a certified letter stating the date and time of the unwanted visit and itemize the damage that the dog caused. Also estimate the cost of the damage and request he repay you.

This should be enough to make your neighbor begin to take the problem seriously and take measures to secure the wandering pooch. If it doesn't, it's time to head to court.

Receipts for any money you paid to repair the dog's damage, such as the cost of buying new plants, certainly would bolster the case you present to the judge. Photos or a video of the dog romping or digging in your yard also would help, especially if they have been electronically time-stamped by the camera.

Another option would be to file a claim for the damage the dog causes with the company that provides your homeowners insurance. However, it's doubtful that the destruction would exceed your deductible. And even if the insurance company paid, filing a claim would do little to encourage your neighbor to keep his roaming Rover under control.

Q. I have a Rottweiler and always keep him in my yard, but a friend of mine says that the cautionary "Beware of Dog" sign on my front fence could set me up for a lawsuit if he bites an intruder. Could it?

A. Maybe so. A handful of judges in dog-bite cases have ruled that the simple act of posting a "Beware of Dog" sign indicates the homeowner knows the dog is dangerous and that the plaintiff who was bitten -- whether a postal-service worker or a common burglar -- is entitled to monetary damages.

Not surprisingly, a judge is more likely to award money to someone who has been bitten if the dog took a chunk out of another person's leg before.

Your letter states you securely keep the dog in your yard. Though he apparently hasn't attacked someone previously, it would be wise to replace your current sign with a less-threatening "Dog on Premises" sign that you can find at most hardware and home-improvement stores for less than $10. Doing so will alert the mail-carrier or (unwanted) visitors that you have a pet, without suggesting that they need to beware your dog may bite them.

By the way, my gun-toting neighbor approaches the problem a bit differently. He has a gracefully hand-carved sign on his front door that says "BEWARE OF DOG -- He eats anything that I shoot."

It's an amusing, and perhaps effective, kind of disclaimer.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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