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It did not take long for Grant* to come across a classic power-tripping neighbour.
He bought into a small block of strata-titled townhouses in Sydney several years ago.
The first sign of trouble was a request for money to cover work that had been completed on the building before he lived there.
“The difficulty is the personality,” Grant said.
“This neighbour was acting as though he was the landlord.”
It was the beginning of a frustrating pattern.
A small space of common property in a yard became the subject of endless disagreements, as did the family’s request to put up a fence for safety and privacy.
Its colour, location and height were all put under the microscope.
“It became apparent he was never going to say ‘yes’,” Grant said.
“He was a sort of dictator in our strata block, and he could never agree to peace.”
The neighbour sent more than 120 emails about various grievances — eventually, Grant stopped responding, and hired lawyers.
“We would never buy into a strata again,” he said.
“It was a pure manipulation and power thing. Truly, it takes your breath away.”
The growth of strata
Strata is the fastest growing form of residential property ownership in Australia, according to a 2015 City Futures Research Centre report.
It estimated over half the new metropolitan dwellings being built Down Under were strata-titled.
There are more than 76,000 residential strata schemes across NSW, according to the latest registration figures from NSW Land Registry Services.
Almost 60 per cent of those are in the greater Sydney area.
The data shows in the past decade, the number of strata schemes in NSW has risen by an average of about 1,200 per year.
“Every building has one — a self-appointed building manager who has lived there the longest,” one real estate agent told the ABC.
The most common advice for those grappling with escalating disagreements is to try and sort things out among yourselves.
If you decide to take legal action, you could end up at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal — an independent body and court alternative that deals with landlord and tenant disputes, among other issues.
Regardless of whether you rent or own your property — or how long you’ve lived there — everyone is bound equally to the by-laws under NSW’s Strata Schemes Management Act.
John Douglas, special counsel at Colin Biggers & Paisley, said the legislation set out high-level principles.
“Sometimes the way such principles manifest in daily life may not be as black and white as in the legislation,” he said.
The building’s size can be important — in large strata schemes residents can benefit from anonymity.
In smaller buildings, the strata committee may be influenced by one dominant resident.
“Disputes can first attempt to be resolved with the building management, but in a smaller building where the strata committee may be controlled [or] heavily influenced by the neighbour in question, things can become tricky,” Mr Douglas said.
“The next option is through Fair Trading’s strata-mediation service.”
‘A hefty emotional toll’
Fair Trading’s strata mediation service is often the first option to solve small grievances — like noise complaints, or issues with pets — in a building.
Mr Douglas described the tribunal as far more user-friendly and cost-effective than the court system.
“These cases tend to be more straightforward and will not involve barristers and eventual High Court judgements,” he said.
“But even if you’re off to mediation and, failing that, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, any sort of dispute is time consuming and can be quite emotionally and mentally draining.
“It’s one thing to have rights, it’s another to actually spend the time and energy enforcing those rights.”
Grant said it was “totally understandable” disputes drove some people to move, rather than endure ongoing awkwardness.
“There was quite a hefty emotional toll,” he said.
“If it’s just business you don’t get so wound up about it, but when it affects your home, it’s quite damaging.”
He said people battling an abrasive neighbour should do their research.
“Be absolutely sure via a lawyer what your rights are,” he said.
“And under no circumstances expect the body corporate to be reasonable, fair or generous.
“You’re just not going to get it.”