Depending how severe it is and how long it lasts, winter tends to reduce regular contact with your neighbors.

Even the kids won't go out in very cold weather. The fact that the days are short and it's already dark before people begin arriving home from work limits general socializing.

Springtime, with its warmer temperatures and lengthening days, reverses that trend, and already neighbors are beginning to congregate on the street to share news and to keep an eye on the little ones at play.

It's during the more pleasant times of the year that things can get really unpleasant between neighbors. Cars parked in front of driveways. Noisy kids using the yard as a transit way. Stray cats and dogs. Stuff from dogs never cleaned up. Unmowed lawns or, what's worse, lawns being mowed at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.

And let's not forget construction work. The carpenter's truck parked on the street, even if it isn't blocking anything, is often considered an inconvenience even by neighbors whose lives aren't being affected by the work being done on your house.

People who seem perfectly normal and friendly often behave in the most unexpected ways.

About 10 years ago, in my old neighborhood, we experienced what I could best describe as a well-focused tornado. The damage was limited to a narrow path running parallel to the telephone lines at the bottom of our backyards. The lion's share of the damage was restricted to fallen trees and branches, although a couple of houses close to the path lost shingles and roof gutters.

The tree from one person's yard fell on the adjacent neighbor's deck, doing perhaps $500 worth of damage but delaying the planned party for the neighbor's daughter's graduation.

When the deck owner approached the tree owner about homeowner's insurance compensation, the tree owner told him to take care of the damage himself.

"I've got my own problems," the tree owner said.

The deck owner considered suing, but instead took care of the problem himself, and the graduation went on as scheduled.

About three weeks later, the tree owner was served with a summons by the city, at midnight, no less. It seems the deck the tree owner had built had been done without a permit. This was not unusual, since no one liked dealing with the city. The fact that the summons followed the dispute between the two neighbors so closely wasn't lost on anyone.

In the same neighborhood, one homeowner's yard was littered with trees that had fallen from the adjacent neighbor's property. The homeowner assumed the removal costs herself, realizing that the tree owners were elderly and on a fixed income.

It takes all kinds to make a neighborhood. By the way, I was only an observer in both cases, but I was touched by the woman's generosity as I was secretly glad the first tree owner got his comeuppance.

From the e-mails I receive, it's clear to me that few homeowners know their rights when it comes to their relationships with their neighbors. If your neighbor's tree doesn't fall, but its branches are hanging over the fence and over your property, do you have the right to cut the branches, or should you ask your neighbor? What if the neighbor says no, and threatens you if you touch it? Do you have any legal recourse if talking doesn't work?

It depends on where you live, says lawyer Cora Jordan in the fifth edition of Nolo's Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries and Noise. Under something called "the right of self-help," the neighbor can trim the dangerous branches up to the property line. If the tree owner decks the trimmer in response, then we get into more serious and criminal issues, such as assault.

The trimmer cannot go on to the neighbor's property to trim the tree, however, unless it is necessary to avert danger; nor can he cut down the tree or do anything that will result in the death of the tree.

How the neighbors handle the branches issue probably are governed by the municipality. That's why you should call the city or town before you act. You and your neighbor may be doing the right thing as far as the two of your are concerned, but the city can be that fly in the ointment.

Remember, when you buy a house, you buy a neighborhood, and your happiness is only as certain as the relationship you develop between you and your neighbors. Jordan's observation about neighbors -- "they wouldn't be so bad if they didn't live next door" -- should not be your experience.

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