Massachusetts 2-unit Condo Association feud-in-waiting . . . Help?
January 30, 2018 12:45 PM   Subscribe

My kvetching, particular, downstairs condo neighbor is very averse to change and spends condo association money on projects which we have no interest in spending money . . . she's also quick to become combative and is a bit of a bully. What should my next steps be?

YANAL, YANML, etc. I am in Massachusetts. My unit is about 60% to her 40% in terms of square footage. Based on my interpretation of the "common improvements" section of the condo laws in MA, if she wants these improvements she's welcome to pay for them out of pocket.

My wife and I bought a condo in a two-unit (converted two family) building in May. My downstairs neighbor is in her 60s, is single, and has been in this house for 30+ years. She likes things a certain way, particularly when it comes to the common areas--she's somewhat obsessed with landscaping and curb appeal. Not that these things aren't important to us, but we have twin 16-month old children and therefore other priorities for our time and money. Our annual condo assoc. meeting was a few weeks ago. We are currently spending an average of $500 a month in the non-winter months on landscaping. Way too much, in my opinion. We have almost nothing in terms of reserves.

She's talking about an assessment to replace the (perfectly fine) fence we share with our neighbors next door. We'd also like to put a decent shed in the backyard for our children's toys, garbage, etc. Her response was "absolutely not," and stated she'd only allow a custom-built shed by her preferred contractor (who's very expensive).

She currently controls the bank account with the condo funds which I haven't yet been added to. First order of business is to be added to that account.

Understanding that we'll likely be living here for at least 5, probably 10-15 (if not longer) and therefore would like to avoid an all-out war with our cohabitant, here are my options/questions:

1) My instinct is to send her an email that says something to the effect of "I know you like a nice yard but we're spending too much money and I don't want to do that anymore; any spending will need two signatures from here on out. If you want to spend your own money on lawn care you're welcome to do that but I'll authorize spending on cutting the lawn only"

2) Should I consult a real estate/condo law specialist? Am I correct in saying that a lawyer can review my condo documents (master deed, bylaws, etc.) in an hour or two and guide me in the right direction?

3) What's my right in terms of adding a shed to the backyard? Can I just buy it, build it, and she has to live with it?

4) How do I tell her in a formal but nice way that I'm not ponying up for a new fence--that I want reserves for big stuff like a new roof, for example?

I know this is a bit disjointed but it's been keeping me up at night and--again, twin toddlers!

Thanks in advance!
posted by eggman to Law & Government (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Offload these concerns to a lawyer so you will have concrete answers. Be open to selling. I don't see a win/win here. Maybe a lawyer will?
posted by jbenben at 1:18 PM on January 30, 2018 [12 favorites]

What's my right in terms of adding a shed to the backyard? Can I just buy it, build it, and she has to live with it?

This would be a surefire way to start a war of AT BEST passive-aggression.

Can you say what you and your lawyers talked about with her when you were reviewing the building's assets and expenses pre-purchase? If she had no idea you wanted to change the building expenditures, especially in a way that reflects priorities she doesn't have, like children, I can see why she'd be a bit defensive.
posted by lalex at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think the first order of business is the reserves. That's non-negotiable, you must have them and it should be easy to find good guidelines as to what is a reasonable amount to see aside each month of maintenance. After that you can decide what is left to be spent on other items line landscaping and a new fence, shed etc. But by sticking initially to one topic, where you are indisputably in the right you can work through a new process without getting into the personal wants. She needs to know that you will require joint fiscally responsible decisions going forward and that special assessments are not your preferred way to deal with predictable maintenance.

Don't get into the weeds on anything. Just make a list of upcoming maintenance needs and insist that funds are set aside. Let her figure out on her own how to cut her landscaping budget to meet that. You might have to compromise on the she'd, which to me would be worth it for long term stability.
posted by fshgrl at 1:37 PM on January 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yes, one other person in the association. There was no indication prior to buying that these issues would crop up. She's the type of person that is pleasant to deal with until she doesn't get exactly what she wants.

I'm 99% sure I'm mostly in the right in terms of what I'd like. It's just a matter of how I go about it and piss her off in the most minimum way possible. Everyone I've talked to has indicated that the fact that I own a larger % of square footage (and double the condo fees) essentially puts me in the drivers seat.

Actually, in Massachusetts reserves ARE negotiable. The law basically says "adequate" reserves, so there's no specific % of assessment or anything. I knew going in that we didn't have a large amount of reserves.

Selling isn't an option. We just moved in 8 months ago. I have two children. I don't WANT to move and I'm not going to let this woman push us around.

Going to have to get a lawyer. She has no idea I'm formulating any of this; we haven't had words, etc.

Thanks for helping me think this through a bit!
posted by eggman at 1:44 PM on January 30, 2018

Can anyone recommend a real estate lawyer in MA?
posted by eggman at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2018

You're going to want to be sure you become a formal trustee for your condo if you haven't. This is something we didn't do in my last condo association because everyone got along fine; it's something we did soon after buying our current condo due to threatened litigation. Part of the threatened litigation was over one unit putting things in the common area (an A/C compressor, but a shed would be even more space). Don't figure you can just pay for things and put them in the common area without it going through the association.

Do you have a 60% vote on the condo association? If not, don't piss her off (ie do any of the things you propose above) until you're legally a trustee and have access to the bank account. Our association (also in MA) has spent a lot of money responding to threatened litigation from one of our (three) trustees. I agree that you're spending a Lot on landscaping, but legal fees also add up very quickly. If you can't see your way to negotiating with her, make sure you're in Great legal shape first. I'm sure you know this, but if you can come up with a way to negotiate with her your home lives are likely to be way more pleasant in the years to come.
posted by ldthomps at 1:58 PM on January 30, 2018

MEEB only work with condo associations, management companies, and boards, but it might be a place for you to start looking. Our association also now uses a management company, and that is Also expensive, but can be a way of helping to deal with strongly divergent trustee priorities. Again, if you think you can find a way to negotiate so you both get your highest priorities without resorting to too many professionals, it will save you a fence/shed worth of costs very quickly.
posted by ldthomps at 3:02 PM on January 30, 2018

One thing to clarify- your ratios condo fees- in my two person condo, even though my unit is almost twice as big as the other one, our ratios are 46% (theirs) to my 54% because smaller condos are more per square foot than larger ones- this was a big surprise to us both (it is a family member who is my condo mate) and makes things a little bit more fair in terms of negotiations. Another thing to think about is renegotiating the condo document and deeding parts of the yard to each unit- if this possible. This is help delineate yard care to the person who has that part of the yard. My neighbors did this so one has the backyard, and one has the front.
posted by momochan at 3:13 PM on January 30, 2018

therefore would like to avoid an all-out war with our cohabitant

If I were in your shoes and trying to avoid an all-out war with a grumpy old lady over our mutual flower beds, I would tone my emails and agitation down by about 70%. I would suggest to her that the association get multiple bids for the landscaping and shed with the idea that there might be a middle ground between both of your preferred options. Similarly I would want to get the fence and roof assessed to determine if and when they will need to be replaced.

The only thing I would be completely inflexible on is having access to association bank account.

Keep in mind that your family's stake in these arguments is money. Her stake is her beloved home of three decades, and if she has to fight you over it, it sounds like she has a lot of free time to do it with. Decide how much $200/mt in landscaping savings is really, truly worth to you.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:08 PM on January 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'm 99% sure I'm mostly in the right in terms of what I'd like. It's just a matter of how I go about it and piss her off in the most minimum way possible. Everyone I've talked to has indicated that the fact that I own a larger % of square footage (and double the condo fees) essentially puts me in the drivers seat.

I think mentally framing this issue in terms of rights and wrongs and what you have the legal right to do or not is a quick path to misery for everyone involved. I'd suggest you think about in terms of pain and happiness. There are a million scrillion things each of you can do to drive each other stark raving and which will be completely legal. You should definitely talk this stuff over with her. But I 2nd fshgrl --- try talking about the reserve issue first and framing it the two of you against the problem --- that seems like the place where there's the strongest chance of consensus. If you can get through that and develop some goodwill and a better sense of each other's priorities, resolving the more contentious issues may be easier. But saying nothing and then just writing an email and/or lawyer's letter that says, in effect, "you know all the stuff you've been doing to keep the place you love the way you like it? You don't get to do it anymore because I say. If you don't like it, you can call my lawyer and he'll tell you to suck it"? I can think of no quicker way to create an enemy for life, one which you plan to be living next to for your kid's whole childhoods. Duder.
posted by Diablevert at 7:46 PM on January 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Please bear in mind that you have a wife, two beautiful children, and your entire life ahead of you. The beauty that this woman has created in her environment is probably...her life. If you mess that up, you could make her indescribably sad.

Creating beauty that is a true expression of one's self, of whatever kind, is kind of the whole meaning of life, in a way. If you take away that power, be sure you give something else of equal value in return.
posted by amtho at 7:50 PM on January 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

You need to refer to your condo docs first. In my condo in Massachusetts the house was a 30/70 split - the smaller unit got 30% of the say, so therefore - none. Honestly, I thought that was normal for all condos in the state. It should be outlined in your docs, which you should have gotten when you bought the house.

As for lawyers, what lawyer did you use to buy the house? Ask for a referral.
posted by Toddles at 8:42 PM on January 30, 2018

Regarding amtho's comment - this is definitely A Thing with older folks, keeping things nice.

It also occurs to me that there are cheap shitty landscapers out there who might also be shitty to an older single woman, maybe she pays high for the safety and respect + the great job they do. You don't want to have dodgey workers on your property that might high day workers that might dishonest or unstable, and when I remember this, I can kinda see why she pays what she pays. They come on the property regularly and are decent people, maybe? I can't tell you how vulnerable it feels to be a single female sometimes, multiply that exponentially as a woman ages. So, what's physically tolerable for you as a younger man may be actually dangerous for her.

I know this because I am female that enjoyed an invincibility as a younger woman that has faded over time. Unstable men scare me in a way they did not when I was younger and could out-think them or run faster.

Amtho makes a great point: You Have An Opportunity To Make A Positive Difference Here In ALL Of Your Lives.

I'll also add I did the wrong thing back in the day when in your shoes and I just now regret it seeing the other side presented. Don't be me. Seek the win/win by being kind. I know she's tough. If she's on her own, she had to be. Wow.

You know, the Quakers run a mediation service to help folks like you with business difficulties talk and come to consensus. Once you get a lawyer to counsel you on regulations and options, you might think about cribbing some techniques from the Quakers to help open difficult business conversations, and then seek in person services if that fails. Probably cheaper than moving. Definitely easier, these would be communication skills you could use forever.
posted by jbenben at 10:52 PM on January 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Were you given association bylaws when your family moved in? If they exist they likely will also give you specific information in the way your association handles these situations.

I've lived in a condominium for 21 years in a neighborhood with 30 other units that Habitat for Humanity built/rehabbed, and our association was created. I've served for most of these years on the board. Nearly all inside-the-unit fixes are homeowner's responsibility, nearly all outside-the-unit fixes (roof, sidewalks, landscape) filter through the association. Replacing windows and doors is a little murkier - I replaced my own windows but had I pushed it I might have been able to convince the association to share the cost, since the windows were crapped out before I ever moved in. I can plant flowers around my own unit, but technically speaking, the flowers are not mine because they're on collectively-owned property. Same may be true for a toy shed. Do you have a garage? If anyone in my association wants to install satellite dishes, back porches, etc. it must first be association-approved - no idea if that will be the case for you, but I wouldn't recommend just sticking a shed up out back without first verifying in your bylaws what is and is not permitted. Pet policies, parking policies, etc are all listed in our bylaws too.

Even the crankiest senior deserve respect and patience, and I hope you'll extend as much of an olive branch as possible. (Not this justifies her behavior, but consider...) She has lived entirely alone, older adult, no kids, no noise, no new/differents for a very, very long time. That may take a little while for her to get used to having little people and noise and have to accept that everyone isn't going to do exactly what she wants any time she wants it, and she will also have to make concessions with other people in the same house/bldg that she has occupied solely for all those years.

Also, any time my association has a project we ask our management company to get a minimum of three bids before we even begin hiring decisions. If your lady hasn't had at least two other price quotes for the work she wishes to be done she probably should do that - same goes for any association project/expenditure. If for no other reason than old(er) people get taken advantage of ALL.THE.TIME. and she may not know it's happening to her/your association.
posted by mcbeth at 9:59 AM on February 1, 2018

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