Duplex Dysfunction
April 8, 2020 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I own a unit in a duplex outside Boston. The relationship with the other owner is extremely antagonistic. I feel under siege and cannot enjoy or relax in my home or yard. Is there an avenue for us to rectify the situation without us having to pay a lawyer and sue?

Apologies for the length! I’m just so worn out and didn’t know what was relevant or helpful to get to an answer.

Background: Seven years ago we bought the larger unit in an almost 100-year-old two unit building. The other owner (let’s call them Mr. L) bought the building in the early nineties and converted it to a condo. According to the condo documents Mr. L drew up and registered the split for the costs are supposed to be 55/45, they are supposed to get our unit’s approval before accepting tenants and no pets are allowed without our okay. They are also supposed to do their share of maintenance like snow and leaf removal. The Mr. L lives in Florida and rents out the other two-bedroom unit, and I have only seen him on site twice. I am a mixed race woman and Mr. L is in his 80’s, uses racist language and will only speak to my partner (a white male).

Maintenance situation: There is no HOA or regular maintenance account or agreement. My partner and I do all the onsite maintenance like taking out the trash bins, maintaining the garden, shoveling etc. The previous owner said Mr. L would pay for small maintenance issues on a per case basis.

A few years ago Mr. L agreed to some work on the masonry steps and insulation work to rectify moisture damage in the attic. We handled the contractors and got his approval on everything before the work started. When it came time for the bills to be paid he decided we should pay a larger portion 30/70 because according to him we’ve finished off the attic (we haven’t) and therefore have more square footage. We went to a lawyer who said we could sue Mr. L for fraud since they originated the deed but weren’t abiding by them.

We followed their advice for a less drastic measure. We got a structural engineer to assess the building who found the building needed major work on the siding, the front porch and masonry. Our lawyer also sent them a letter informing them of state law regarding the HOA account and the stipulations re tenants in the unit. The letter was ignored. But per the lawyer’s advice we opened an HOA account and made an appropriate deposit, and sent the other owner an assessment for the past due bills and an HOA deposit. After getting our condo insurer and our town to back up the structural engineer’s findings Mr. L agreed to do the siding and porch. We had him co-sign on all those contracts and he (eventually, with much fanfare) mostly paid his portion of those bills. He verbally agreed to pay us the assement and join our HOA account. We agreed that once he paid us he could have access.

Tenant issues: The downstairs unit is a two bedroom. We had a great relationship with the long-term tenant that was in the unit when we moved in. But, a few years ago that tenant moved out. We reminded Mr. L about the stipulations in the condo documents that state we are approve any leases and there are no pets without our approval. But Mr. L rented to a noisy drama-prone twosome who had a dog. Those tenants only stayed a year. When we saw the newest rental ad said pets were okay we again reminded Mr. L about the stipulations, but he ignored us. Without notification he moved in a family of four with a dog. We called him and he declared, “I can do whatever the hell I want.” and hung up.

We did our best to get along with the tenants downstairs, but their frustration with their landlord spilled over into our relationship with us, and there were definitely some issues with communication because English is their second language. The father went into our section of the basement and borrowed our tools. We told him not to, and when he did again we installed a camera. We saw him do it one more time. Several times the father approached us about issues and we directed him to Mr. L, which seemed to piss him off. He was particularly frustrated that the siding and porch rebuild took too long and disturbed him as he worked from home.

The tipping point was when they got their adolescent son a car though Mr. L’s unit has historically only had one car. We sent Mr. L several notes about the situation, but he said we needed to work it out with his tenants. The parking area has a tapered end towards the exit, so while we don’t use our second spot for our unit it serves as a buffer for us to get out. We told them they only were supposed to have one spot (and no dog) but we never stopped them from parking the second car. The son was inconsistent how he parked and that caused tension. We eventually placed some trash bins in between the spaces so that we could protect our car from being hit by the second car. There was an altercation with the son when we did so, and then the father joined in, and we eventually called the police.

The next few months were terrible. The father monitored our movements around the house and would come into the basement whenever we went down to do laundry. He and the landlord sent us emails accusing us of harassment.

Mr. L forwarded us an email he sent to the tenant that told them we do not have any rights under the condo documents and that,“tell your friend that’s perfectly OK if he wants to bring his cat to my apartment there will be approval for a cat or a dog in the lease the same lease That you signed”. Those tenants moved out over the course of a few nights. A week or so later, new tenants moved in (again literally under the cover of night) with the help of the exiting tenants! English is also their second language. They seem nice enough, but the situation is fundamentally unchanged and they are friends with the former tenants. Mr. L did not get our approval or show us the lease, and they have a pet. We counted ourselves lucky that they only have one car. I avoid interacting with them because it feels like a tinderbox, and we have told them to speak directly to Mr. L about any issues.

A few months ago we received a letter from his lawyer warning us to not harass his tenants and saying he wanted access to our HOA account. Why would we give him access to thousand of our dollars when he owes us money? He also claimed we have no rights because I had not registered as a trustee. We contacted the law firm who did our closing documents. They laughed and said the majority of people don’t file that document, and that my property rights were not dependent on it. But we filed that document just remove that argument from Mr. L’s repertoire

We remodeled our bathroom in the past few months. One day I was bringing my kid in home early from school cause they had vomited, but the tenant stopped me at my door. He tried to tell me about a problem with his bathroom and I directed him to speak to his Mr. L. Turns out a some of their bathroom ceiling (a 3”x4” according to the pictures) was about to fall down. I did not follow up with the tenant and the next day the piece fell down and the crew immediately went and patched it. Mr. L sent us an angry email saying we needed to redo the whole ceiling because the damage originated from our toilet overflowing. Which it has 3 times, but only briefly (never left in an uncontrolled long flow.) We also know the ceiling was damaged when we moved in (from our visits to the original tenant) and that there is no ventilation in there. I’m certainly not going to pay to repair anything in his unit when he owes me money. His email also contained a forward from the tenant which said I "ignored him".

Last night the new tenants approached us about planting some sunflowers. I tried to be encouraging but we live in a very woody site and there is no area that gets 6-8 hours of sun. I told them this and suggested other flowers I have had success with. In case the written word would be clearer I left them a note restating that info and pointing out where I would prepare a section for them to try the sunflowers. They have left the note in their mailbox, which is weird because my kid exchanges notes with their kid pretty regularly. I feel like every interaction with them is a potential problem.

Lastly, this weekend Mr. L’s daughter and a male unknown to us entered the property and trespassed onto our portion of the basement. We assumed she was there on a tenant related issue but it turns out she was there to measure the basement for installing a 3rd unit in the basement with two bedrooms, a bath and kitchenette. That is an obviously absurd plan as we are zoned as a duplex.

TLDR Question: How do we go forward without us having to pay a lawyer and sue? I’d like to be financial reimbursed for all the maintenance and improvements Mr. L shorted us on, get the HOA account functioning and established a maintenance plan, and have the tenants abide by the condo agreements. I am on edge day-to-day because of the unresolved issues with his tenants and am tense whenever I go out in my yard.
posted by Phyllis keeps a tight rein to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How do we go forward without us having to pay a lawyer and sue?

I think you need to pay a lawyer and sue.
posted by mhoye at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2020 [73 favorites]

You're going to have to sue, or at least threaten to sue. As insane as it is, take the plan to build another unit in the basement seriously - I know people who had to sue one of the owners in their 4-5 unit building when she DUG AND POURED A FOUNDATION in the backyard for a new unit (this was also in Massachusetts). As in your case, that owner was the person who originally converted the house to condos. I think there's a tendency for these owners to continue to treat the building like they own the whole thing.
posted by mskyle at 12:03 PM on April 8, 2020 [13 favorites]

Why don't you want to get a lawyer? Is the cost a concern or is there another reason?
posted by soelo at 12:19 PM on April 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. The cost of a lawyer is definitely the concern. The lawyer we went to burned thru the amount we allotted, and while we made progress with the big maintenance projects the situation didn't get fully resolved. I'm also not sure I have the stomach for the stress of it.
The other issue is that in the condo agreements there is a section saying we need to do arbitration with his lawyer, our lawyer and a third lawyer. So that's 1 1/2 lawyers I'd be paying for.
posted by Phyllis keeps a tight rein at 12:44 PM on April 8, 2020

I'm sorry, but I think you're going to have to have a long think about if you want to continue the drama with Mr. L, or fold and move. Because he's long distance, he really has no motivation to stop the drama, and may actuality be the kind of psycho who enjoys torturing others.

I know moving is a monstrous PITA, but you have to balance that against the water torture this guy is going to put you through until he dies. And not to be morbid, you also have to consider who his heirs are, they may be worse.

Sorry for your troubles.
posted by Marky at 1:06 PM on April 8, 2020 [7 favorites]

Until you get lawyers involved, he will keep doing whatever he wants. He has proven that. He also showed that the cost of a lawyer was not good for him either if he partially folded when last confronted legally.

If it were me, I would either go on the offensive and start enforcing your bylaws with legal force or move. The last thing I would do is sit there on the defensive. My guess is that he is like a classic bully and will push until pushed back. Lean in or bail out.
posted by AugustWest at 1:11 PM on April 8, 2020 [17 favorites]

When I was a lawyer in private practice I had a rule that I wouldn't deal with neighbour disputes. They end up costing the client a shit-ton of money and really the only end to it is when one of the parties moves. In addition to the financial cost, the stress of living in this situation will end up making you ill.

So I agree with Marky that moving might be your best option for a long-term solution.
posted by essexjan at 1:12 PM on April 8, 2020 [10 favorites]

Based on what you wrote you have no chance of getting on good terms with Mr. L. He is remote and there is no guarantee he will actually abide by any legal ruling, as he has not in the past when he was clearly doing things against the contract. In the short term (next 3-6 months) getting anything legal done is going to be impossible anyway. If Mr. L's daughter is looking at the unit then it is possible he is looking to sell/give it to her so you may be better off trying to start a new relationship with her, as your relationship with Mr. L is poisoned beyond repair. So the first thing I would see is if you can get started on a good foot with the daughter. To do so you are going to have to forgive any issues caused by her father, you cannot treat her as responsible for her father's past decisions if you want a chance at a good relationship.

If that's not possible, you could consider moving and renting your unit out, because renters are used to dealing with having a problematic landlord. And that is essentially what you are now: you technically own your unit, but have all of the problems a renter would have. You legally, but not functionally, own your house. You could also look at selling, depending on your housing market the buyer may be totally willing to overlook the multiple unit situation, or it could be a blocker. I suspect the fact that you have a half-working condo agreement might make a sale more difficult, I would not buy in that situation. So you may need to sell to someone like a flipper or development company for a bit less money than you want.

If none of those options are really available, you'll have to spend lots of money on lawyers, and there is no guarantee you will get anything out of it. You won't be able to do this anytime soon, so I'd work towards talking to the daughter or planning on renting/selling before moving towards the legal solution.
posted by JZig at 1:37 PM on April 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is only a fix for a minor part of your issue but would it be possible to wall off your half of the basement? Or even 80% of your half if you share an access? Even something nominal like a 2x4 wall "sheathed" with building paper. Cost would be only a couple hundred bucks. Sheathing with strand board would also be pretty cheap. You might even be able to charge the partition to the HOA.

I'd also get this potential renovation on the radar of the local building department. Check the details of the zoning (around here about 75% of "duplex" zoning actually is 4-plex zoning when you consider permissive secondary suite laws) and then phone up the building department and ask innocent questions about whether your neighbour's plans are legal. If not, call and complain if absolutely anything moves forward.

Also punitively I'd stop shoveling his half of the sidewalk and then call the city if it wasn't cleared in the required time. Actually if you read your bylaws carefully you might find all sorts of things you can call about. IME most cities have hundreds of rules that aren't paid attention to unless people complain (grass too long, leaves not swept, paint peeling, sidewalk not cleared, garbage cans in violation of bear or racoon control laws, etc.). The goal is to make managing this property enough of a pain in the ass that he sells.
posted by Mitheral at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2020 [10 favorites]

This sounds really awful. I think you are so stressed about this that you are having a hard time differentiating between minor issues with the tenants and your very big, very real issues with Mr. L. I think you need to work to be a lot more agreeable with and accommodating of the tenants. Don't give them any ammunition to give Mr. L. So, for example, while you figure this out:

Don't tell them they can't have a dog when their landlord said they could.
Don't tell them they can't plant sunflowers because there's not enough sun (truly, the consequences here are ... like, really not a big deal at all).
Don't tell them how it's supposed to be.
Don't tell them you were supposed to approve them (I know that's in the HOA but that doesn't sound like it'd be legal in the US, where a landlord isn't supposed to discriminate, never mind get permission from the folks in the duplex next door).
Don't block a parking space you don't need because the previous tenant didn't want to use it.
Don't leave weird controlling messages in their mailbox.
Do figure out a way to separate and secure your storage in the basement; instead of security cameras, get locking cabinets or build out a wall or protected area.
Do be a good neighbor to your neighbors.

Otherwise, I don't think there's any way to enforce a legal contract with Mr. L without the legal system. I guess I'd think about moving.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:46 PM on April 8, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: You have a few issues here: one is that your neighbor is a shitty landlord and that is affecting the quiet enjoyment of your home, another is that you have a shitty neighbor (Mr. L), the last is that you have a shared basement space that is unsecured.

For the shitty landlord issue, ask yourself "who should be solving this problem?" every time a tenant approaches you. The answer will almost always be "the landlord."

I halfway agree with bluedaisy. The tenants are caught in a really rough spot, between an absentee and shitty landlord and neighbors (you) that they treat kind of like you're the landlord or someone with the authority to fix stuff. I think it's really weird that they keep coming to you with issues when you're not their landlord. I honestly wonder if the landlord has told them that you are responsible for upkeep or something? Or maybe they're so desperate, they'll ask anyone to help because he's an asshole to them too? It doesn't sound to me like you're harassing the tenants--more like they're harassing you as if you are also their landlord. Perhaps add the phrase "I'm not your landlord" to every reply you make to them? If you want to get petty, have your lawyer send a letter or whatever telling Mr. L that his tenants need to stop harassing YOU.

Re: the shitty neighbor issue, I think you're going to need to sue (or move). There are a couple of other things you might try before that, but I would line up a lawyer (maybe a different one than before) so that you are ready to go. Have them review the HOA agreement re: whether it's entirely legal, especially the approving tenants thing and the arbitration thing.

Other things you could try while the lawyer is looking things over:
-Use Mitheral's idea about making bureaucracy work in your favor.
-Stop doing maintenance on anything that is clearly Mr. L's responsibility. When his half of the lawn gets too long, say nothing to the tenants and report it to the proper authorities. Rinse and repeat.
-Call to the the local building department about the basement renovation since that costs you nothing.
-I wouldn't reach out to the daughter about the basement, but I'm cynical and figure the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

Lastly, secure the basement. What does your deed etc. say about it? Get some permits and wall off whatever is yours. Don't notify or ask Mr. L about this unless your deed etc. says that you must. Do it as soon as possible and with all the proper permits.
posted by purple_bird at 3:38 PM on April 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

He owes you money right? Put a lien on his property and yes, you need a lawyer. but I'd also talk to the daughter,go over the HOA and the money owed and the zoning and give her a solid chance to fix this. It sounds like Mr L might be slipping into senility to me and she might end up with POA sooner than later.
posted by fshgrl at 5:10 PM on April 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

It really does sound like he's treating you as a property manager and maybe even directing his tenants to you. You could try to get out of this role -- provide the tenants with a formal letter explaining the situation and directing them to more or less leave you alone, and stop doing all the mowing and snow clearance for free. (That's like $100 or more you're saving him every month!)

Another route to consider would be to embrace your role as de facto property manager. This would probably not work at this point, but in theory you could offer to be the one to find the tenant during the next turnover. You could welcome new tenants with a tour that explains all of the rules. You could address behavior violations the way one would. (E.g., they park in your spot, even after you've painted lines or otherwise made clear whose property is whose and where they can and can't park? Tape a Notice of Violation to their door. Notice of Second Violation. Third and Final Notice. Then, I'm not sure where you'd be able to escalate to -- threatening legal letter? could you have their car towed?) I'm not sure you really want all of this hassle, though, and it probably wouldn't work given your relationship with him.

Putting a lien on his property to collect what you're owed is a great idea. If you're planning to stay for the long haul, you could also offer to buy out his side. Because the lien would have to be paid as part of a sale, it would help your purchase offer be more competitive. (Let's say he owes you $20k and could get $100k on the open market, leaving him $80k. You could offer $90k plus removal / forgiveness of the lien.)
posted by slidell at 5:59 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

How do we go forward without us having to pay a lawyer and sue?\


This might not be a bad time to sell your unit, I hear some areas have seen a large decrease in the amount of homes on the market. A friend's parents just sold their house.

Moving is more logistically complicated these days, but if you are having to hire movers you might be able to stay in a hotel, have no contact with the movers, and let things sit in your new home until enough time has passed that it is safe. Some extra moving expenses but might be cheaper than a lawyer.

As far as suing goes, keep in mind that a court awarding you damages doesn't insure that you will actually be paid.
posted by yohko at 11:22 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: A. About the illegal apartment: You would be amazed how hard it is to get such a unit removed once building has started. Here is what you can do without a lawyer:

1. Report to the city immediately that the other owner is attempting to add another unit in the basement without zoning permission, and presumably without permits, etc., and ask for them to stop him.

2. Send the other owner a brief letter stating that you became aware he is attempting to add another unit in the basement in violation of the local zoning ordinance, and that he must immediately cease all attempts to do so. I'm not clear on how the basement is divided and if he has any right to go in to your part of it, but you can state that do not want any strangers in your basement or on the property without prior notice, and certainly no one should be in there to measure to build an illegal apartment.

3. If any workmen come to begin measuring or building, ask for their name, contractor's license number, names of insurance and bonding company, and proof that he has workers' compensation coverage. Check that the info is not false--you would be amazed how often contractors claim to have a license and insurance when they don't, or when they have been revoked. Send the contractor a letter saying that you object to him building anything in the basement or anywhere on the property without your written permission (as an owner of the property) and if he does so, you will have him or his insurance company pay to remove it. Do this every time the other owner gets a new contractor/handyman/fly-by-night worker to come in to measure and give an estimate on the illegal apartment OR any other work that he may pretend he is in there to do.

4. Make friends with the zoning/planning/building people. Be nice. Get their names, write them down and greet them by name when you call or go in. Take their advice on how to prevent this illegal apartment from being built. Make your zoning complaint on the phone, and then in writing on the form your city/village/county will have (probably on the web site). Also make a complaint about un-permitted building, which will be a different person on the phone and a different form. They may say that you can't make these complaints until the building has started--be sweet but file the complaints in writing anyway. From my point of view, sending the workers over to start the measurements IS starting building. It will be too late if he shows up with materials.

5. You might consider getting a civil restraining order preventing the other owner from sending a worker into the common areas of the building without your express written permission 48 hours in advance, except in cases of emergency, and with your prior knowledge of the person's name, profession, license, building without your express written permission.

6. Secure your part of the basement. Get some permits and wall off what is yours, even if you only do it with chain link fence like they do for storages in apartment buildings. Otherwise you may find an apartment built onto your side. Or workers stealing your tools.

B. Someone mentioned selling and moving. You would have to disclose quite a few things. This could reduce the price you would get. You could consider buying the other owner out instead.

C. You need to start enforcing your agreement with the other owner. He is entirely responsible for his own tenants and whether they adhere to the terms of the agreement. He has no right to let them have a dog. He is in breach of the agreement and needs to compensate you for that. I'm not saying take the kid's dog away. I'm saying that if you don't enforce your agreement it is the same as if you have no agreement. You can see that the other owner considers the agreement non-binding on him--don't let him keep doing things in breach of the agreement or you will have a new long list of problems in six months. You don't need a lawyer to write him a letter saying "We need you to comply with the xyz agreement. You are not complying in the following ways (list) and this non-compliance is causing us great hardship. Please do the following (list) by x date." Regarding the dog, you might ask for $100 a month compensation as long as a dog is present downstairs because you may not want to deprive the kid of his dog.
In the letter, you don't need to make any threats as to what you are going to do if he doesn't comply. This is just the starting letter, showing that you have attempted to enforce your agreement yourselves.

D. It is a very strange arbitration agreement that provides that you pay for all of three lawyers. You should have a lawyer look at that and see if it is even enforceable. In any case, arbitration and litigation are for after you have exhausted all other methods of resolving the issues yourselves. For example, it is much easier, faster, cheaper and more permanent to call the local zoning/building department about the illegal apartment being built than it is to do any kind of arbitration or litigation. The same for scaring off his contractors using the "proof of license, insurance, bond, and workers comp, please" method. He can't build that apartment without a contractor, and as he is likely to use some unlicensed uninsured handyman-type to build an illegal un-permitted unit, that "contractor" is likely to run off when he learns he might get tagged with workers compensation fraud, etc.

E. I feel for you on how this ongoing series of disputes is ruining your daily lives. I suggest you separate out the disputes that are annoying from those that are damaging the value of your largest asset. You could actually write down all the disputes--one sentence or less--and in the next column, list the damage that dispute is causing you. For example, building a third illegal unit is going to severely reduce the monetary value of your unit. Failing to maintain the property is going to reduce the monetary value of your unit. Not enforcing the agreement is going to reduce your ability to sell your unit, and reduce the value if you do sell. In a third column, you could list how the owner's position in each dispute is in breach of the agreement. This sort of "clarity chart" may help you feel less overwhelmed by the horrible daily drip of problem after problem after problem never getting resolved. Also, it saves legal fees when you go to a lawyer for advice.

F. I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice. This is self-help advice. You would not want to pay a lawyer to do the things I suggest herein. You, as the homeowner, are better situated to use these self-help methods. In the meantime, make certain that you are in complete compliance with the agreement yourself. (Clean hands and all.) Tell the tenant downstairs you are not their landlord, contact their landlord for all tenant issues, but also look up a tenant's rights organization (call 211) and refer them to that. Tenant's orgs have arbitration and can make fair housing complaints easy, so their landlord might actually be forced to comply with regard to repairs, etc.

Sorry this is so long. I feel for you. Good luck.
posted by KayQuestions at 5:38 PM on April 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

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