The Case of the Old Bike
July 20, 2007 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me be a great neighbor...

[Kind of long, sorry]

I live in a converted Victorian in a neighborhood with a mix of students/professors/professionals. The guy who lives in the other half of our floor (we share a stairway and landing) is quiet, polite, neat, and just the right amount of friendly while still keeping to himself.

We (my husband and I) moved in in June of last year, and there was an old Giant racing-style bike in the basement, along with a bunch of other junk (rug, clothes, broken entertainment center, etc...) The guy who lived in our apartment before us had left most of the stuff, so we assumed he left the bike, too. The bike sat there for a year, never used - the tires were flat, and it was missing a pedal.

Since March, my husband has used my Trek bike to go to his evening job downtown, but in the last month or so, I've been using it to get to work during the day, too. It needed a visit to the bike shop desperately, since I had never taken it in, and the dramatic increase in use was starting to show. The day we loaded it in the truck to take it to the bike hospital, I happened to notice the poor old Giant bike leaning against the other wall in the basement. On the spur of the moment, we blew the cobwebs off it, and loaded it up too.

I ended up spending about $150 on it - complete overhaul, plus new tape for the handlebars, new pedals, seat, and bike rack, plus installation for all the new equipment. My husband took it home and started using it right away. (I tried it once, but nearly fell on my head.)

Now to the critical part - the bike actually belongs to our neighbor, John. We came home about a week ago to find a very friendly note on it, asking us to contact him. On the first call, I apologized profusely for the mistake, and mentioned that Hamou had been looking at getting a mountain bike anyway. John said that we were welcome to use it until school started - he had been meaning to take it in himself, but didn't have a way to transport it. On the advice of my dad, I never brought up how much I spent on it. Then my husband spoke to him briefly, and John said that he'd be glad to "pay for the new pedals." My husband relayed this to me, and I still thought that was OK - after all, it was our mistake, we should have checked with all the house residents before assuming anything. (There are five apartments in the building, but everyone else keeps their stuff tidily in their storage units.)

Last night, I saw John outside, and he mentioned the pedals again, so I told him all the things we'd had done to it and the final cost. It was dark, but I swear he turned pale. (I don't know what he does, but I think he's a grad student.) He phoned me today, and left a message saying that "it wasn't fair" that I should get stuck with the total bill for a bike he needed to fix up anyway, and that he could A. Give us half of our cost ($75) or B. we could buy the frame from him ($75). I called him back and said that was more than fair, we were happy with whatever, and we'd work out the details later.

My question is this - should we take any money, and if so, how much? We're not rich either (husband and I both work full-time, and I'm starting back to FT classes this Fall), but this guy has been a good neighbor (rare in this campus area) and I'm considering the following options:

1. Telling him that any amount he would like to contribute toward our costs would be great, but not contingent on him getting the bike back or maintaining good relations with us.

2. Telling him to forget about the amount entirely due to our culpability in the matter, Happy Early Xmas, etc...

3. Accepting the $75 with good grace, and possibly dropping off a 6 pack of his favorite beer some weekend.
posted by Liosliath to Human Relations (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take option #3.

Option one complicates things further and will introduce a silly new layer of complexity to your relationship (did I rip him off? should I have paid them back more? perhaps I gave them too much... they owe me! etc.)

Option two will make him feel guilty, which is not really desirable.

Option three is a clean and fair resolution for both parties. With time, it is much easier forgotten than options one and two.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 3:18 PM on July 20, 2007

I would write it off. Your remark that "it was our mistake" is the key point here. Speaking from experience, staying on good, unsullied terms with a neighbour with whom you are comfortable is worth far more than the relatively small amount of money you are talking about.
posted by gene_machine at 3:18 PM on July 20, 2007

If you like it, I'd take the offer to buy it for $75. Squatter's rights, if you ask me.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:24 PM on July 20, 2007

Kill him...dead men tell no tales.

Kidding. I think option #3 is the best as it both recoups some money and gives you the option of inviting him over for a glass of wine or whatever to give him a thank you-for-thank you-for-thank you.

You're really nice to worry about this so much, and he sounds like a very good neighbor to keep. Good luck.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:27 PM on July 20, 2007

You know what, all of you sound like nice people who want to do the right thing and also want to maintain a good relationship. I think if you can afford to do so, then #1 is your best option. John can still follow through with his original offer to pay for the pedals, since that is probably something he can afford. If he insists on giving you more, then you can graciously accept it. If he doesn't have any money to spare, then he will feel relieved and probably try to do something nice but not monetary for you and your husband. Maybe you can work out a bike-borrowing arrangement or something.

#1 is good because it allows him to maintain dignity (i.e., doesn't seem like charity) but lets him figure out what he can afford. Unless I'm mistaken, you and your husband don't seem too hung up on the money, anyway, despite not having tons to spare.

Good neighbours are wonderful to have! I admire your (and his) desire to do the right thing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:28 PM on July 20, 2007

If he had done anything to express annoyance or anger, or if he had accused you of unfairly overstepping bounds, then I would suggest writing it off and apologizing again. That would be a situation in which keeping the peace would require you to accept that you had done something unacceptable and that he was not responsible for the repairs you paid for.

However, he did not respond by accusing you of acting inappropriately. Instead, he admitted that the bicycle needed repairs and that it was unfair for you to pay for them. This shows that he feels a sense of obligation to you, that he feels required to do something to repay you. So, I suggest you take the $75. That gives him a way to meet the obligation he feels, while also giving you a way to show that you acknowledge that the repairs were entirely your doing, not his. In other words, it will leave everyone feeling like they have done the right thing and had the right thing done to them. It will give everyone a way to avoid feeling guilty, I think.
posted by Ms. Saint at 3:30 PM on July 20, 2007

Number 3 is the winner.

He offered to pay you for some of it because he feels bad about you shouldering the financial burden for fixing up the bike, and you won't make him feel better by not taking his money.

Take the $75, with a "you know, you really really don't need to do this." Give him an out.
I pretty much guarantee he will not take it.
Also, when you take the money, also invite him over for dinner, or if you're not cookers, out to dinner (your treat), or a similar small gesture of friendliness.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 3:34 PM on July 20, 2007

Thanks for all the advice so far, everyone - I should also mention that my husband doesn't really like taking the racing bike to work (bumpy brick streets here and there) and he's been looking longingly at mountain bikes. We'd probably put whatever $ we get right back into another bike.
posted by Liosliath at 3:34 PM on July 20, 2007

I'd say #1 or #3, but since he's already indicated he wants to pay the $75, they come to the same thing. I know $75 is a lot for a grad student, but it's not an inordinate sum, and if he was going to get the bike fixed anyway he'd have had to pay at least that, so take it and buy him some beer. It sounds like you guys are off to a good start as neighbors regardless of the misunderstanding.
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on July 20, 2007

How about a modified #1? Add up only the costs that contributed toward making the bike technically rideable - like the pedals, and maybe the cost of a basic tune-up.

Write him a little note (or speak to him in person), outlining those costs. Maybe say, "hey, we went above and beyond tricking out the bike, and that's nobody's fault. how about $40 [or whatever] for the pedals that you would have needed anyway, and the rest of the cost we'll just call bike rent until the fall?"

I bet that he's already given you the $75 in his mind, and anything less would probably be a huge relief to him, but telling him "don't worry about it" or "pay us whatever you can afford" might actually even be more stress for him.
posted by peep at 3:52 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your neighbor is being incredibly gracious - if I were him, I wouldn't consider reimbursing you for repairs on a bike I hadn't given you permission to touch. The best way to show appreciation for his kindness would be option number 2 - just write off the expenses. Depending on his circumstances, $75 dollars can be quite a bit of money, like the difference between covering the bills one month and not covering them. Since you obviously don't want to inquire into his finances (and you already know that $150 is enough to make him go pale), it would be best to just let it go.
posted by frobozz at 4:11 PM on July 20, 2007

I think frobozz has it right. You guys can afford it, he cannot - just keep telling him that you were in the wrong to borrow it anyways, and don't take his money. He IS letting you use his bike 'til the fall - you would likely feel like paying him for that rental anyways.
posted by some chick at 4:12 PM on July 20, 2007

Hm, seems like the advice here mirrors what's happening in my mind - all over the place!

We won't be using the bike as of tomorrow - we're off to San Diego, and plan to get a new bike when we return. I guess our total "rental" time was about 3 weeks.
posted by Liosliath at 4:17 PM on July 20, 2007

If I were you, I'd actually go with option #4: accept no money from him, think of it as an informal bike lease for the time, and let him know this in a card:

"John, we've been thinking about the bike, and how gracious you've been about the misunderstanding and about letting us use it until school starts. Then we started thinking about other neighbors we've had in the past, and how terrific a neighbor you are in general. Let's forget about the money altogether, and knock on our door sometime this week for a glass of wine."
posted by davejay at 5:02 PM on July 20, 2007

He's only offering because he feels bad at the thought of taking advantage of your generosity, and the fact that he offered shows he's a good person. Do him one better and don't take advantage of HIS generosity.

I love the spirit of what you did, but really part of the spirit of doing things spontaneously like that is accepting the consequences with just as light a heart. Write it off, and chalk it up to accidentally having done a very good deed for someone who deserves it.
posted by hermitosis at 5:02 PM on July 20, 2007

after all, most of us would gladly pay $150 to get a good neighbor next door, and you got a bike loan out of the deal, too!
posted by davejay at 5:02 PM on July 20, 2007

I'd say to let him pay you $75 or, if it's less, just the cost of the pedals. It's true that he might have paid for pedals and tune-up anyway, but it was his right to let the bike fall into disrepair until he felt like repairing it. Even if transportation was the only thing holding him back, he could well have decided to just replace the pedals and skip the tune-up. You could tell him the $75 you spent is the cost of borrowing his bike, and the price you paid for making that mistake.

You sound like a great neighbor already. Good luck!
posted by christinetheslp at 5:05 PM on July 20, 2007

What was the bulk of the expense? I'd take off what you paid the most for and keep it/sell it for another bike. If you got a good seat, keep the seat, keep the pedals, keep the bike rack (easy to take on/off). Swallow installation cost, swallow anything that's reasonably attached to the bike (unless you replaced the /wheel/, swallow the cost of tires & tubes).

Tell him that you're sorry you used it, and you'd like to keep what you paid the most for to use on another bike, but he can have the frame/etc back as is. Its not expensive at all to swap a seat & pedals from another crappy bike yourself (I've done this many times, in fact). It should cost him a lot less than $75.

If you want to make it seem a bit nicer than "I'm taking all my stuff back" make it a trade for a case of beer.
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:06 PM on July 20, 2007

BTW, it can be very cost effective to learn how to do your own repairs. Get a copy of Zinn and the Art of ___ Maintenance (or even borrow it from the library when you need it), and take a spare weekend to learn how your bike works and how to fix it. I think you'll find most things are surprisingly easy to fix, and you'll get a better idea what /exactly/ is wrong when something happens (for instance, the axle on my rear wheel snapped jaggedly in two, so the wheel semifunctioning but not centered. I had no idea what happened, but I took apart the rear wheel, unpacked the bearings, & got the axle out, bough a new axle for $8, stuck it in, packed the assembly back up and it worked fine. The same repair would have been $70 for labor for what ended up being an afternoon after class).
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:13 PM on July 20, 2007

Option 4: see about the cost of buying a bike similar in shape to what he had. Craigslist?
posted by nat at 5:14 PM on July 20, 2007

After trying to put myself in his shoes, I'd go with #3. It's a reasonable price to get a neglected bike in ridable shape for his going back to school which he will appreciate at the time. Give him some leeway to pay when he has the money though, and instead of beer (mmmm beer), invite him over for dinner. As a bachelor, a good home cooked meal and company is golden.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:25 PM on July 20, 2007

DevilsBrigade, great idea, except I let the bike shop toss the old seat (it was pretty bad). He's already offered to give us the bike rack back as part of the deal, since he doesn't use them. BTW, as I was looking over the installation/tune-up charges again, your suggestion of learning more about bike maintenance looks more and more attractive!

I may have to start tallying up votes in a minute. Heh.
posted by Liosliath at 5:27 PM on July 20, 2007

Not much of an answer, but I'd just like to thank you on behalf of the great unwashed bike riders (and urban dwellers) out there for being so honest and awesome.
posted by klangklangston at 5:30 PM on July 20, 2007

Thanks, klangklangston, but before I get any more compliments on what a good neighbor I am, I should mention that my husband and I often, discussions in Arabic. Sometimes kind of loud. (but never after 11pm!)

Other than that, we're pretty cool, I guess - we even bought a little light for the dark entryway that comes on at dusk.

I'm going to have my husband read all of your ideas tonight and see what we come up with.
posted by Liosliath at 6:02 PM on July 20, 2007

Give him the bike, invite him to dinner, don't take any money...

just my opinion..

and, good for you for thinking about this so carefully.... you're good people...
posted by HuronBob at 6:21 PM on July 20, 2007

Whether you take the money or not (I would take at least some, it makes the situation seem more equal), just don't make him decide how much to give you - that's stressful for him, and might make things weird for ever (he secretly wishes you'd talked him down etc). Take the $75, ask for a set amount that's less, or take no money at all, just make the decision yourselves and don't shift it to him out of politeness.

You all sound like great neighbors, the rosebud thread made me sad and this has cheered me up again, thanks!
posted by crabintheocean at 8:25 PM on July 20, 2007

Give him some leeway to pay when he has the money though...

Hmm, that would seem to be mighty charitable, until you consider how he got in this situation in the first place.

Seriously, if he's the kind of person who you think will have to strain himself in the slightest to give you $75, then you shouldn't ask for it. It's very likely that the reason the bike was down there for so long is that he really couldn't afford to get it fixed; repairs like that go on the back burner when money is tight.

And to add to the reasons why you should just let the money go: his financial situation is none of your business. The fact that you are having to evaluate what he can afford is an intrusion, whether or not he sees it that way (yet).

You asked us to help you be a great neighbor. If you take money from him for this, I wouldn't be surprised if you rarely saw him again. At some point, probably the next time he is short a few bucks, he'll remember this. And you'll always wonder if he resents the transaction. If you let it all slide, he will probably think of you as great people and form a better neighborly relationship with you, and you will never have to wonder what his real feelings are.

Hey, it's easy to tell someone else to give away their money online, harder for a person to actually do it. But if you can afford it, then not only will you have your good deed, you'll have a great story you'll be able to tell people. Imagine telling this story at a party and having people secretly think that you totally hosed this guy, though. Let it go.
posted by hermitosis at 8:46 PM on July 20, 2007

I vote for letting him keep the stuff and taking no money. I definitely vote AGAINST taking stuff off of the bike. That seems small to me.

And odds are good you'll get more than that back in good will and good cheer over time. It can be the difference between a neighbor who watches out for you and your stuff and someone who just shares a landing.

As said above I would gladly pay $150 a month for a great neighbor.
posted by maxwelton at 9:04 PM on July 20, 2007

Hermitosis, your points are well taken - we rarely see him now, actually, since our schedules don't coincide. I just want to choose the option that will leave the least residual tension and guilt - I was a bit afraid that if I told him to just forget about the $, it would weird him out, and make him feel beholden or something. On my part, I think I can let that amount of money go without qualms, and I don't plan on telling the story at parties - it makes me look like an idiot for not confirming the bike was abandoned.

I have to say, I would pretty much do anything for the kitten on your Flickr page, though.
posted by Liosliath at 9:46 PM on July 20, 2007

In my mind peep has the best answer. I think he probably needs to pay something, or he will feel wrong about the situation, which is really too bad. It's not *his* fault that someone accidentally made off with his bike--while it was an accident it was your action that caused the problem.

Anyway, I can definitely say that $75 has been the difference between paying and not paying the bills for me before. I have no idea that's the case with this guy, but seeing how your action caused the kerfluffle and you can afford it, ask him to pay a small amount (as in peep's suggestion), maybe just the pedals, and tell him the rest is a rental fee from you to him.
posted by digitalis at 9:57 PM on July 20, 2007

Am I missing something? First you say there are two options.. take money from him or give him $75 for the frame.. but then your alternatives are all based around the first one. Why not the "give him $75 for the frame" option? That way you get to keep the bike and put things right, and he can buy another bike with the $75.
posted by wackybrit at 11:55 PM on July 20, 2007

I think - take the $75. Even if it's a financial strain for him, it's not like he's getting nothing for it. He's getting bike repairs at half price! If you give him the bike and refuse the money, he might feel like a charity case and be embarrassed every time he runs into you. Others have said to ask what he can afford - he already told you what he can afford - $75.
posted by clh at 1:58 AM on July 21, 2007

i'd go with number 2. you messed up, so it cost you ... $150. his offering to cover some of the repair price was very gracious--but ultimately you messed up. making him pay for repairs he didn't authorize would be wrong.

be happy about it. you made a mistake, but it could turn into a good thing, and taking option 2 makes it a really good thing.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2007

WackyBrit, as I commented above, my husband doesn't even like the bike, really. I know it's my fault for putting $ into a bike that turned out to belong to someone else, but I'd rather not spend another $75 on it. The bike (an 80s model Giant) just isn't worth that. Why was it worth putting $150 into in the first place? Well, to be honest, we felt kind of sorry for the old thing. That's what I get for anthropomorphizing inanimate objects!
posted by Liosliath at 7:57 AM on July 21, 2007

davejay's got it. You took his property and messed with it and now people want him to pay? That's nuts! Apologize, invite him over for wine and make a friend.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:11 AM on July 21, 2007

You already have a lot of great answers, including peep's, which gets another vote from me. I'm really surprised how many people think it would be fine to accept the $75. The fact that this guy sounds thoughtful and considerate and offered $75 means, to me, that that's beyond what he ever would have thought of spending on the bike. A person like that would come up with that amount because it's somewhere between what he ever would have spent and what you did spend. But it's not his fault that you made your completely understandable error, and he shouldn't have to pay more than he would have himself. (In fact, I bet he would have gone the cheapest possible route on getting the pedals fixed, which may have been less than you ended up paying even just for that part, but I think having him pay you back that little extra would be ok.) Anything additional you can do to prevent guilt on his part is also good -- i.e., not making him come up with the amount he owes, accepting back the rack he offered, and mentioning that you've gotten value out of the 'rental.'
posted by daisyace at 8:19 AM on July 21, 2007

Your neighbour was very gracious to offer $75, and now it's your turn to be gracious and decline it. You spent money on, and used, a bicycle that did not belong to you. You had no permission to ride or repair the bike. It was an honest error, but not one your neighbour should pay for.

Consider the money you've spent on the bicycle as rent for its use. It's a sunk cost. Think of this as an opportunity to build a relationship with your nice neighbour rather than damage it. You should not take any money from your neighbour for the bike's repairs. Whether he intended to have the bike repaired or not is immaterial. If you do this you be forcing him to pay for repairs that may or may not be what he would have chosen himself. Maybe he would have had a friend repair it with second-hand pedals, and it would have cost him next-to-nothing.

I know it sucks that you're now $150 out of pocket. It totally sucks. But the bike never belonged to you, and you should never have spent money on it. Just write it off, and give your neighbour an early xmas present. Instantly, you avert resentment. Don't worry about bruising his pride. It's the right thing to do.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:19 AM on July 22, 2007

Just call it quits. Tell him you're sorry for the mistake, you're grateful for the use your husband got out of the bike, and would he like to come over for dinner some time?
posted by robcorr at 7:41 PM on July 22, 2007

Damn, I should have updated this sooner. OK, here's what happened -

- My neighbor tried to give me the $75 again
- I told him that it was our fault, he's a great neighbor, etc...
- He said that the work done "had value" for him, so he wanted to give us something
- I accepted $35 for the pedals/installation, and he gave us the rack back.
posted by Liosliath at 9:26 PM on August 29, 2007

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