There's a saying that the only thing harder to manage than a three-unit condominium is a two-unit one. While owners in large developments can rely on a professional management company, small building unit owners don't have this buffer. They are usually their own trustees and must persuade their fellow trustee/owners to agree to a new roof or paint job. Bad feelings can follow a negative vote and just one obstructionist or irresponsible owner can turn the most elegant converted Victorian home into a battleground.
''I'd never live in a condo again!" said former condominium owner Beth Grous, 37, after her experience in a converted four-unit Victorian in Arlington with ''two good neighbors and one nightmare."
''I'd come into work after condo meetings, and people would gather around to hear about it. It was entertainment for other people who couldn't believe how hard it was to get anything done!"
When she met her ''nightmare" neighbor, who owned the torn-up side yard next to her unit, he said he was working on a landscaping project. Four years later, the project was still going on, day and night, rain or shine. When he wasn't peering into her windows, Grous said, he was collecting junk in the side yard, including buckets of rocks, 32 discarded chairs, and a toilet he thought would make a good planter someday.
''This was what our half-million-dollar unit looked out on! He was one of those people who collects 30 years worth of newspapers in their apartment because they can't throw anything away."
She and others in her situation do have legal remedies, sort of. ''There's a requirement in many
But Grous and the other beleaguered unit owners in her building decided not to be adversarial. None planned to own their units for long ''and we didn't want to be in a position where a prospective buyer would ask us if there was any pending litigation. At the end of the day, it is a small community and you really have to get along, or at least be civil, to make the association work," said Grous. ''If we had gotten attorneys, he would have gotten even more obstinate, and if we [had] levied fines, he wouldn't have been able to pay them." So Grous and the others worked around their problem partner and refrained from giving him any responsibilities. Most of them eventually moved on while he remained, a legacy to the next set of owners.
''I think he hated us," said Grous, adding, ''One good thing that happened though was that it united the rest of us."
''Buying a condo is a very serious business. People put up a lot of money without their eyes being wide open," said Alan Slawsby of Alan Slawsby and Associates Inc., a Wellesley condominium management firm specializing in small associations. He advises buyers to have the home inspected and get as much financial information as possible. ''Obtain copies of minutes of board meetings, going back a year or possibly two. Make every possible inquiry as to the history of the building and the people who live there, and the neighbors of your unit in particular -- people never ask to meet the neighbors -- and don't rely on real estate brokers or their inspectors. And have your own attorney represent you and not the bank's attorney," said Slawsby, who has purchased many condo units for investors over the years.
As a real estate lawyer, Shauna Rives knows an owner's rights are spelled out in the condo documents. So when the 35-year-old wife and mother of two bought into a South End building three years ago, she had it written into the documents that she could leave her heavy two-seat stroller in the downstairs hallway instead of having to lug it to the top floor. When the childless couple on the first floor objected, ''we told them to look at the condo documents. We tried to resolve it in the nicest way possible, knowing we had to live with these people. But it was really stressful for them and us because you're sharing such close quarters." The first-floor owners moved out this summer.
A condo building's board of trustees has a legal responsibility to maintain structural soundness, such as fixing a leaking roof. But if you're on the top floor of a three-decker getting wet, and the other two unit owners vote against paying to fix it, you may have to go to court to get restitution.
Sarah Boardman, 62, has spent thousands in legal fees in dealings with other unit owners since buying into a Charlestown three-decker 12 year ago. ''Legal fees quickly add up to more than the item in contention," she wrote in an e-mail. ''I believe that eventually, some sort of oversight agency will be needed to help small associations survive."
Boardman contacted state Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, who helped her meet with lawyers to discuss ways to protect condo owners in small buildings. ''This office has been brainstorming several possible initiatives to bring before the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. At this time, we are still considering ways to properly approach the matter, as it is a novel area of the law," he said.
Susan Paxson, a 50-year-old classical singer who owns the top floor of a Dorchester three-decker, has been on the other end of litigation. ''The first-floor owners were the most litigious people I've ever met. Their response to everything was: 'See you in court.' We actually did go to court and they paid restitution and court costs because they had no case."
Things only got worse when the other owners rented their units and moved away after the value of their condos crashed in the late 1980s. Then a single mother, Paxson was financially stranded as the building ran down due to neglected maintenance. She remembers the first tenants, college students who helped with baby-sitting, quite fondly. But not the later tenants, who included ''a woman who had a boyfriend who would kick the door down to gain entry. These were people who would just stand in the middle of the street and yell. Another had a son who would steal bikes stored in the basement." The morning after one problem tenant left, Paxton found her tires had been slashed.
As the only owner on the premises, Paxson had to do all basic maintenance and felt the other owners blamed her for the building's deteriorating condition. ''I did all the snow shoveling, and bought the sand and the new shovels when the old ones were stolen, as they regularly were." But now things are better because rising condo values allowed the absentee owners to sell their units. ''For the first time in a long, long, long time," said Paxson, ''the building is entirely owner-occupied."
Of course, many times small condo associations do run smoothly. Especially, said Slawsby, ''if they have unit owners with a business background and can run it as a small business."
That describes Susan Battista, 40, who manages her market-research company, Topic 101, out of her South End condo. She's the lone trustee of the three units and it's been smooth sailing for five years now. She keeps the budget, collects the condo fees through automatic online banking, and pays the bills. ''When there are special projects, we just e-mail each other. We just had work done on the foundation and one person found a contractor, another called to notify the utilities, and I called the previous owner to check some things."
Battista, who checked out her condo partners before buying, said, ''We fell into responsibilities that aren't terribly inconvenient. I'll act as the supervisor because I'm home. The neighbors do the gardening. The first person that gets up in the morning shovels the snow. It's just courtesy and respect. The key is that when you buy a brownstone building with other people, you are partners in a business."
More typical is Robert Yeaton's experience as owner of one of six units in a self-managed Brookline Victorian. The 38-year-old biotech industry recruiter could have done without the ''debatathons," a particularly obstructionist neighbor, and difficulty hiring tradesmen, many of whom didn't want to deal with a small condo association. ''But I was excited to own a place. And that's the only way you're going to own a place if you live in Brookline unless you have a million dollars," said Yeaton, who after eight years used his equity to buy a house in Portsmouth, N.H. He sums up his micro condo association experience this way: ''I was glad to get into it, and glad to get out of it."
BOUNDARIES is the first of an occasional series of articles about getting along with the neighbors.