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Home sweet hell

If you want to buy a condo in Boston, you’re probably looking at a small building. But as some new owners soon find out, neighbors in close quarters can turn a nice living arrangement into a living nightmare

By Kris Frieswick
January 23, 2011

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The one-bedroom condominium in the Beacon Hill brownstone was Jenna Blum’s first property purchase. It was tiny, even by the standards of a starter home, but she was 27, single, and thrilled to have something of her own. She loved the feel of the place, with its exposed brick and ornamental fireplaces, and how everything was so close, from the Starbucks just a few steps down the street to the dog park where she could play with her black Lab, Woodrow. Her new home was, in a word, perfect.

Then she met her upstairs neighbors.

They were a married couple, both lawyers, neither of whom seemed particularly concerned about making a good first impression. That initial week, in her haste to unpack and get settled, Blum left some empty boxes and bags of trash out on the sidewalk. But it wasn’t pickup day, so the first time Blum met the couple was when they handed her a ticket from the city for a garbage violation. It was an inauspicious beginning to their relationship – and a sign of things to come.

Blum bought her place in 1999, and over the coming months and years, she regularly returned home to find notes from her upstairs neighbors taped to her door. They accused her of a wide variety of transgressions: She’d left her laundry in the building’s coin-op washer for too long, she’d left her boots in the hallway and created an eyesore, she’d arranged her things in the common storage unit in a way that somehow annoyed them. “I was always coming home to some kind of fight,” Blum says.

She took to icily referring to her neighbors as “the male one” and “the female one.” Shortly before the two decided to start a family, “the female one” threatened in another note to have Blum evicted for smoking, even though Blum had quit three months earlier. Of course, one owner in a condo building can’t evict another one, but the attitude seemed to sum up for Blum how her neighbors saw her: as if they owned the place and that she was just a troublesome tenant. And given how little legal power Blum would soon discover she had, she wasn’t much better off than if she’d been exactly that.

Blum had been so excited to own her first home that she barely read the condominium association paperwork that came with it. If she had looked closer, she would have seen that her upstairs neighbors owned 66 percent of the building’s square footage, and so had a 66 percent voting stake in the association that governed its management. That meant they controlled what condo fees everyone in the three-unit building paid, what would or wouldn’t get done to the property’s common areas, and how much the association was willing to pay for that work.

It didn’t occur to Blum that this power differential would be a problem – until it was.

At the time she moved in, Blum was writing her first novel. “I worked at home, and my upstairs neighbors had control of the thermostat,” she says. “They’d leave for work and turn off the heat, and the temperature would go down to 59 degrees. I was often working in fingerless gloves.”

When Blum complained, the couple refused to take her at her word, so she finally provided them with evidence – a photo of a thermometer. She later installed a dedicated heater for her unit, but they even made that process difficult. “Your home is supposed to be your haven, but every time I came home I was in a position of being powerless,” Blum says. “It’s a bad way to live. It’s traumatic.”

In spite of the problems, Blum still bought the small third unit below hers, with an eye toward joining the two to increase her living space. (“My attitude was naively optimistic,” she says. “I didn’t know how evil people could be.”) As a result, Blum inadvertently found herself in what real estate experts consider the black hole of condo associations: the dreaded two-party. Condo life can be hard enough when both owners have equal stakes in the association, with no third to act as tiebreaker during disputes. It can be even worse when there is an imbalance in two-party ownership stakes, as in Blum’s case, a situation that can leave the minority owner feeling steamrolled by the more powerful member.

Blum certainly felt steamrolled. “For eight years,” she says, “these people made my life a total misery.” The dispute over the heat. The snippy notes. The time the couple installed an intercom system without asking, and Blum had to pay for roughly a third of it. It all added up, and she finally decided to move out. But it was then she discovered, just as countless condo owners before her, that bad neighbors can turn even the process of escaping from them into quite an ordeal.

Whether you live in a Beacon Hill condominium or a single-family out in the suburbs, you’ll probably at some point find reason to get annoyed by your neighbors. There’s nothing unique about that. But the chance of getting mired in an all-out battle is so high in a condo building with only a few units that some real estate attorneys counsel clients to avoid buying into them altogether. “My advice is don’t buy one unless you don’t have other options,” says Richard Brooks, a partner in the Braintree law firm Marcus, Errico, Emmer and Brooks, which specializes in representing condo associations. “When they don’t work they can be a real nightmare. It’s almost like being in a bad marriage – you’re stuck.”

The fundamental problem is that a small condo association by definition lacks one crucial component of harmonious living: safety in numbers. “In any organization, you get people with extreme views on the edges of the bell curve,” says Patricia Nelson, a real estate attorney in Lexington. “There are people who think that the minute the roof leaks, you have to replace the whole roof. Others would never want to replace the roof; all they ever want to do is patch. In a large association, the people on the edges are diluted by being with everyone else. It’s more likely that you’ll end up with something in the middle.” But in a small association, there are simply not enough members to soften the impact of the pain-in-the-neck outliers.

Still, for lots of would-be homeowners, buying into a small building is the only way they can gain access to one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the country. The condos are generally cheaper than those in larger buildings, where luxe amenities (such as pools) and services (such as a concierge) bump up the costs. “We call them the last bastion of affordable housing,” Brooks says.

So if you own in metro Boston and aren’t fabulously wealthy, odds are that you are involved in a small condo association. Our area is dense with converted brownstones, triple-deckers, and multifamilies, especially those between two and five units. According to the Boston Assessing Department, there are around 7,400 residential condo associations within the city limits. Of that number, 5,832 – or 79 percent – have fewer than five units. That means there are thousands of people in Boston who, at one point or another, could be forced to deal with all sorts of difficult characters, from the conflict averse to the control junkies, from the stingy Scrooges to the spendthrift Trumps-in-Training.

Take the experience of Philip Peterson. Back in 2006, he and two others – including one person we’ll call Second Floor Guy – all bought condos in a newly converted three-unit Victorian in Jamaica Plain. For the first six months or so, everyone was on his and her best behavior. They shared backyard barbecues and generally enjoyed one another’s company. (Ironically, some buyers seek out small, intimate buildings because they seem to promise the chance of making lifelong friendships.) Peterson even invited Second Floor Guy to his wedding.

Not long afterward, it became clear that the honeymoon period with Second Floor Guy was over. The trouble started, as it tends to in small buildings, with minor annoyances. “There was more and more strife about tending to basic issues, like mowing the lawn and taking the trash out,” Peterson says. Predictably, Second Floor Guy was also “very sensitive to sound.” (Who hasn’t heard that complaint from an angry neighbor?)

Second Floor Guy then started writing notes to Peterson and the other owner – with whom Peterson got on fine – complaining about where the barbecue was located and what he said was the heated emotional tenor of condo association meetings. One missive, Peterson recalls, read, “Please remove the dog leash from the garage. A child, visitor or one of us could be harmed by becoming entangled.” That one left him scratching his head.

The communications soon turned from passive-aggressive to plain old aggressive. Second Floor Guy started threatening to file lawsuits over things like landscaping (he didn’t want to use condo funds for a small garden). At one point, he warned that he might take out a restraining order against Peterson’s wife because he said he didn’t feel safe around her.

These squabbles were one thing, but then the fights began to involve real money. That’s when Peterson got really worried. Their JP condominium building, like many small associations, was self-managed. Because small associations have relatively limited cash flows from condo fees, it often doesn’t make financial sense to hire someone to manage the books and hire contractors to tend to the property. So, instead, everyone either pitches in or hopes the neighbors paying bills from the shared checkbook are trustworthy.

Second Floor Guy may have balked at spending a few bucks on gardening supplies, but Peterson says he wouldn’t think twice about unilaterally making larger purchases from their account. Without consulting the others, he paid for two termite inspections, one of which involved drilling holes in Peterson’s porch. Another time, he paid the water bill even though Peterson’s wife had already paid it (he said he didn’t trust her to do it, even though it had been agreed it would be her responsibility). “He would insist we have a condo meeting to buy a new rake, then he would just go out and spend $500 on something for the condo,” Peterson says.

“Then one day,” Peterson says, “he decided we needed to put a new roof on our house.” He all but demanded they hire a guy he knew, saying the contractor promised to give them a “sweetheart deal.” The group acquiesced, Peterson admits. They were inexperienced owners, while Second Floor Guy had an intimidating command of big words like “assessments” and “fiduciary.” As it turned out, he proved less proficient at the practical application of them.

Late in the project, the roofer simply stopped showing up. Peterson and the other owner told Second Floor Guy they wanted him to stop payment until the job was done. But when the roofer came by to collect the balance on the $6,000 bill, Second Floor Guy simply wrote him a check from the condo bank account. They ended up paying a new contractor an additional $1,500 to finish the work, which depleted the reserve fund. “We’re still working to build up the condo reserve three years later,” Peterson says.

Low condo association reserves have always plagued small associations and their members. If unit owners can’t dip into the reserve fund to pay for repairs – and can’t afford to pay for them out of pocket – they are left undone, which can degrade the property value and make selling a unit difficult. On top of that, because of recent changes to some federal loan regulations, lenders can require studies of condo associations where less than 10 percent of the annual budget is allocated to the reserve fund. Lack of an adequate budget means that condo sellers could have trouble finding qualified buyers even if the building is in excellent condition.

Peterson says the antics of Second Floor guy eventually caused their neighbor in the other unit to sell. He suspects the man lost some money, but chalks it up to a sad but necessary bit of collateral damage. Second Floor Guy “was a torpedo from Crazy Town that was looking to hit anything in his way,” he says. As for Second Floor Guy himself, he moved out a short time later, though he never explained why. “Maybe he had simply caused enough misery in this particular spot,” Peterson says, “and was required back in the lower depths of hell.”

In a sense, Philip Peterson was lucky – his “bad” neighbor moved out before he had to. But other owners in small buildings are often less fortunate, especially when their problem neighbors get themselves into financial jams. In a small association, each member’s monthly condo fees make up a significant percentage of the building’s cash flow. “If one person [stops] paying their fees in a three-unit condo, your contribution goes from one-third to one-half overnight,” says Richard Brooks, the Braintree real estate attorney.

If that happens, owners may find it tough to sell. The Federal Housing Administration loan program now bans lending to buyers looking to purchase condos in buildings where more than 15 percent of the owners are more than 30 days delinquent on their fees. In other words, if only one person stops paying his bills in a building of six units or fewer, it could make the job of finding suitable buyers tougher for everyone looking to leave.

“I’ve seen owners who couldn’t sell their units because of [condo fee] delinquencies,” says Brooks. “I’ve seen owners pay the fees of the other owners just so their buyers could qualify for the financing and they could get the hell out.”

Andrea (who asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution) did all her homework before she and her husband bought their condo in a two-unit building in Cambridge in 2005. And they’d be 60 percent owners of the building, which would theoretically shield them from the kinds of trouble that plague minority owners. Andrea didn’t, however, bank on her new neighbor’s ability to dodge doing maintenance work and avoid paying other people to do it.

“When we bought, we asked a lot of questions of the seller about who shoveled the walk and did other condo tasks,” says Andrea. “He assured us that it was all shared equally – unfortunately, we bought his story.”

Andrea soon came to believe that the other unit owner, a divorcee with two young children, was a study in learned helplessness. The woman expected Andrea and her husband to do everything – mow the lawn, weed her garden, carry her trash barrels to the street, shovel the snow, everything. She repeatedly came up with excuses about why she couldn’t possibly help.

She came across as “a really overwhelmed mom,” Andrea says. Oddly, though, while she always talked about how sick she was, she never mentioned one malady twice. So rather than chase the woman for money – and have to sit through another litany of excuses – Andrea and her husband simply began paying for all the things that needed to be done, such as installing a lawn sprinkler system. It just seemed easier that way.

That thinking applied to maintenance, too. One winter, just after her first baby was born, Andrea was laid up in bed recovering from a caesarean section. It had just snowed, and her neighbor offered to shovel the sidewalk. Three days later, she still hadn’t done it. Since Andrea’s husband was out of town, she called her mother-in-law to watch the baby, then headed out to do it herself. Her neighbor emerged when she was halfway through the job and announced that she hadn’t been able to get to it because she’d been too busy paying her bills. Andrea says she lost her temper for the first time. “For three days?” she yelled. “You need to get out here and help.” The woman left Andrea shoveling and headed off to run some errands.

In 2008, it became apparent to Andrea and her husband that their building would need to be repainted. But the low condo association reserve meant that cash for the project would also probably come out of their pocket. Rather than foot another big bill, they decided to sell. “We wanted to get out before we were in for another $10,000,” she says.

Two weeks after the new owners moved in, Andrea got a phone call from her former neighbor. “She asked me, ‘Didn’t you tell them what they were supposed to do?’ ” Andrea says. “I just laughed to myself and played dumb.” Apparently, she figured it was more important to escape her neighbor than warn the new buyers about the headaches she’d probably soon be creating for them.

The stresses of condo living can drive otherwise sane people to seek revenge in all kinds of ways. Brown, the real estate attorney, recalls one example in which an owner was so enraged by his treatment at the hands of his association that he tried to cut the main water line into the building. “People don’t do things like that in larger buildings,” he says. “Everything feels less personal.”

In the thick of her battle on Beacon Hill, Jenna Blum also fought back, though her weapons were of a more psychological sort. On days she was going to be away from home, she’d pop in the CD for the musical Annie, turn her stereo up full blast, then slip out of the building. “Can I help it if my neighbors didn’t like it?” she jokes. Sure, she was being childish, but it made her feel better, at least for a little while.

Ultimately, though, Blum realized that her revenge fantasies were a symptom of just how bad things had become. In 2007, she decided she needed to do something.

She went to see “the male one” and “the female one” and told them her plans. She would either keep her condos as rental property, she said, or sell them outright. The neighbors offered to buy the two units themselves, but Blum said no. She’d rather list them with a real estate agent and take her chances on the open market. They didn’t seem to like that.

On the day after their conversation, Blum recalls, her neighbors presented her with a special assessment. The document outlined a series of repairs to the building the couple said were necessary, including replacing all the windows, rebuilding the chimneys, and re-pointing the exterior masonry. It added up to more than $200,000 worth of work, Blum says, and it left her in a jam. If she were going to rent out her units, she would have to pay her share of the bill – about $66,000 – while if she were going to sell, she’d have to disclose the assessment to prospective buyers. Who in the world would buy the places then?

Fuming, Blum called her lawyer. “My attorney said I could have won a lawsuit against them over this because it was a clear abuse of power,” she says. “But she said the money I would have spent on a lawsuit constituted a down payment on a new house. She said, ‘Do you want a battle or do you want to move on?’ ”

She wanted to move on. Even though it rankled her, she finally agreed to sell to the upstairs neighbors. She still thinks she could have made $25,000 more on the open market, but she put what money she did make toward a place in the Back Bay, where she still lives.

After all her problems, Blum still bought another condominium, but this one is in a building with nine units, where no one owner has majority control over the affairs of the building. She now has “the best neighbors,” and she hopes they think of her the same way. “I never considered how important good neighbors are,” she says. And lots of them.

Kris Frieswick, who lives in a nine-unit condo building, is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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