The Mystery Housebuyer

How to lose friends and influence nobody

have a friend — let’s call him Richard — who has almost every reason to be a happy homeowner. But the one reason that makes him unhappy could ruin it all for him.

Richard had managed to get a condo for a reasonable price despite the high cost of housing here. Nice view out the front and the back of his unit. Situated up on a hill. He even has ample parking, which is like winning the lottery in San Francisco.

When he moved into his place, he did the things a new resident should. He met the neighbors, both in the owner-occupied units and the units that were rented. He also paid attention to the things that would matter to his neighbors: He was careful not to be noisy; he was conscientious about putting his garbage and recycling inside the bins and not beside them; he removed his laundry from the shared washing and drying machines as soon as they were done so no one else had to wait for him; he attended homeowner association meetings. A good neighbor.

His reward for the most part was enough to warm the heart. His neighbors were an interesting mix of ages and professions, and almost to a one they were nice and pleasant.

Then there were the upstairs neighbors. More accurately, the upstairs owners, because they had long ago moved out of their unit above Richard’s and have rented it out for the astronomical sums that rentals can command in today’s market. He was fine with them being absentee owners, as long as their tenants were good neighbors and the unit didn’t cause any trouble.

But then the unit caused trouble. It wasn’t the renters, who were in fact quite good neighbors; nice people, each of them. But a malfunction of some kitchen equipment resulted in water pouring down into Richard’s kitchen and onward down to the sidewalk. Richard had his insurance company assess the damage, and his kitchen cabinets and the soaked walls were removed; his kitchen was left a bare shell.

Richard was unhappy; not devastated, but unhappy. In fact, the prospect of a new kitchen filled him with a happy anticipation. The old kitchen was fine; but now he could get a new kitchen, and it would all be paid for by his upstairs neighbor’s insurance company. He figured that was worth a little disruption to his life and the inability to cook at home for a while.

Nearly five months later, though, his kitchen was still all bare studs and plastic sheeting. The flood from upstairs had resulted from an unpermitted change made by the owner; so that owner didn’t want to take it to his insurance company and have to pay any fines or do anything else that was necessary to bring it into compliance even with HOA rules.

Richard’s own insurance company said this didn’t involve them, thank you very much. And Richard was left with the walls torn down to the studs and plastic sheets separating it from his living room. And he’s gotten very, very sick of eating delivery food or cooking with a microwave in his bedroom.

The HOA tried contacting the upstairs owners, but they didn’t even reply. In everything they have done through this entire situation, they have shown themselves to be uninterested in being good neighbors; they have been interested only in their own well-being — the heck with everyone else.

The fact that Richard lives in a condominium isn’t terribly crucial to this story. Many single-family homes in densely populated San Francisco are literally wall-against-wall with their neighbors; they might as well be townhomes. But even a stand-alone house, with nice walking space and maybe even a tree and some bushes between it and its neighbors, can be victimized by the careless (and thoughtless) neighbor who lets water runoff flood the other home’s backyard or who has parties every night on the back porch.

Richard predicts that he will either convince his upstairs neighbor to pay for his new kitchen or he’ll get his lawyer to do the convincing for him. Either way, he’s lost all illusions about the upstairs neighbor being cooperative or even well intentioned.

What could he have done to avoid this? Nothing, realistically. There are bad owners everywhere; just because someone scrapes together the money to buy a house or a condominium doesn’t mean they are ethical people. But Richard swears that if he ever buys another condo, he will look for a significant factor: the length of ownership of many of the other owners. Yes, even jerks can hang onto their condos for decades. But he figures that if a lot of the other owners have been there for decades as well, then the jerks can’t be too bad.

He still counts himself lucky. He got a great condo. He just doesn’t have a good upstairs neighbor or a good kitchen. And he prays every day that the local real estate prices remain sky-high, so that the upstairs owners will decide to cash in, buy somewhere else, and be a pain in someone
else’s … kitchen.

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