I'm in condo hell

My homeowners association is dysfunctional and my neighbors are insane

Published August 9, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

Six years ago my partner and I bought a condo in a four-unit building. We had been looking for a house or condo for three years and had numerous offers rejected, so we were ecstatic to finally be able to buy our own place.

Fast forward to now: We are not quite so ecstatic. Since the homeowners association is so small, there is no official manager, and it is extremely difficult and frustrating to communicate with the other three owners. Our upstairs neighbor refuses to talk to us but constantly barrages us with angry emails about how our cooking smells waft up to her unit. She also went on an email rampage when we tried to get some gardening work done; her emails were so angry that we were actually physically afraid! We call her the Madwoman in the Attic, because, aside from the emails, she comes home every day and slams her front door so hard that it shakes the entire building, then spends the evening hurling furniture around and laughing madly (really!).

Another owner we call the Shark, because she is a lawyer and turns everything into an argument. When my partner, who is the HOA treasurer, reminded the Shark that she hadn't paid her dues one month, the Shark kept insisting that my partner had lost the check. You would think that the Shark could take a simple look at her checkbook to see whether or not she had paid the dues, but she just kept insisting that she was right and we were wrong. Everything is like this. She always votes against everything anyone proposes re the HOA.

The third owner is constantly at his girlfriend's house and never answers any emails. Due to our bad experiences with the other two owners, we actually prefer this.

Unfortunately, buying the condo was a financial decision and we are now in a business arrangement with these people.

Recently we tried to refinance. This involved filling out a form listing what insurance the HOA carries. My partner, the treasurer, filled out the form. Our mortgage broker said to have someone else in the HOA sign it because we do not have an official HOA manager. With fear and trembling, I approached the Madwoman in the Attic, who refused to sign it because she did not know the legality of it! The Shark also refused to sign it because she refuses everything. Since the third owner is never available, it looks like our refinance is screwed.

Cary, we'd like to sell and move away from this crazy situation, but the real estate market has tanked. What do you advise?


Unhappy HOA Member

Dear Unhappy HOA Member,

I advise two things. The first thing I advise is to set yourself a goal. The goal is modest. The goal is just to decide.

Maybe that sounds strange. Maybe that's exactly what you're trying to do by writing to me. If so, great. We understand each other.

So decide. Your decision might not be the best one when you look back at it 20 years from now. But it will be the one that you both can live with and agree to. It will allow you to have a plan and work toward a goal so during those moments when you think this is an unbearable nightmare and it can't get any worse you can say to each other, We have a plan and we're executing it. This will get better. We are working toward a solution.

The second thing is to make a plan of action. Say your decision is to murder all your neighbors and burn the place down. OK. Now you have a to-do list. You know what to do with your Saturdays.

I'm just a neutral observer with no professional expertise or training. I can't decide for you. But I do think once you make your decision tree that murdering all your neighbors will not have the most positives and least negatives. Mainly the negatives will be huge, once you consider the cleanup and blowback.

I predict your two top two choices will be 1) sell as soon as possible, take the presumed monetary loss and just get out with your sanity intact; or 2) tough it out for the next four years, save your money, keep scouting the market, identify the area you really want to live in, learn everything you can about real estate, cultivate connections with brokers and agents, and then pull the trigger as the economy is returning to its former strange robustness.

(I really don't advise murdering your neighbors. That's just an example intended to catch the attention of readers whose minds may have wandered.)

This is about peace of mind. If you decide to sell now, then you can set about doing it. It may not be the smartest thing from a business perspective, but it may nonetheless be the right thing for you to do. It depends on how miserable you are. Can you quantify your pain level? (When I was recovering from surgery last year, nurses used to ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10, what would you say your pain level is right now?" It was strangely useful to quantify my pain level.)

Which brings us to this: If you decide to live there for the next four years, what can you do to make it bearable? Is there any chance that you could develop cordial relations with your neighbors, by keeping the business issues to a minimum?

One thing that happens in such situations is you never get to know the folks as people. You start right in with the problems. So there's never a basis for cordial friendship. Everybody's tense and defensive from the start. It can go on forever like that. So give some thought to it: Could it be possible, if you decide to stay, to cultivate warm, relaxed, human relations with these people, to forget that important business matters are facing you, to just relax and try to enjoy each other's company?

No? I didn't think so. OK.

I'm just asking.

Having neighbors yell at you really is a special kind of hell. So to go a little deeper, you get to inquire of yourself, What is my tolerance for such things? You get to ask the deep questions: Can I live with them in peace? Or must I move?

Make a decision.

This is what I suggest. Otherwise you are in a frustrating loop. Things are OK, then they yell again and you decide to move, then things calm down and you say no, things are OK, then they yell and you freak out again and your skin prickles and you can't sleep or catch a deep breath and this goes on for years and is indeed a very special hell.

It is a hell I do not wish upon you. I wish for you only a serene and peaceful existence. So make a decision and work toward it. Begin today.

p.s. Seriously: Do not murder your neighbors and burn the place down.

p.p.s. Because I am only an amateur and not trained in the intricacies of real estate or law: Please contact relevant professionals and give them lots of your money so they don't feel bad about being left out. Otherwise they will write to me and say blah blah blah why didn't you suggest this and that and sign the letter with names that end in Ph.D., M.D., M.S.W., L.L.D., Esq., M.P.H, and so on. Not that I don't love my friends in the professional worlds. I'm just saying. If I don't mention them they will be hurt.  It's good to get the professionals involved. If you knew me better, you'd really get why I'm saying that. -- ct

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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