How to Keep the Peace at the Cottage
THE GLOBE AND MAIL – MANAGING – Thursday, September 9, 1999, B12
As the season draws to a close, the trials of sharing a property can trigger conflict even in business families that look to their summer place as a retreat from working tensions.
For a family in business, the summer cottage can be a safe haven. Even after a bad week or a sharp exchange of words, family members often can relax and re-connect in a familiar place that evokes simpler times.
Hard feelings can arise in a family between those who want to preserve the old place exactly as it was and those for whom additional comfort and modern esthetics are leading priorities.
To preserve that atmosphere, many business families try not to talk shop at the cottage. Winter chalets don't get the same treatment – they're considered places to take important associates to play and discuss business. As a retreat, the summer cottage often stands alone.
Yet not in all cases. As the cottage season draws to a close, family business consultants are beginning to hear those annual laments from brothers, sisters, parents and cous-ins about the trials of sharing a property.
Some examples drawn from experience:
- Four families, all related, share one large property. When one fam-ily head unveiled plans to build a fifth cottage for his three adult chil-dren, the others turned him down, saying no more trees should be cut. Instead, he built a two-bedroom addition to his own place. He is now struggling with the problems of sharing one cottage among four families.
- When the guesthouse on one property fell into disrepair, the older generation didn't want it re-built. They feared the taxes would rise.
- A grandmother owns the family cottage property. Her children's families occupy individual cot-tages, but the matriarch exerts iron-fisted control. When she interfered in one daughter-in-law's plans for a kitchen renovation, the family bought its own property nearby.
In many cases, families place a value on the cottage that to an outsider seems extreme. In one example, 32 family members who share ownership of a compound recently set a "love it or lose it" policy whereby no one can sell their share to outsiders.
Each year, they divide all taxes and costs of upkeep equally. Forfeiting one's share of maintenance results in losing ownership.
"This property is our heritage," one family member says. "It's not up for grabs for anyone else."
Sentimental attachments to a cottage often create contrasting responses in business families. A family that's at loggerheads on company matters may find a way to share the summer cottage, simply because it's held above the fray.
On the other hand, sentiment can trigger hard feelings between those who want to preserve the old place exactly as it was and those for whom additional comfort and modern esthetics are leading prior-ities.
If renovations can strain a marriage, imagine the dynamics when siblings in a power struggle at work must decide whether to expand the deck over the old horse-shoe pit.
There are other common points of conflict. Some families find it difficult to divide the limited number of weekends fairly, for instance, or getting everyone to share the tasks of maintenance and cleaning.
Distance is a problem when families spread out across the country and cannot use the cottage regularly, but are still expected to ante up their share of expenses.
Ownership can become too complex by the time the third generation inherits the cottage, leaving numerous cousins to sort out ways to share time and expenses - and make decisions that keep everyone happy.
Common sense dictates some solutions. Families that get along best know the costs involved in maintaining their property and figure out how to share them fairly.
One approach is a time-share arrangement. Each year, tally up the taxes and maintenance costs and fix a rate for each week in the summer. Families "book" their time and then pay on the basis of the weekly rate.
This method is often used in situations where there are distant family members who cannot go to the cottage as frequently as others do. It's also used by families where some or all members are concerned about the cost of upkeep.
Another way to share costs is to divide them equally. Each family submits its cheque faithfully, even if it's spending the summer in the south of France and won't use the cottage at all one year. This is clearly a solution for wealthier families - or those who normally spend every summer weekend together.
Large families can encounter difficulties inviting guests if there's no system for booking exclusive use. They also have to address who gets those choice weeks in July. If one family branch had them this year, another should get them next year.
There can be a way out of the common problem of differing interpretations of the phrase "leave the place clean for the next family:" Pay someone to come in and clean up.
Maintenance can be contracted out almost entirely, so that family members landing after a hard business week have time to enjoy the property, not just work on it.
Finally, take the time to call a cottage owners' meeting to decide what your group's attitude is toward change. Do you want the place to stay the same, or would you like to put forward a plan of gradual or wholesale renovation? If you can agree on an overall philosophy, you should be able to come to terms on specific questions down the road.
The family cottage is where everyone remembers being young - learning to swim, watching the stars, catching turtles and passing uninterrupted time with parents and siblings. Keep those memories in mind and don't get too worked up about anything.
If you and other heirs control a property, get organized now so that future generations can enjoy the legacy. Here are some tips:
- Learn how to run the operation before the elders die. They'll keep their areas of control, but the children shouldn't wait until they're gone before assuming responsibilities. Transitions should be seamless, not watersheds.
- Decide who can be a property owner. Some families keep it to blood relatives only. Some limit each generation within a family to one share, so that an only child has the same stake as cousins in a family of eight.
- Institute a decision-making proc-ess for improvements, additions and buyouts. Set a philosophy on sentimentality: How much do you want the property to change? Determine how you will resolve differences.
- Agree on how to allocate and rotate responsibilities. If chores are repeatedly left undone, hire someone to do the job.
- Establish rules for booking visits, maintaining the house and property and paying overhead and replacement costs. Decide whether you will share costs equally or on the basis of time booked.
- Keep operating records and share the information.
- Separate the cottage from business as a focus of your family heritage. Involve children in documenting stories, writing a history of the property or region, mapping trees and organizing photo albums. Make it a celebration of your family.