“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens began his famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with those immortal words. But what better way to describe the experiences many of us have had with family summer houses!
The Best of Times
Whether a beach house on Cape Cod, a fishing camp in the Wisconsin woods, or a cabin on a Louisiana creek, summer houses evoke memories of vacations, relaxation, and close family times. For those of us whose families are lucky enough to have such a retreat, they are places where we grew up, where family members laughed and loved and where we had the fun of getting close to extended family. People often have fonder and clearer memories of times at summer houses than at their year-round homes.
The Worst of Times
And yet, as we get older and start to take responsibility for the ownership, maintenance, and use of the family summer house, we may find ourselves in painful and ugly conflicts with parents, offspring, siblings, and cousins. Issues such as who gets to use the place over the July 4th weekend or how to pay for a new roof can cause major rifts as they highlight family members’ differences in values or financial means or rekindle old hurts and rivalries. It is just because we have so much emotion and sentiment invested in our summer houses that these conflicts sometimes turn bitter, in extreme cases severing family ties and, in other cases, causing ongoing tension and disagreements.
Difficulties with summer houses may exist between the “founders,” usually a married couple, and their children. However, problems are far more likely to crop up among the children of the founders, and particularly with their children — the third-generation cousins. At this point, there may be more households who want a summer “slot” than can easily be accommodated. The family may now include individuals who don’t know each other as well or have as much commitment to the family at-large. Some branches of the family may have complicating factors, such as geographical distance, disparity in income, or divorce and remarriage. Deciding how to make fair use of the summer house can become a tough task indeed.
Many Questions Must Be Answered
Among the questions that extended families must address are the following:
- How is it decided who will get which summer slots?
- At what point does an individual get a slot of his or her own instead of sharing with parents?
- Who opens and closes the place, and if they are family, do they get a longer slot?
- Will there be a user fee, and if so, how much?
- How are taxes and maintenance to be handled?
- Who should handle the various legal and financial responsibilities?
- Who decides when a capital improvement or addition is necessary?
- How will such an improvement or addition be paid for?
- Who decides when those ugly living room drapes should be replaced and who chooses the new ones?
- When the refrigerator suddenly fails while the place is in use, how will its replacement be handled?
- What policies should there be regarding pets and smoking?
- What steps should be taken to protect the environment?
If you are someone who uses a summer house, I’m sure you can add a large number of other questions to this list. When you do make a complete list of the concerns of everyone involved, it becomes evident that participating in owning and using a summer house cannot be done effectively by flying by the seat of the collective family pants.