Summer House Sanity

by Ken Huggins, Ed.D.

"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, divorce and remarriage, etc. 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.

Formalizing the Arrangement

Although an informal agreement around issues such as those listed above usually does evolve in a family over time, a formal agreement that has been negotiated and approved by all parties is more likely to help everyone in the family continue to enjoy their summer retreat. My workbook for families, How To Pass It On: The Ownership and Use of Summer Houses (Pocomo Press, 1999), describes in some detail how to do this.

Here are a few steps you can take to begin the process:

  • Complete the list of questions above and write down your understanding of current practices. Then circulate the list and solicit responses from other family members. Be sure to solicit responses from all the family, including children as young as ten.

  • Identify points of agreement and disagreement. Where there is disagreement, list all responses and begin the process of dialogue. Phone calls, e-mail, circulation of drafts of position papers, etc. will be necessary. A family meeting may be helpful, but it may also be difficult to organize and it won't be enough to complete the process.

  • In all the negotiating, tact and sensitivity are of paramount importance. by the end of this process, you should have multiple scars on your tongue. It is important that you model appropriate behavior. Existing tensions and conflicts (e.g., "You always got your way and I'm sick of it!") should be kept out of the process as much as possible. If you have a large extended family, particularly a family of three or more generations, enlist the help of two or three other members, preferably from different generations, in organizing and conducting the negotiation.

  • In certain areas regarding ownership and inheritance, legal help may be necessary. If it is, decide what your policies are to be and hire the lawyer just to make them legal. You don't need to pay his or her hourly fee to do the negotiating for you. It would be wise to hire a lawyer in the area where your summer house is located, even if his or her practice is small. The knowledge of local laws and customs will be more important than high-powered corporate talent.

  • Consider the possibility of incorporating your property or creating a legal association. Though time-consuming and possibly costly, there are a number of advantages to doing this, including protection from liability suits and ruinous inheritance taxes.

  • Recognize that the process is likely to take a minimum of two to three years. Just remember that your informal operating agreement evolved over many years, even generations, so try to be patient and counsel patience to your family members. Being deliberate in the process will reduce the risk of oversight or poor resolution of an issue.

It's a tough process but certainly worth it. Finding ways to make the use and maintenance of the family summer home clear and cooperative ensures that your own children and their cousins will have the same happy memories of family fun and togetherness that your own generation of family enjoys.

Date published: 7/3/01
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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