Townhome concerns…

A prior post talks about shared driveways in old Seattle neighborhoods and another post within the post talks about parking issues with townhomes. I’m waiting for the first lawsuits and haggling to start over these townhomes in the Seattle area that are “zero-lot line”. While I show them to clients as house and condo alternatives I do point out the issues with not having a home owner’s association with reserves. What happens in several years when the whole building needs painting or a new roof and only you have saved money for a rainy day and your other neighbor spends like there’s no tomorrow so he/she has no savings to help pay?

Who’s responsible if a leak starts on your neighbor’s section of the roof but the water travels and penetrates into the structure on your side?

What are the appropriate measures to take to handle complaints such as the parking issue? If there is an easement for each property owner to all the other owners and the easement states that blocking the shared space is not allowed to whom does the aggrieved party complain and what is the possible restitution to that person if the offending party doesn’t quit blocking the shared space?

Another scenario: What if your neighbor decides to paint their part of the building bright purple? Or perhaps they never paint at all and bring down the resale value of your home when you try to sell?

While these types of housing have been decent middle ground options for home buyers that can’t afford some of the single family homes, particularly new construction in the city, and provide an alternative to condo living there are some serious questions and concerns that most buyers haven’t considered. I’m just waiting for the rash of lawsuits that will likely happen when these properties are around their 10th and 20th years of age and they’re in need of major upkeep. My guess is that aggrieved neighbor will sue offending neighbor but maybe there will be a different kind of backlash. Anyone out there in RCG-land got any ideas or thoughts on the subject?

19 thoughts on “Townhome concerns…

  1. I’m from the City of Philadelphia where people managed to live in attached “rowhomes” for over a hundred years without suing each other. But then that was the City of Brotherly Love Many, if not most, of the housing there is attached single family dwellings. Sometimes a whole string of 25 on each side with a break here and there called “a breezeway”. And for the upper middle class…two attached and then a break, then two more and so on…called twins. If the end only allowed for one twin…it was called a twingle family home 🙂

    As long as people realize that they own their home and are responsible for the repairs, there shouldn’t be any problem. The roofs tend to go about the same time, so coordinating new roof with the neighbors doesn’t really put anyone out. It’s not like an old roof is affecting a new roof. Usually all of the owners get a new roof at the same time. They get a better deal from the roofer that way.

    Other components are not as “neighbor dependent” as the roof.

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  3. Thanks for your insights into the townhome issue. I’ve been wondering about that myself. Currently I live in a condo development that is a mixture of condos & townhomes with a homeowner’s association with reserves that has about 35 units. I’ve always wondered about smaller townhome developments and whether they’d have reserves or not?

    Definitely something to consider the next time I’m in the market.

  4. Greettings,

    I purchased one of the first ‘zero-lot-line’ townhomes in Ballard, in the ’90s.

    Neighbors came and went, but the one thing that I noticed is they were not the sort of people that had the foresight to save for future maintenance (i.e. roof, paint, etc)

    As the place approached 8 years old, I realized that the prospect of dealing with these people terrified me and I got out. Luckily, my setup did not have that alley/breezeway, so parking was not a concern, but I think you are a VERY wise to point out the zero-reserve issue.

    Ardell, I think that the Philly townhomes survived the 20th century becuause people actually were responsible with money then. Virtually all my neighbors in the townhome were full-throttle, paycheck-to-paycheck, plasma TV-BMW-Eat at Volterra Every Week types. Ballard has certainly changed! I rent now, and will buy again someday, but I do sleep well at night.

    On a plus-side they are nice in that you don’t have neighbors above or below. That does cut down on sound transmission.

  5. There are SF attached townhomes out there with homeowner’s associations. I just sold my own like this and we had the front yards and exteriors of the buildings maintained by the HOA. However, back yard landscaping and insurance was up to the homeowner. If there is a leak from one house to the other, the offending owner pays. Ardell, don’t you think the old days are gone when people worked things out. Our society is so quick to use lawsuits now to settle anything (hot coffee from MacDonalds? Give me a break) that I don’t think we can assume neighbors will just ‘settle it’ between themselves. I’m suprised that builders are allowed to build over 2 units with CC&R’s and a budget.

  6. In the early days of townhome development “joint maintenance agreements” were used as guidelines for adjoining owners. Most builders have replaced JM’s with Covenants that clarify how to work together on commn issues such as roof, siding and exterior paint. These covenants are reviewed and approved (also recorded) by buyers prior to closing. Covenants run with the land and should go a long way in addressing future conflicts that are bound to arise in 15 or so years. New speciality for Craig? In my mind the townhome phenomenon is a combination of efficient market forces and municipal intervention desiring density. You’ll find fans and critics. Most are really well built with green matertials and an eye to correcting the mistakes of the past (poor siding materials, insufficient surface water management, lousy interior design, flat looking boxes with no modulation). They will certainly create parking problems and some developments are just plain ugly (think bad cottage housing in Shoreline) but the buying market has spoken. High end finishes and “small yard” is coveted by gen X’ers, no kidders, and 2nd home in city’ers. Where would entry level housing prices be without townhomes and condo conversions?

  7. In the end, it’s just a single family home with a closer neighbor. What do you do in a single family home if the next door neighbor’s yard is full of junk and he doesn’t paint his house and keeps patching his roof with different colored shingles or paints it bright purple? What do you do when his fence is rotting and ugly?

    Single family home ownership, just doesn’t give you a lot of control over what your neighbor does or doesn’t do. Just a fact of life.

    I laugh everytime I go to a Kirkland meeting where the powers that be are pulling their hair out trying to figure out a way to get “more affordable housing”, and in the next breath say “no party walls”. One day the light bulb will go on and they will “get” that townhome option is the answer. It can’t all be single family on full lot OR apartment style condo. The townhome is the affordable missing link.

  8. When the neighbor’s house needs a roof, it does not cause a puddle in your bedroom. That is the difference and that is why a townhome without reserve fund is a very bad idea. It is a shame it comes down to that, but we are a country with a negative savings rate.

  9. We could talk all day about how it would be great IF…but fact of the matter is that affordable new housing in the City of Seattle comes with an attached roof and no HOA or monthly dues collected for reserves.

    Have an offer in on one now which is a group of four, two on each side. At least there is only one attached neighbor. I did tell them all the pros and cons, including sometimes one owner has the money to do the roof and does both at the same time. The neighbor pays what he can, and makes payments to his neighbor for the balance. A lien for the balance is attached to the property so that if it is sold, the roof is paid off at closing.

    There’s nothing a Court can do that the neighbors can’t work out for themselves.

    My world is full of reasonable and rational people. When the neighbor’s roof leaks into your house, it us usually a homeowner’s insurance claim. There is no way to eliminate any and all risk of homeownership…even those which HOA dues often have unforseen events and special assessments.

    Whether you own a single family home or a townhome or a condo, one day it needs a roof, and you have to deal with that.

  10. Ardell,

    I may be missing the boat, but it seems to me you may oversimplifying a bit. Owning a SFH and a townhome are definitely different. If my neighbor doesn’t paint her house/scatters car parts on her lawn/lets her fence rot, it may affect my resale value but does not affect the physical integrity of my home (like a leak from a neighboring townhome could) – something much more urgent and immediate in my mind. You saying that your “world is full of reasonable and rational people” reflects the reality you’ve created for yourself – but sadly this reality is not universal. As was mentioned above, we live in a hyper-litigious society where most seem happier hiring a lawyer than talking to their neighbor. Though I think you’ve hit the mark by saying affordable housing in Seattle is now limited to the attached roof/no HOA model, expecting “neighbors to be neighbors” and to work things out may be a bit of a stretch. I guess educating our clients about the potential pitfalls is really the only thing we can do.

  11. Well then, only nice rational non-litigious people should buy them 🙂 If you can’t get along with one neighbor that’s attached to you, that’s pretty bad.

    I grew up in an attached house and nothing that happened in the neighbor’s house ever bothered us or vice versa. When I managed townhomes and condos, we had more problems with the stacked condos than the townhomes.

    And single family homes have neighbor disputes likely just as often, which isn’t every day. Trees uplifting a neighbors fence, somone expanding the paved patio area and creating water runoff wet basement next door. My experience says the issues are about equal.

    People who want to run to a lawyer to sue the neighbor live in all kinds of homes. As in “Their bushes are getting so tall that they are now blocking my view” for instance. Now THAT can be a multi-thousand dollar problem with no resolution available.

    We can’t eliminate risk in real estate, just help minimize it and manage it.

  12. “I’m from the City of Philadelphia where people managed to live in attached “rowhomes”

    I now live in a rowhome but my next door neighbor (another Philly native) cringes everytime I refer to it as such. Del Mar snob!

    Sorry to go off topic but I thought Ardell would enjoy the humor

  13. Speaking of Del Mar and it’s “Craftsman Style” Library, I never heard the word Craftsman until I moved to Seattle. Everything is a “Craftsman” here, even Dutch Colonials, Colonials, Cape Cods…why do they call them all “Craftsmen Style”? Seems to be one big “catch all” phrase.

  14. The main topic article states specific question “what do you do if no HOA exists and their are conflicts regarding repair and maintenance of an ajoining structure. If I can address getting this article back on track, I woul like to know what you do when two semi-detached dwelling owners have to contend with a roof leak. Particularly if the leak is on one side causing damage to the other property owner. Such is my case in Virginia. I have been strugling for over one nad one-half years now to get my niehgbor to give access to his premises in order to repair the roof. Forget who pays for it right now, I am willing ot do the work and fix the leak and stop continuing damage. The city Code Enforcement has a loop hole and tells me the owner can resist entry to his premises. I cant prove the leak is coming from the nieghbors side since I cannot be awarded access. My only resolve is to sue for damages. I am wondering why cities even HAVE ordinances if they cannot be enforced due to bureaucracy. I dont need to spend money on legal fees and not be able to collect; simply I want the leak to stop. I welcome any insight on thsi matter.

  15. Chuck, your situation may need involvement of an attorney in your area that is familiar with local real estate laws and city ordinances. However, perhaps there is a new approach to speak with the neighbor? How is it that you’ve been asking for the access? Is there a struggle in communication between the two of you for other reasons or has hostility removed any option of working this out? I wish you luck in your situation.

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  18. I have lived in a Philly suburb for 40+ years and now visit Seattle regularly, and rowhomes in Philly are very different from these new townhome complexes in Seattle. About the only common element in Philly is the common wall. There is typically no parking – it is on-street, first come first serve, no driveway, etc. No shared landscaping. Each one fronts directly on the street. Many of the houses are over 100 years old, and over time the various houses in a row have developed very unique appearances – different colors, different materials, some with 3rd fl additions, some with bowed windows, some remodeled in a very modern aesthetic, some still very “colonial” looking. In no way do they form a “complex.” If you don’t like the over-all effect this produces, you don’t buy in that neighborhood. If you do buy in a neighborhood like that, you are buying a unique individual house. If there is another house half-way down the street that has fallen into disrepair, it won’t affect the value of your house, as long as the neighborhood in general is good. In Seattle, part of the marketing of the townhomes is the cohesive “look” of the complex – and there is lots of common landscaping – not just plantings, but railings, fences, exterior walkways; there is shared parking, as well as complementary exterior paint colors, etc. With no HOA to maintain all that, it seems unlikely that it will continue to look the same over time. But what will it look like? And can one unit in a complex maintain its value even if parts of the complex are in disrepair, or poorly remodeled? I think that is a big unknown. That uncertainty should be reflected in the prices of these units, and I don’t think it is.

    • Hi Jane,

      Sorry your comment was stuck in pending for so long. That should only happen on a first time comment and I was surprised to see so many comments trapped in the unposted bin today. Sincere apologies.

      The “Seattle” townhomes that have no dues are almost never in “a complex”. Those that are in “a complex” do have regular dues. More often the Seattle townhomes are in groups of 8 or so and designated as single family with no dues.

      As to Philly area, many if not most of the row homes built in the 40’s and later do have a garage on the back and an alley behind. This is common in Northeast Philly and parts of Delaware County and many other areas. The house I grew up in was much older and had no parking, but the bottom level was also a storefront on a street with ample parking.

      Thanks for the comment! and again sorry for the delay in it posting. That should not happen again as it is only a “first time commenter” bin.

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