We have come to a cabin crossroads far earlier than I had anticipated. While I had always thought our kids would take over our 50 percent share in the summer-only lake property we’ve held with another family for more than 30 years, the realistic chances of that happening become more remote as the years whip by.
I originally bought the place because of my own waterfront memories and because it (our place is rustic; think indoor camping) required very little money as a down payment. My father rented a cabin on a mountain lake each year and those days turned out to be the fondest memories of my youth. The idea was to allow our children to share terrific experiences, and then, hopefully, their children as well.
So, with Father’s Day just around the corner, and since I signed the deal to buy the cabin years ago on Father’s Day, I’m going to shoot a little prayer to my dad to help point me in the right direction regarding the family getaway.
Here’s the deal: Our partners would like to sell and have wanted to for several years. They’d rather take the time and money required for maintenance and travel to be with family. We can’t afford to buy their share nor would the limited time we spend at the lake justify further investment.
Our four children have grown and gone. Only one is married and lives in the immediate area (the cabin is 90 minutes away). Two are overseas. There are no known prospects for grandchildren, so I would be older and grayer by the time I could teach a grandchild how to fish or water ski.
All our kids have jobs and other responsibilities and rarely make it home for the prime weeks at the lake. When they do, of course, they expect gas in the boat and beer in the refrigerator. While they would welcome the chance to continue as drop-in summer visitors, they also recognize we have no similar financial asset and that the cabin continues as an underused luxury. Its equity could definitely be used elsewhere and supplement our rather meager individual retirement accounts.
We have considered the possibility of finding another partner, but selfishly fear the arrangement would never run as smoothly as the present one. We usually have a dinner meeting once a year, split up the weeks and maintenance chores, and also reserve some time where both couples could be together at the lake.
Would a new partner take the time to screen guests who use the cabin during "their" weeks? If a potential renter surfaced and offered big bucks for a key summer week, how would that cash be distributed? Is there any realistic way of curtailing all-night parties and annoying music when somebody else has the same ownership stake as we do? Who is to say what is reasonable?
In their book, "Saving the Family Cottage," attorneys David Fry and Stuart Hollander suggest that the ownership of a shared property be transferred to a legal entity, such as an LLC, corporation, limited partnership or an irrevocable trust. The entity provides a legal framework in which the parents or "founders" can script how the cottage is to be used, shared, sold and passed on to future generations.
We have no written framework with our present partners, mainly because all expectations are clearly known, even though rarely discussed. A written agreement, however, would provide guidelines for any new partner and make it easier to manage expectations and spell out required maintenance.
I’m feeling now that if an agreement had been in place, I’d be more willing to find/accept a new partner.
The difference between my father’s interest and mine in a summer getaway is huge: He never bought, only rented. In fact, what moved me to purchase (other than a deep belief in future appreciation) was my dad’s continual reference to not doing so.
"I could kick myself," he’d say, "for not buying the place years ago when we first began to rent it. With the amount of money we’ve paid to rent it, a good piece of it could be ours by now."
A terrific place was ours and I will miss not rowing a grandchild in the dinghy. Perhaps that could happen in a rental.