Squatters' Rights

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 24, 2005

I'm writing this from my country house in Middleburg. It's a grand antebellum farmhouse parked on a hill with views of the Blue Ridge and cow pastures and a big field where the horsey people canter around. There is no sound of traffic, little human noise, just the birdsong, the buzzing of bees and the ticking of the grandfather clock. The only problem with my country house in Middleburg is that I am, technically, a trespasser. I possess a status in the farmhouse that is just slightly above that of "burglar."

I know where the key is hidden, and I usually bother to mention to the absentee owners that I am going to drop by the place. Today when I informed the owner, my friend Angus, that I was coming out, he asked me to drag a hose to the swimming pool and add some water. Naturally I responded, "What am I, your slave?"

Like anyone with an ounce of sense, I know that, when it comes to second homes and boats, it is best to let one's friends do the actual owning. That way you save a staggering sum in maintenance and capital improvement costs. My friends Mit and Kyle have this river place. They had to completely gut it, rebuild it from scratch, put in new plumbing and air conditioning and whatnot, and as I surveyed the reconstruction, I voiced the two most urgent questions:

Which room will be mine?

Will you have cable?

Right now I have frequent freeloader accounts in Middleburg, at the river house and at a beach house in Delaware that the owners insist on using themselves to a distressing degree.

In fairness to them, I did say, when they bought the place, "Feel free to use it anytime." But they seem to have taken that to an extreme and have booked most of the prime summer weekends. Clearly we all need to sit down around a calendar and have a frank discussion. (I admit, I sometimes freeload to boost the numbers on my frequent-freeloader accounts. I am hoping to reach the milestone where you're entitled to a free week of freeloading at any second home in the continental United States.)

It's not easy, being a freeloader. First, all homes are quirky places that bear the seeds of their own destruction. They are time bombs. They have odd valves and pipes and heaters and pumps, and if you don't throw a certain switch in the right way, a septic tank could explode. When you freeload you have to make sure to avoid burning down the place the way Kramer burned down the cabin owned by the father of George Costanza's girlfriend in "Seinfeld," the one with the hidden love letters from John Cheever.

Most importantly, you must make a big show of how much fun you're having. You have to use the bikes, the sailboats, the huge gas grill, and visit all the local bars and colorful roadside attractions that the owners would have visited if they weren't working on legal briefs until midnight. People with vacation homes feel guilty that they don't use them enough, and thus the freeloader is the surrogate vacationer. The freeloader's motto is: I vacation so you don't have to.

The Second Home Conundrum is well established: The only people with money for a second home are those who can't possibly have the time for it. For example, there are the very, very Old Money elite, but they always have a third home, a mansion that is usually referred to as a "cottage"; plus invitations to visit their fancy friends in their cottages, plus vacations to Greece and to various plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills.

There are also New Money people who actually work for a living, and who, during brief windows of opportunity, suddenly buy a second home as part of a fantasy that someday they'll be people of leisure. It's like some people buying a tremendously fat book of classic literature, thinking they'll read it and become part of the literati, only to watch it transformed before their eyes into this hunk of paper, this bolus of ink-stained pulp, no more readable than a tree stump. In America we think the first step toward personal improvement is a savvy purchase.

The sad truth is, Americans tend to be homebodies and thus aren't very competitive on a global scale when it comes to freeloading. There are cultures for which freeloading is an art form, in the same way that, if you're Dutch, everyone knows how to plug a hole in a dike. The most accomplished freeloaders are the British. If you have any British friends, you know they will regularly call up and ask if they can come stay at your place for two weeks. This is because they still think the world is full of their colonies.

The sun never sets on a freeloading Brit. And that is not a criticism. That's high praise. I speak their language.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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