As you can imagine, we live in a very sought-after neighborhood. Our neighbor is quite elderly. We are concerned that when our neighbor dies, the property will be sold to someone who wants to either expand the house or demolish it and replace it with another. Either scenario could spoil our view.
We would like to buy the portion of the neighbor’s lot that frames our view. How should we proceed?
A: Longtime readers of our column know that we’re big believers in the power of being good neighbors.
To us, that means helping out your neighbors whenever you can. We’ve become close with several of our neighbors over the years, but not to the same degree. For example, we’ve vacationed with one family; and although they no longer live next door, we still meet most Sundays for family dinner. With our current neighbors, we pick up papers for each other if someone goes out of town, keep an eye out for their young children who are out and about, and occasionally throw a bone (literally) to their dog.
But not everyone is lucky enough to live next to kind, helpful people. Which brings us to your elderly neighbor: What kind of relationship have you had with them since you moved into your beautiful neighborhood? Do you bring over the occasional treat? Stop to visit if you pass by and they’re sitting on the porch? Do you know their children and grandchildren from decades of visits? Do they participate in neighborhood activities?
Or, have you never, ever, had a single conversation?
If you have a warm relationship with your neighbor, the thing to do is walk over with a plate of something sweet and homemade and strike up a conversation about how lovely your neighborhood is, and how much you love living there.
With that table set, you can start to ask questions to elicit your neighbor’s feelings about the property and the bucolic landscape. Ask your neighbor about their favorite parts of the neighborhood. Is there anything they miss about it (if there was a change)? Will they stay in the neighborhood long term or, if they have family elsewhere, will they spend more time away?
You should have some helpful insights at this point in the conversation about what your neighbor likes and perhaps dislikes about the neighborhood, and whether they’ll stay or go. They might ask you, “Why do you ask?” To which you can honestly reply, “I see us living here forever, and I’d love to make sure things stay the way they are.”
Your neighbor might ask what you propose and at that point, perhaps you talk about buying their property at some point in the future, whenever they’re ready to get rid of it. And, you might say, “If you’d be willing to sell sooner rather than later, we’d be happy to rent it back to you for as long as you care to live there.”
Your neighbor may not want to move before they pass, because that is a big undertaking. But they may have an interest in accessing additional cash, either to ease any cash flow issues or to give money to family members while they’re still alive to see how the family uses it.
But you have to handle it sensitively, because you don’t want your neighbor to feel as though you’re pushing them into the grave before their time. So, reassure your neighbor that you love having them as a neighbor, you love the way the neighborhood looks and lives, and you’d just like to keep it the way it is today.
Your neighbor may tell you to buzz off. They may say, “Talk to my kids after I’m dead.” Or they may listen and nod and think about it for a few days or weeks. If that’s the case, check in with them from time to time. If they say, “What will that look like?” you should be prepared to tell them a process by which you would come up with a price for a slice of the yard, or the whole property, if local zoning ordinances won’t allow you to carve up the lot the way you’ve imagined.
At the end of the day, you can either ask now or wait until later, after your neighbor passes away. But, as you point out, then there will be other interests that come into play. Be sure to let us know how the conversation goes.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (Fourth Edition). She is also the chief executive of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, bestmoneymoves.com.
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