Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Never Live on a Private Road!
As I noted in my blog entry Never Buy a Condo! the idea of group ownership of any asset is inherently flawed, which is probably one reason Communism and Socialism never work very well. Personal interest works as a much better economic force than group interest.
Private roads might sound real cool at first. But in reality, they end up being an annoying pain in the ass.
What is a Private Road? By this term, I don't mean your driveway or other roadway that a single family owns. Those are merely driveways. What I mean is a roadway that is not owned by the government, but is shared by a number of families and owned as a group. In Central New York, and many other rural areas, such roads are common, as the State and County roads often don't extend far enough for you to reach your property.
There are hundreds of such roads in our county, each with its own bickering road association.
As a result, you end up living on this half-assed unpaved nightmare that no one wants to pay to fix up. And that is just the half of it!
There are a number of inherent problems with private roads, which are just part and parcel of the whole deal:
1. Strangers on the Road: The first problem everyone seems to have is with strangers using the road. While we don't spend much time trying to figure out who is using the State highway, for some reason, people on our road are obsessed with strangers on the road. "Did you see that red car the other day? Who was that?" people say. Strange cars are a common topic of conversation. Keeping strangers out, with signs, gates, and other devices, becomes a major issue for some reason. Of course, half the time the "strangers" are visiting friends on the road or just people who are lost. They are hardly damaging the road or doing anyone harm. But for some reason, some folks have a hard time with this and obsess over the "strangers using OUR ROAD" issue.
2. Slow Down! More than one neighbor has nearly brought themselves to nervous breakdown trying to enforce speed limits on the road. One neighbor admitted that she used to chase people down the road, shaking her fist at them. It was very stressful for her, and they ended up moving as a result. On another private road, a neighbor took to spraying passing cars with his garden hose, and then getting into fisticuffs with angry drivers (particularly those with their windows down). Why is there this urge to enforce the speed limit on a private road that does not exist for people living on public roads? I lived on a county road for 20 years and although some folks drove fast down it, I never ran out and shook my fist at them. Some folks argue that because of children playing or the presence of pets, people should slow down. But frankly, if you have children or pets, they should be kept out of the road, period (why is playing on a half-assed unpaved gravel road such an enticement to a child?). And the likelihood of someone hitting your child or pet is not that much greater at 30 mph as it is at 10 mph.
3. Repairs: Like a condo, no one wants to actually pay anything in terms of dues, but they all want the road paved like a four-lane highway. Most of these private roads were created by developers or farmers selling off land, and they were reluctant to do anything other than throw gravel over an old cow path. And as different owners have different needs, some don't want much done in the way of repair. The weekend or vacation owner doesn't want to spend the money, while the full-timer might want the road fixed. Since dues are kept artificially low (as in a Condo) there is never enough money in the till (or any reserves) to "do the job right" - just enough to keep it patched together for another year or so.
4. Love thy Neighbor: Some folks claim that in the city, living in an apartment is isolating, as "you never get to know your neighbors". Actually, this is a good thing, trust me. Familiarity breeds contempt, in a big way! I've never heard anything nice said by any neighbors on private roads about the other neighbors. On the contrary, they all say the nastiest things about one another - with no exception - and try to bait you into getting into a bitch fest as well. The nice thing about living on a public road, is that you can have less contact with your neighbors, if you want to.
5. It's the Other Guy's Fault! Along the lines of #4 above, another aspect of this communal road ownership is the tendency of owners to blame each other for road problems. It's always someone else who is using the road too much, or driving too fast, or doing something bad. And road association meetings quickly turn into ugly spectacles, as one or more owners are hung out to dry by the group, as they air their petty "grievances" - and petty they are, too! I've seen people brought to tears as they were picked on by groups like this.
6. Getting Someone to Fix the Road: Assuming you can get a dozen people with different agendas and different interests to stop hating each other for more than ten minutes, maybe you can vote to get some of the larger potholes (the ones that swallow small cars) fixed. Good luck with that, because as in a Condo, no one is out there chomping at the bit to do the work. The government and industry pay top dollar to paving companies, so the paving companies want to get those contracts first. Private owners who have the money to pay (and the sole responsibility to pay) are second. Bickering road associations? Dead last. They want a ton of work done, of course, but don't want to pay bubkis. And since the road has been neglected for years and years, there is little the paving company can do, on the limited budget presented, to get anything done. So whatever they do, they will get an angry phone call later on, when it all washes away after the first winter.
7. Poorly Written Road Association Contracts: Someone who searched for this posting also turned up this link which illustrates other problems with private roads.
First, there is the half-assed legal agreements that are poorly drafted, often unfair, and inconsistent, giving each owner different rights than the other. These agreements fester like old wounds and later erupt as infested boils that need to be lanced, at best, or amputated, at worst.
The best road agreements put everyone on an equal footing - in terms of dues and responsibilities and legal rights (including voting). But few are done this way, as often the person drafting the road agreement is the original owner of the property who either wants to maintain control, or wants an agreement that favors him.
When a road association agreement provides different classes of owners, users, and voters, watch out! Because all sorts of trouble can ensue. For example, if some owners have more voting rights (by virtue of owning more land, or whatever) a few of them can band together and outvote everyone else on the road.
8. Unevenly Enforced Road Association Contracts: As a corollary to this effect, is when one owner demands that his dues be dropped for various reasons. For example, an absentee owner says "Well, I only come up there once a year, why should I pay the same as someone who lives there?" Or another fellow who owns three lots wants to pay one fee for all three lots.
And stupidly, the road association goes along with this - decreasing their revenue and income, which results in dues increases for everyone else. Road dues - like condo fees - should be assessed rationally and evenly, not based on "usage" - which is a nebulous thing to measure. But like Condo associations, Road associations are amateur-run and often the people in the association fail to see they are shooting themselves in the foot by lowering one person's dues.
Or alternately, they lower the dues of someone they like, but raise the dues (or fail to similarly lower them) for someone they personally dislike. Such tactics can quickly escalate into legal matters if handled improperly.
Thus, for example, on one road association, a person who is popular gets their dues reduced because they "hardly use the road" and have enough friends to pass that on a vote. Another member, who does not attend meetings is stigmatized and ostracized and has their rates raised. It is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and as a member of the road association - guess what? You will be an unwilling party to such a suit - even if you voted against these sweetheart deals or tried to warn them.
As I noted in another posting, I saw firsthand how a Homeowner's Association was successfully sued by one member, when other members set out to ostracize and marginalize him. Rather than take the owner to task using standard legal means to enforce covenants, they decided it would be better to slander him at meetings and then libel him in the HOA newsletter. Pretty dumb, but that's the sort of thinking the busybodies on these association boards have, most of the time.
UPDATE: Note also that enforcing a road association contract can be difficult. If someone refuses to pay their dues, it may be costly to take them to court and try to attach a lien to their property. Depending on how the properties are deeded and how the agreement is deeded, it may be impossible to collect!
We lived on not one, but two private roads a the same time. One had a "voluntary road association" as each property (in a string of about 200) had an easement across the adjoining properties. The fellow at the end had 200 people crossing his land. Sweet deal, but since the road association was voluntary there was no way to force everyone to pay for paving this road.
The other association had mandatory dues, but many homeowners tried to avoid recording the covenants with the deeds or claimed they didn't owe dues, or owed less than the amount due. The bottom line was it would be costly and difficult to collect. Never live on a private road, period.
9. Snow Plowing and A La Carte Maintenance: In the link above, the issue of snow plowing was mentioned, which is also problematic. If the road is seasonally used, expect the non-seasonal users to balk at paying for snow plowing. They want road maintenance a la carte, and only want to pay for "what they use". These same owners balk at paying for any maintenance, but also complain the loudest when their car hits a pothole the one week a year they use their unimproved property.
Like with a Condo, you can't portion off maintenance based on "use" as it becomes a slippery slope in short order. If you have to set fixed rules and live by them. But since these road associations are small, one or two loudmouthed cheapskates try to browbeat everyone else into giving them a discount. And it really puts a buzz-kill on living on the road.
10. Lawn Mowing: A road is more than a road, of course. There usually is a shoulder that needs to be mowed. Do you pay someone to do this? Most Associations cannot afford the expense. So each owner mows his "section" near his property. Or most do, anyway. What about absentee owners? Well, since they aren't around, they don't mow their part, and someone else has to pick up the slack - usually the "full time" owners who end up paying more in dues (remember, the absentee guy browbeat everyone into lowering his dues because he "doesn't use the road" - he doesn't maintain it, either!).
So if you live on such a road, you will end up doing more than your fair share of free road maintenance, and also paying the highest amount of dues as well. And the guy who is never there will pay the least and also do no work - and complain about what a raw deal he is getting.
The net result? You can't win, so don't play. If you are looking at a property on a private road, consider all of these hassles and if a property exists on a public road, consider that instead.
Yes, these issues can be managed. But all it takes is one loudmouthed cheapskate to really ruin everything for the rest of the owners - turning every meeting into a shouting match of bad feelings and hostility.
* * *
These are just a number of the problems you will run into with these private roads. And as I noted before, they seem to be endemic to ALL of them, without exception. The notion of the happy road-owners association, cheerfully ponying up the dough to have the road properly maintained, and living together in peace and harmony, is, well, largely a fiction.
When we looked for lake property five years ago, we turned away one property, because it was on a public road, which was between the house and the lake (the property extended on both sides of the public road, with dock on the lake side and a house on the other). As it turned out, the road is lightly traveled, and the fear we had (of too much traffic) was unfounded. And moreover, since the State paves the road, there would be no road association to deal with.
If given the choice again, I think we would have chosen the property on the State road, and been done with it.
We have our own private driveway, of course, connected to the private road, and paid nearly $10,000 to have it properly excavated, paved (in two layers) and sealed annually. It was a process that took years, but we have a durable "road" into our home. One would ask, why not do the same with the private road? Tale $5000 or $10,000 per year, and completely pave (properly) one section at a time? But that never happens. Instead, we stone and oil as much as possible, which barely keeps up with the erosion.
The solution, of course, would be to spend more money to properly fix the road. If each person kicked in ten grand, the entire road could be properly paved. But that is never going to happen, of course, as some owners want their dues as low as possible. As with a condo, low dues means higher resale prices. Although resale value can be negatively affected by poor road maintenance.
We have been down a number of these roads in Central New York, on both Seneca and Cayuga lakes. And in each case, the story is the same - poorly maintained cow tracks, angry residents warily watching for "strangers on the road" and stories of neighbor pitted against neighbor with regard to use and maintenance of the road.
Some of these folks seem to actually get off on this. One neighbor, on another road, will bend your ear for hours about the people who live on the road and how much he hates them. And funny thing is, too, he created the road and sold off the lots to these neighbors.
People, particularly in Central New York, seem to want to have something to bitch about constantly - an unsolvable problem that can never be resolved, but just exist as a festering sore in their minds. They like this, I guess, as a constant companion.
Of course, the problem can be solved in a very simple way - sell out and leave. And.....
Never Live on a Private Road!