Sunday, August 30, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: DO WHAT I MEAN, NOT WHAT I SAY

A reader in the state of Washington planned to move to a furnished condominium in southern Florida, one owned by a friend of hers.

For several years the friend had tried to rent out the condo seasonally, but without any luck, leaving it to sit idle for at least 10 months of the year. She offered to rent it to my reader, at whatever rent she was paying for her apartment in Washington, from October through May. The arrangement was to start this October.

"She sent me an e-mail at the end of July to the effect that it was settled," my reader writes. "The place was ready and waiting for my arrival."

It seemed like an ideal arrangement. The condo owner could visit my reader occasionally, even when she didn't use the apartment herself, while my reader could rent the place at a price far below market rates. What could go wrong?

"We discussed and agreed that the rental agent needed to be told that the place was no longer available," my reader writes, "which she said she would do."

As it turns out, she never did.

The two talked almost every week, and my reader told her friend about the progress she was making in packing for Florida and planning the drive from the West Coast. She had given notice to her landlord, rented storage space and given away furniture. She even told her friend that she had lined up someone else to rent her apartment in Washington.

"Then one morning, recently, she calls me to say that something incredible happened," my reader writes.

The friend had forgotten to tell her rental agent that the apartment was unavailable, and the agent had found a couple who wanted to rent the place for the same eight months. At full price.

"My friend asked me what she should do," my reader writes. "I told her that she should go ahead with the rental, because I did not want to be the cause of a loss of the full rent."

While the friend apologized, she ultimately decided to go ahead with the new, full-price renters.

Though she had told her friend to do this, my reader is nonetheless upset and disappointed. She believes that it was wrong for her friend to ask her what to do, and blames her friend for the various complications she has to unravel, now that she's staying in Washington.

She has every right to be upset and disappointed at losing out on the apartment she had agreed to rent. Her friend obviously should have contacted the rental agent as she had promised to do.

When the other offer appeared, however, her friend was not wrong to ask my reader's opinion on what she should do. Asking for help with a tough decision is never a bad idea _ if only because it keeps ethics columnists in business.

The failure here, obviously, was on my reader's part. If she felt that her friend would be wrong to take advantage of the new opportunity, which clearly she did feel, she ought to have said so. By not saying so, and indeed by giving her friend the opposite advice, she forfeited the moral high ground here.

Her friend did her the dirty, yes, but she did it with her own permission. I can't blame the condo owner for taking her friend's advice at face value.

The right thing for my reader to do, when her friend asked, was to say that she ought to stick to the agreement they had. She might also have reminded her friend of all the preparations she had made for the move.

It would have been wrong for the friend to jump at the chance for a higher rent as soon as she heard from the rental agent. It might have been best for her to simply turn down the second offer, but I don't blame her for turning to her friend for advice. It's a pity that my reader responded with insincere advice that not only cost her her place in the sun but also put their friendship in jeopardy.

Had my reader told her friend what she really thought, she probably would have ended up spending the next eight months in that condo in Florida, instead of in high dudgeon in Washington.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

4 comments:

Shmuel said...

I disagree.

The friend should have told the rental agent that the apartment was unavailable in the first place; we agree on that much. Having failed to do so, she found herself weighing a verbal agreement with her friend against the prospect of making more money. She should have considered herself bound by the verbal agreement and apologized to the rental agent at that point.

Instead, she consulted your reader. In so doing, she implicitly made it clear that she considered the verbal agreement less than binding, and introduced an element of emotional blackmail. You're blaming the victim for putting their friendship in jeopardy, when by "asking" for advice, your reader's friend created a situation in which this was unavoidable. (Or do you really think the friendship would have been on a stronger footing had your reader put her foot down? Really?)

Bill Jacobson said...

I agree with Shmuel. Her friend put her in a worse place than she would have been without the offer. Now that the friend has backed out on the deal, she should compensate her for some of the hassles she put her through - especially now that she's getting full rent for it.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I'm the reader who wrote to you. I appreciate your assessment of the situation, but Shmuel and Jacobson have it right.
The fundamental problem was putting me on the spot to make the decision. If my friend had nipped the new rental option in the bud, then her priorities would have been with our agreement (also confirmed in writing by e-mail,) and she and I would be on the same page.
By giving me the responsibility of the outcome I was cornered: assert the agreement and ignore that she was looking for a way out of it, or back out and deal with the destabilization.
At least by letting it go there is a chance our friendship can continue, albeit with some caveats, as soon as I get back on track. I'm not going to feel like a victim here since I think that I took the best course of action under the circumstances--she has to live with her own actions as well.
My feedback to her was sincere because I genuinely saw no other option if indeed I was her friend (of 40 years+). To have insisted (as I technically could,) would have been the insincere position for me. How could I enjoy the place knowing that every time she opened a credit card bill (for example,) she would likely as not realize that she have paid more of it off except for me? This is a feasible scenario given that she already made clear her attraction to the extra money.
Once she went past the option to tell her agent no dice, the innocence of our agreement was over--at least as I see it. Thanks again for the opportunity to get other points of view.

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, I agree with the poster. SHE did not put her friendship in jeopardy by agreeing to back out of the deal. The 'friend' put the friendship in jeopardy by putting the poster between a rock and a hard place. Either decision at that point risks the friendship.

The poster was nice to voluntarily abandon the reservation so it could be rented at full price but the absolute least that this friend should have done for her jilted customer is to have spent some of her new found profits to undue the harm that she created.

Can reader turn lost vacation into charitable deduction?

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