Sunday, August 31, 2014

Consult neighbor before sprucing up her messy yard

After spending a couple of hours weeding and sprucing up her own yard this summer, A.L. looked over at her neighbor's house, the two-family building next door, and noticed the overgrown shrubs, weeds growing just a few feet from the foundation, and grass that needed a good trim.

The houses in A.L.'s neighborhood are close together, and her yard touches on the neighbor's yard. Aside from regularly mowing the entire lawn between their houses -- a portion of which belongs to the neighbor -- A.L. is uncertain how to improve the rest of the neighbor's yard, which goes untended.

The owner of the house next door does not live there and rents out each of the apartments. Several roommates live in each unit. These neighbors are nice, quiet, respectful people, A.L. says. She hasn't seen the owner of the house for months.

It would probably take A.L. an extra hour or so to mow the rest of the neighbor's lawn, do some weeding and trim the unruly hedges. Other than mowing between their houses, however, the only other things she's ever done are to prune an overgrown rose bush that caught the garments of anyone walking on the side lawn, and remove a dead azalea bush.

A.L. knows the neighbor's yard would look a lot better -- as would the neighborhood -- if she just want ahead and spruced up the property herself.

A.L. said that a neighbor down the street was once fined $50 by the city for letting the weeds in his yard grow so high that they partially blocked the public sidewalk. Her next-door neighbor's overgrown plants, however, are confined to the yard. (When the neighbor who was fined took ill, A.L. cut back his weeds so he wouldn't be fined again.)

"Is it my responsibility to look after (my neighbor's) yard?" A.L. asks. "Would it be wrong if I just walked over there and spent some time cleaning up the place?"

It's obviously not A.L.'s responsibility to maintain her neighbor's yard. And while it might seem neighborly to simply take care of the mess, this would be inappropriate. It is her neighbor's responsibility to decide how she wants the yard maintained...or not maintained. If A.L.'s attitude is that her neighbor would never notice any work she did, this is not justification for tending to her neighbor's property.

The right thing, if A.L. really believes the neighbor's lawn maintenance issue should be addressed, is to talk to the owner of the house. She can choose how to broach the subject, perhaps letting the owner know that since she last visited, the weeds, shrubs and lawn have gotten out of control. A.L. could then offer to mow the lawn and do some basic weeding. She should be sure to clear all such work with the owner before doing anything.

However, if the homeowner takes A.L. up on her offer, she might then expect A.L. to take permanent responsibility for maintaining the yard at her rental house. This already seems to be the case with the side yard they share. Such an arrangement may be fine with A.L., but the right thing to do is talk with her neighbor before taking on the task. 

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

College alum stands firm: If you want my money, treat me right

K.S., a reader from the Midwest, "had a great time studying and teaching" at her alma mater, but she whenever she's solicited for donations to the annual fund, she refuses.

While K.S. was working on a graduate degree in the mid-1990s, she also taught writing classes to freshmen and sophomores at the university. She continued teaching for a year after she completed her degree, then resigned to accept a new job in a new town.

After leaving the university, K.S. received two additional paychecks. Recognizing that they were sent in error, she returned the checks and explained that she was not entitled to them.

Shortly afterward, K.S. received a call from a university representative who told her that in addition to the checks she returned, she also had to repay the money that had been withheld from the two checks for taxes.

K.S. pointed out that it was not her responsibility to recover that money from the government, but rather the university's since it had made the error. University officials disagreed. Complicating matters, when the university sent her W2 indicating her earnings for that year, it included the two erroneously issued checks K.S. had returned. The university refused to issue a corrected W2 until K.S. repaid the university the money it had withheld from the two checks for taxes.

K.S. then called the IRS, which told her that all the university had to do was to call the IRS to recover the tax money it had withheld. She conveyed that information to the university, but was told they still wanted her to repay the money herself.

Since K.S. didn't have the money to hire a lawyer, she writes that a representative from the IRS helped her file her taxes by using her pay stubs from the university, rather than the incorrect W2.

"Everything turned out all right in the end," writes K.S. But because the university tried to make her pay for its mistake, she declines to send donations.

Should K.S.'s experience with university administrators over the erroneously sent paychecks outweigh the fact that her experience studying and teaching at the school were great? Since the years of positive experiences far outweigh the time it took to deal with this one negative incident, does K.S. owe it to the school to overlook what happened?

The right thing for K.S. to do is weigh her experience. If her final experience with her former employer soured her on how it treated a recent graduate, she has every right to turn her back. Of course, even if that experience had never happened, K.S. has no obligation to donate funds to her alma mater. How she decides to allocate any charitable contributions is up to her.

The university in question would do well to remember that it's not just the alumni affairs office that should consider how it treats the people once they leave the school. The right thing would have been for school officials to have worked with K.S. to resolve the problem, rather than forcing her to turn to the IRS for help. 

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Surveying the landscape for honest businesses yields a gem

As a small business owner trying to generate sales, is it ever a good idea to advise customers to not avail themselves of your services?

A few weeks ago, homeowners in parts of the Northeast where I live began to receive notices that revised flood plain classifications made it necessary for us to start carrying flood insurance on our homes. This wasn't exactly a surprise, since there had been talk of the revisions for some time. The unknown factor was how much coverage might cost.

The notices and subsequent discussions with insurance providers or banks holding mortgages began to make the costs clear.

My wife and I were among those who received a notice a couple of weeks ago from the bank with holds our mortgage, telling us the bank could sell us flood insurance. The banks quoted a price, but encouraged us to shop around among other providers for the best rate.

Our insurance broker informed us that to pinpoint an accurate price, she'd need a flood elevation certificate. While we knew we were in a flood plain and could consult FEMA maps to see what elevation zone we were in, no elevation certificate yet existed for our house. To get one, we'd have to hire a surveyor, which would cost between $600 and $1,000.

What we didn't know was whether the surveyor's findings would result in a lower premium than what our bank was offering. Because we and our neighbors were in the same boat -- most of them had no flood elevation certificates, either -- we couldn't compare prices on insurance.

The bank wasn't particularly helpful in letting us know how it determined the cost of our insurance without an elevation certificate. Uncertain what to do, we asked a surveyor, who'd done work for us before, whether it was worth spending the money on his services that could equal almost half of what the bank quoted as a price for flood insurance. He said it could just as easily turn out that once the elevation certificate was completed, other insurance company premiums might be lower -- but they might also be higher than the bank's quote.

If the surveyor had told us he thought the wise thing to do was go ahead and get the elevation certificate, we would have hired him for the job. Instead, he said, "I'd wait." He advised us that rather than spend money on his services, he'd recommend going with the bank's offer, then speaking with neighbors about their experiences. If it became clear later on that the elevation certificate was worth it to receive a lower rate, he'd be glad to handle our insurance.

He didn't turn down the job because he didn't want it. He works for a small company in town and could use the business. He advised us not to rush into hiring him because he believed this was honest advice and the right thing to do for a valued customer. When the time comes to get a flood elevation certificate or any other surveying services, his company has our business. 

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Civility costs you nothing

Does treating someone badly warrant a lack of civility in return?

A reader from Ontario, Canada, and her spouse were going through a rough patch with her teenage daughter. The problem was nothing extraordinary, but simply the type of behavior many parents of teens face as their children struggle for independence. Suddenly, a usually compliant child has turned into a young adult who wants to make decisions on his/her own. Some of these decisions can upset parents.

Because the reader was consumed by her daughter's behavior, she found herself more distracted than usual.

"When I was at the post office, a young girl -- 14 or so -- held the door open for me," she wrote. "I was so distraught I could not respond."

When no "thank you" was forthcoming from the reader, the teen said in a very sour voice, "Well, thank yoooooooou!" In light of what was going on in the reader's life at the time, she now wishes she'd the presence of mind to tell the girl what holding that door had meant to her.

It's not unusual for people to become distracted by daily concerns to the point of forgetting to acknowledge the small acts of kindness around them. The reader is correct: The right thing would have been to stop fretting about her daughter long enough to thank the girl for her kindness in holding the door.

Still, people make mistakes. Years ago, when I was shopping before work at the original Filene's Basement in downtown Boston, a fellow shopper shouted at me after I'd passed him in the aisle.

"Don't you say 'excuse me'?" he asked. When I looked at him in confusion, he shouted for all to hear, "The guy just hit me with his briefcase and he doesn't bother to say 'excuse me'!" I was certain he was correct and that my overstuffed briefcase must have struck him as I walked by, but I'd been completely oblivious.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know." The apology didn't satisfy him, but each of us went on our way.

Did the reader's missed "thank you" call for a snarky response from the young door holder? No. The right thing would have been for the teen to simply hold the door and recognize that she'd done something nice for someone. A "thank you" would have been appropriate, but the lack of one doesn't diminish the kindness of her action. Her words did, turning a kind act into a churlish hurl of words.

Be kind, but don't turn on someone if they're not kind in return. Their actions should not alter your original intent. Some people, like the reader, are simply preoccupied and most often do not let acts of kindness pass unnoticed. 

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