Sunday, January 01, 2017

Visitors to an empty house worry neighbor

The home sales in a city neighborhood in the Northeast United States have been brisk. Older multifamily homes have been scooped up by real estate developers, gutted, renovated, and then sold as high-priced condominiums. At any given time, A.K., who has lived in and owned a home in the neighborhood for the past 30 years, has noticed that at least three houses are under construction.

In late November, the house next door to A.K.'s was sold. While the house had been fully occupied, it had been in a state of disrepair for many years with porch railings missing, window panes broken, and trees overgrown. Within a week of the sale closing and the former occupants moving out, the new owners had a dumpster delivered to the property and hired a demolition crew to begin ripping out cabinets, windows and walls.

The new owners had been good about letting A.K. and other neighbors know their plans for the house, by stopping by in person, leaving a letter, or emailing to alert them to any plans that might prove disruptive. They'd be given a heads up that demolition workers would be taking a day's break to allow for large trucks to make their way onto the property so that arborists could begin to trim back several of the trees on the property.

Shortly after the arborists finished, A.K. took a walk over to the neighboring house to see how work was progressing. No workers were on site. But then A.K. noticed a car with two men pull up next to the house. One got out and kept talking on his cellphone. The other got out holding a wooden paddle and started checking doors. When he found one that wasn't locked he walked in.

"I asked the guy on the phone if he was working with the new owners," A.K. said. The guy told him he wasn't, but that he was in the demolition business and would like to work with them. As they were talking, his partner with the paddle exited the house, yelled over to the cellphone guy that the place was a mess, and then the two of them drove off.

"Should I say something to the new owners or mind my own business?" A.K. asks.

A.K. has no obligation to say something to the new owners about visitors to their property. But A.K. says he isn't only concerned for them but about the possibility of kids or others getting into the house and getting hurt in the process. Since there's no electricity or heat in the house any more, he's also concerned that someone might start a fire to keep warm and end up burning down the house as well as a few neighbors' houses in the process.

"But it's really none of my business," A.K. writes.

Given his concerns, it is A.K.'s business. The right thing is to use the contact information that the new owners had given him and let them know about the visitors. It's up to them how to respond. If they do nothing and A.K. believes others' safety is jeopardized by the house being unsecured, he should contact municipal authorities. Worrying about being judged for not minding his own business should be secondary to making sure he and his neighbors remain safe. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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