Remodels and new construction have torn apart many a marriage. It’s stressful. But no one talks about the plight of the poor bystanders. These are the people who bear witness and share in the stress but, at the end of the day, don’t get to cook in the fancy new kitchen, organize the giant closets, or even enjoy their day in court. I’m talking about the neighbors.
I am a neighbor. Along the edge of my driveway, a 14,000-square-foot house has been in the works for many months. I have lost all memory of what life was like without debris, portable toilets, and workers in my midst. At some point, of course, there will be a lovely home for a lovely family. When they move in, I will greet them with open arms. I might even bring a pie.
But right now, it’s a mess. Mud is everywhere. Yes, it’s nice to have gotten so much use out of my wellies. And my Spanish comprehension—exercised through the continual broadcast of 93.7 FM—has actually improved. Certainly, thanks to the construction, my family discovered the Casa Blanca Lonchera Truck. (I recommend the flan.)
But for months, the sidewalks have been covered with building dredge. Elderly people with nurses aides and young mothers with strollers must hop into the street so as not to ruin their shoes. The trucks—long lines of them—park alongside my house; each day I back out of our driveway with no visibility whatsoever. My daughter lost that game of chicken and hit one of the trucks parked across the street. (Cost: $1,500.) Sure, these are small annoyances, but I am petty enough to want someone to acknowledge that the neighborhood has been inconvenienced. You might ask: Why haven’t you complained to the builder? I would answer: I am lazy and shy and obviously prefer to go on, and on, and on. But I have a proposal.
I suggest to builders everywhere that, before you even start surveying the property, you meet the neighbors. If you’re working on a spec house, you have no clue as to who is going to buy it, but you do know that on either side, real people with real lives are going to get real muddy.
To that end, follow the protocol of good builders I know. Knock on the door and introduce yourself. Here’s how it might go: “Hello. I want to introduce myself because for the next several months (or years, let’s be honest), we are going to be building a house next door. Projects like these can be hell, and I want you to know that we’ll do everything we can to make the experience as painless as possible.” Offer the neighbor your business card and a plea: “Please promise you will call me if there is anything we can do for you.”
See how that works? The bar is set at hell. And, obviously, hell is worse. (We have to assume.) And leaving the business card is genius. As long as that card sits in the junk drawer, a neighbor knows she can call the builder, who will make it all better. With this simple act of courtesy, the builder pre-empts all possible resentment and maybe even enlists an ally. More important, especially in this economy, he might just attract some new business. I’m pretty sure that by following these simple steps, a builder could become a zillionaire and very famous across the land. Okay, even if that’s an overstatement, thoughtfulness is elegant and powerful. In these times when everyone has so much time and so little money, it’s a pity that something as simple as courtesy is in such short supply.