Three years ago, in the summer we bought our house, I told the Husband that I would not suffer through another summer in Toronto without air conditioning. This city gets hot in a way I never experienced growing up on a farm in the country, or while I was attending university in Kitchener-Waterloo. But, due to our penny-pinching ways, combined with our uncertainty about our renovation plans for this little bungalow, two more summers passed, with no AC beyond a weak window unit in our bedroom to allow us some relief while we slept. This year, with Baby V on the way, we knew it was time to change that. We signed a contract for a ductless AC system back in January, once the attic was drywalled and ready for the unit to be installed. Then, we waited patiently for the weather to turn and our installation appointment to be booked.
Meanwhile, we knew we had a hurdle to jump. For maximum cooling efficiency, the unit needed to go on the east wall, from which cold air would blow across our attic bedroom and fall down the stairs along the west wall. This also meant that the condenser line needed to run along our house's exterior east wall. There was just one problem: our neighbours.
Our neighbours are an unpleasant older couple with limited English language skills. We used to think that our biggest problem with them was related to an insurmountable cultural and generational gap, but after meeting their peers in the community, it's impossible to continue to give them the benefit of the doubt. We've had moments of 'good' relations with them, but they never last. Our neighbour's driveway runs the length of our house. In order to install our air conditioning unit, our contractors would need access to our house via his driveway, in order to lean a ladder against the house for oh, 3 or 4 hours, tops.
Most neighbours, most people. This should not have been a problem. We knew it would be.
When we got news from our contractor that they were ready to install back in March, the Husband bravely made the steps across the property line to talk to our neighbour and let him know that we needed to access the house in order to do this work. (I have long banned myself from talking to this neighbour beyond a wave or a hello in passing. His method of communication tends to be hostile, and my automatic response is to be hostile back. The Husband is very cool-headed on the other hand, absorbs rather than reflects.) Ok, our neighbour said, but first, he wanted three things: proof of insurance so he can be assured that he is not liable, a letter on a lawyer's letterhead, with a lawyer's stamp, outlining the work to be completed and the times access would be needed, etc. and $150. We knew his request was way outside the necessary, but we did our best to fulfill his requirements. We got our contractor to send us their WSIB information, and I drafted up a pretty letter, a contract, really, that outlined every piece of information he wanted. Did we take it to a lawyer? No. Bringing lawyers into it seemed unnecessary and ridiculous.
Of course, he didn't accept it. In hindsight, we know he never would have accepted anything we did, even if we had bent over backwards to fulfill his commands. When he refused, we said, Ok. We'll go to the city.
By this point, we had done all our research. The City of Toronto has a way to deal with these disputes. They have to, since houses are so close together around here. We cancelled our original AC installation appointment and applied for a Right of Entry permit. This permit would allow us the access we need and provide our neighbours protection as well, since the permit includes investigations to ensure we leave his property exactly as it was. We included a little extra work to be done on the permit in order to repair some of the worn flashing on the side of our house, killing two birds with one stone.
Four weeks or so later, our permit was granted. Of course it was. There was no logical reason that we should not be allowed to do this work. But, along with the news that our permit was granted, we received the most bizarre, colourful, exclamation-mark-and-spelling-mistake-filled letter from a 'paralegal' I have ever seen. Essentially, our neighbour and his legal counsel - his son - would not acknowledge the permit and insisted we would be trespassing if we moved forward. We called the city. They had received the letter too. We adjusted the dates of the permit, and the city representative assured us she would take care of meeting with our neighbour and figuring everything out. We went ahead and booked the installation.
A few days before the four days of access we had outlined in the permit, we had our paperwork in hand. Our neighbour had added a few conditions, all of which we could and would honour happily. The Husband stopped at the liquor store and picked up a nice bottle of something for them, a little thank you gift that we hoped would help the situation go down a little more smoothly.
Monday. Our neighbour contentedly moved his truck so the Husband could fix up a bit of the siding including the flashing along the side of the house. Relations seemed accepting, jovial, even. But then, there was a bit of a nasty turn. Our neighbour's son, the paralegal, showed up and together, he and his dad began insisting that we would not install the AC line on that side of the house. They had two arguments:
- We have three other sides of our house. There is no need to put it on that side of our house.
False. If they understood the configuration of our attic bedroom, they would know this. The AC unit would affect the headroom of the stairway on the opposite wall, which would push our attic renovation - which still needs to be inspected - outside of Ontario Building Code. Besides, installed on that side of the house, we'd have a delightfully cool attic, but the cool air would be trapped, unable to fall down the stairs like it's supposed to. The other two walls are all slope. Putting the unit on the main floor is pointless.
- Putting the condenser line on this side of the house was inconvenient for them, since it would need maintenance every 3-4 years.
How is maintenance every 3-4 years inconvenient, when all it takes is our neighbour moving his car up his driveway 10 feet? He doesn't even have to park it on the street! Besides, what maintenance do they expect? All the joints for this pipe are firmly on easily accessible parts of our property.
We had one other option: run the pipe on the inside of the house, leaving us with an exposed pipe, but neighbourly relations more-or-less intact. Over the course of the day on Monday, the Husband and I hemmed and hawed about our decision. On one hand, we hated to let our neighbour and his son bully us into submission. On the other, did we really want to put up the fight?
Everyone we consulted that day said yes. Yes, absolutely. Don't let them push you around. You have done nothing wrong. They do not have the right to tell you what you can and cannot put on the side of your house. Stick to your guns.
We called the city to warn them that things were going to get difficult in the morning. We called our contractor to let them know we would be running the line on the outside of the house, sticking to our original plan. I made plans to stick around for the first couple hours in the morning before heading to work, being there to support the Husband as much as I could. We slept like shit that night.
Our contractor showed up at 8:15 the next morning. Sure enough, when the Husband crossed the property line to ask our neighbour to move his truck so we could begin work, he flat out refused. He would not accept that we would be running the line along the side of the house. We called the city representative. She said she would be there in 15 minutes. 20 minutes later, the Husband started calling her every 5 minutes. Our contractor paced and let us know we needed to get the job moving or he would pull his workers. Our neighbour's son showed up and added his car to the driveway, further blocking any work from starting. Impatient, I attempted to engage our neighbour, to at least get some conversation going, to at least attempt to understand. He yelled at me, broken English and logic I couldn't understand mostly. I cried.
The Husband called the cops.
Our contractor looked at his watch. Gave us until 10 am.
Finally, two representatives from the city came, one bearing a fine, the other with the strong character and authority needed to stand up against the situation. Still, our neighbour and his son dug in their heels. Threats of charges did nothing. My presence, 38 weeks pregnant, became important as the city representatives took detailed notes for the court date that seemed inevitable.
10 am. Still, that giant white truck didn't move.
Finally, we gave our contractor the go ahead to change the plan and run the line inside. What choice did we have? If we let them leave, we would be reimbursed our deposit and they would wash their hands of the situation. Getting another AC company to come out before the baby arrives seemed unlikely. Our neighbour sat on his front porch and smirked.
5 minutes later, a cruiser pulled up. The cop, the city representative, and the Husband rehashed what was going on. The cop did not seem optimistic. I went inside, closed myself away from the activity of the contractors and sobbed. Throughout this pregnancy, my hormones have been pretty steady, but that day, they just couldn't take it anymore. Our neighbour had won.
15 minutes later, the revving of a large truck engine. I stepped out of the guest room, eyes all puffy, mascara everywhere to meet the Husband coming through the door. The truck was moving. The original plan was back on. It felt like a miracle. It wasn't. It was merely municipal legislation and protective systems doing what they're supposed to do. Still, it felt like a miracle.
Here's the thing: by obstructing the work from happening, our neighbour was in violation of the right of entry permit which we had obtained legally. Violating these permits is no small matter. A first offense - requiring the city to come out at all - is a $95 flat fee. From there, if he didn't back down and comply, the city would take him to court, where he would be handed a fine of up to $25,000. The fact of my pregnancy could have worked against him in court, somehow, apparently, as could the change in our plans, required due to his obstruction. One of the city representatives spent the whole incident taking detailed notes and photos, documenting every aspect of the conflict. In the end, the sheer amount of the potential fine had our neighbour climbing into his truck to move it out of the way.
Four hours later, we had a ductless air conditioning unit blowing cool air quietly over our bed. It was smaller than I expected and, with no exposed piping, looked great, there on the wall above our heads.
Was the lack of exposed piping worth the fight? No. Really, it wasn't. It may have brought the value of our beautiful attic renovation down a little bit, but we would have gotten used to it, and the housing market is strong enough in this city, a single exposed pipe would not have affected our house value that much. Any kind of relationship we may have been able to have with our neighbour has been destroyed. But this wasn't really about the pipe. This was about standing up for ourselves. This is not the first time our neighbour has pushed us around; it would not be the last. Giving in would have done nothing to protect us from him in the future, would have done nothing for our own self-confidence in dealing with him.
And now what? Do we firmly ignore him and his wife for the rest of the time we are neighbours? Or, as the brightness and warmth of summer drop down on the city, do we return to friendly waves and hi-how-are-yous that will be awkwardly ignored as they had been in the past? I don't know yet. But, we'll figure it out. In the meantime, we have a bottle of ozou to drink. In a few weeks, of course.
(I have been slightly uncertain about sharing this story here, nervous of any legal ramifications to putting it out on the great, wide Internet. As such, I have not named any names including that of our contractor. However, despite their impatience with the situation, we were very happy with their work and would highly recommend any of their services - unless, of course, you are stuck in a similar neighbourly situation. If you are looking for a recommendation for a great heating and cooling company in the city, feel free to send me an email and I will send you more details about the company itself.
If you are curious about Right of Entry permits, what to do if you need one, what to do if your neighbour has one, etc. I'm happy to share further details of our experience.)