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Downsizing with a Dog

Is your Beagle legal?

By Jim Morrison

Looking to downsize and move from your Colonial in the burbs to a city condo and bring Sparky, the dog, with you? Be aware of the rules in play before you bring the dog into your new digs. It can be far more complicated – and expensive – than you think.

Attorney George Warshaw of Warshaw DiCarlo & Associates is also a pet lover and says moving from a large home in the suburbs to a condo in the city means more than just emptying out the attic if you have pets. Cats are relatively easy to relocate, but dogs can be more difficult.

Follow the Rules

“Condo buyers with dogs need to know exactly what the rules, regulations, deeds and bylaws say about pets living in the building,” Warshaw says. “The first thing buyers need to know is: whatever documents they’re given by the seller or real estate agent are often incomplete, outdated and not reliable. You don’t want to find out the rules governing pets after you’ve signed a P&S.”

Warshaw says, it’s common for condominium associations to vote new rules into effect and fail to officially record them in the condo documents. He recommends prospective condo buyers speak directly to property managers and ask them for up-to-date copies of the condominium documents. He says buyers should additionally ask if there are any unrecorded rules regarding pets.

“Buyers might also see a dog in the building and assume they have the right to bring their dog, too,” he says. “That’s not necessarily true. Many buildings have size, weight, breed and insurance limits on dogs. If you have a dog who barks a lot, they can make you get rid of it after moving in, because it violates the noise ordinance.”

Warshaw says, living in a condo is very different than living in a suburban neighborhood. Condo residents have a very personal relationship with their neighbors. They’re partners in an enterprise and no one wants to feel like their neighbors are against them. Buyers should be sensitive to the nature of what they’re buying into.

“You also need to know your dog,” he says. “Dobermans and Pit Bulls will cause some people concern. Some buildings require a pet interview. You need to have a plan and be sensitive to the owners around you. Where will you walk your dog? You have to clean up after it. You don’t want your dog to be an issue.”

Dr. Terri Bright, the Director of Behavior Services at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, says downsizing dog owners should walk their pets through the buildings they’re considering moving into before they sign on the dotted line.

“Walk them through the building,” she says. “How do they react to other people, other dogs, elevators and stairwells? Owners should assess those things. People should also be mindful of their dog’s temperament and pick an environment their dog will be confident in.”

Breaking the Rules

If you move into the condo and run afoul of the rules, you won’t have many options.

“You can’t refuse to pay condo fees or fines,” Warshaw says. “They can sue you and you’ll have to pay their lawyers’ fees if you lose. And you may lose. Sometimes you have to get rid of the pet, which is a disastrous conversation to have. For many people, their pet is their family. Some people just have to move, which is expensive and disruptive.”

It’s true that condominium associations have to make reasonable accommodations for residents who rely on their pets as emotional support animals (ESAs), but pet owners can’t simply call their pets an ESA and demand the animal be allowed to stay.

“The number of people who try to use ESAs as a ploy to have a dog is disgraceful,” Warshaw says. “If you feel like you need an ESA, go to a local therapist and if you qualify, you have something to work with. But, ‘reasonable accommodation’ doesn’t mean your dog can bark all the time. You have to be respectful. Otherwise you’ll create other issues.”

Condo buyers should always go to a building trustee and tell them about their dog before they move in, says Warshaw.

Moving is stressful for everyone, even dogs, says Bright. Barking, shaking, having its ears back, tail down, refusing to go into the stairwell or elevator are a sign the dog needs to see a behaviorist. With some training and sometimes medication, most dogs can make the transition, but it takes patience.

“This is a huge problem,” she says. “If your dog isn’t great with other dogs, how will you get it on the elevator with another dog in there? If there’s a dog living above or next to your condo, will the dogs bark at each other all day?”

She also suggests that dog owners in condo buildings put web cams in the house and record the pets when they leave the house.

“Some dogs have separation anxiety and bark or whine when they’re alone,” she says. “Neighbors will complain. If you get a complaint you want to have the data to support you. People might say your dog barked for three hours, when it was really only five minutes.”

Bright says she has seen people with dogs move from the suburbs to a condo, only to have to sell the condo and buy a single family house because their dogs couldn’t handle the transition. Problems like this can be avoided by doing due diligence and consulting a behaviorist immediately should problems arise.

Estate Planning

After you’ve successfully transitioned into your downsized digs, Warshaw strongly recommends pet owners incorporate their pets into their estate planning.

“The most commonly overlooked provisions in wills is forgetting to include your pet,” he says. “Where will they live? Along those lines, the person you may expect will take care of your pet, may not. You leave the pet to your nephew, but now he has a child who is allergic.”

Warshaw recommends people set up a trust for their pets with a trustee who will oversee the pet’s care and one or two backups if your first choice can’t do it for some reason. You can fund it for the short term, and use life insurance for the longer term, and have an accountant or someone else watch the money.

“I like to establish a bank trust account for the pet, which the trustee can access freely,” Warshaw says. “The terms of the pet-trust say the money will be used solely for the pet’s care. You don’t want to stick your heirs with vet bills, which can be substantial. The trustee gets a debit card for the account. Track your expenses and create a budget. Then fund that account accordingly.”

If there is money left over in the trust after the pet dies, the trustee can disperse it to whomever you designate, or to a pet charity like the MSPCA or a rescue organization.

With the right planning, Sparky and you will live happily in your new condo for a long time without any barking or whining.

About the Writer

Jim Morrison (Bucket Age – 35) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Business Journal,  Forbes.com and hundreds of publications across the country. His book, Home Buying in 30 Minutes was published in November 2018.  Jim once spent a couple of weeks in the Kenyan bush with researchers trying to catch lions in the act of coitus -and succeeded. He can be reached at JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com

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