Getting away from vacation home conflicts

By Barbara Spector

The "Big House" on Rock Island in Tennessee.A vacation home is supposed to be a place where the family can relax, enjoying the scenery and each other’s company. But conflicts over who is entitled to use the home at the peak of the season, or how maintenance expenses are handled, can transform the property from a haven into a headache.

Establishing formal rules around these issues makes life easier for everyone, says Ashley Levi, a director and a fourth-generation owner of the H.G. Hill Co. The family business, based in Middle Tennessee, was founded in 1895 and evolved from grocery retailing into real estate. Rock Island, the family’s beloved vacation property, is owned by the company. The property is located on a private stretch of the Caney Fork River in Warren County, Tenn., about 90 minutes outside of Nashville.

Levi’s great-grandfather purchased the property and what is known as the “Big House,” sight unseen, as a retreat in 1926. “All of us are well traveled, but there’s one place that connects this family, and it’s Rock Island,” Levi says. Three houses -- encompassing “many, many, many, many bedrooms” -- sit on the property: the “Big House,” the “Little House” (which was built in 1930 and, despite its name, is “enormous,” according to Levi) and a two-bedroom, one-bath house that accommodates overflow guests.

The bylaws for use of Rock Island were written by Levi’s grandmother -- by hand, on her personal stationery. The family abides by them to this day, although “the bylaws have been built upon and become a little more complicated,” Levi says.

Elders get the Big House. The Big House is reserved for the family’s senior generation, currently G3. “My grandmother said, ‘My children need to stay next door; they’re not staying in the same house with me,’” Levi says with a laugh. The Hill family’s fourth generation has domain over the Little House and the overflow house.

The "Little House" shared by the business family of H.G. Hill Co.No one under 23. Family members may reserve space in the Little House if they are at least 23 years old. (Levi says she doesn’t know why her grandmother selected 23 as the minimum age.) A married couple must be staying in the Little House; no all-singles jaunts are allowed. Parents may bring their kids; anyone under 23 must be accompanied by his or her parent.

‘The draw.’ The family meets -- usually after Easter lunch -- to participate in a drawing to determine who may use the house during the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Fourteen G4 households are eligible to participate in the drawing. Because of the large number of family members involved, the drawing has not been opened up to G5 and G6, even though some are older than 23. However, G4 may turn over the dates they draw to NextGen members who meet the age requirement. One branch of the family built their own vacation property on another part of the river; however, they remain eligible to use Rock Island, Levi notes.

No dogs. This policy “is firm, and has never come into question,” Levi says.

Summer holidays are for family only. No guests are permitted on the property during summer holidays. This includes boyfriends and girlfriends, unless the couple is engaged to marry.

A new rule. When Levi’s father was growing up, he was content to float on a log in the river. Today, family members have boats and WaveRunners. Family members who wish to use such “toys” on Rock Island must file their insurance policies with the company, Levi says.

“The policy helps because there’s just never any question or confusion when it comes to usage [of the property],” Levi says. Development and enforcement of vacation home rules “is a perfect topic to be explored by the family council,” she notes.

Levi says her grandmother’s bylaws do not stipulate penalties for violations. “Because Rock Island is so beloved, we would never push the limits or question the rules, because we want to keep going back,” Levi says. “We all understand the rules, and we all appreciate the rules. It just takes one weekend gone wrong, if you’re not playing by the rules, or there’s an accident or whatever, that could just leave a sour taste in your mouth about the family retreat.” Plus, she quips, family members know that breaking the rules would result in “the ‘ultimate’ penalty: being talked about!”

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