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The House That Debby Fixed: a Mediation Story

BEA was in the military and could not predict where she would be stationed or for how long. She and her husband, Jim, got a deal on a house in town, intending to fix it up and live there once Bea was discharged and they could return.

Meanwhile, Jim's friend Chris was willing to manage the property. Chris had previously managed property for Jim and Bea; he found tenants, collected rent or negotiated rent for repair work, and attended to concerns. Jim was unsatisfied with some of Chris's past negotiations, which had resulted in unsatisfactory repairs or not enough cash to cover the mortgage. He told Chris not to negotiate rent for repairs anymore.

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Debby and her children became tenants. They liked the property even though it was rough. Besides, Chris told them that as long as they fixed it up, they wouldn't have to worry about moving out. This was important, as Chris also mentioned there was no lease and no deposit required.

Debby started some fix-up projects immediately. Chris told her the owners would pay for new carpeting and paneling. She and her boyfriend installed it for a month's rent. They paid rent for a few months, then began more fix-up.

But four months after Debby moved in, Bea was discharged from the service. She and Jim were glad to come home and looked forward to living in their house. Their first contact with their tenant was to tell Debby to move out. Debby became upset and went to Chris, who told her there was never any agreement about how long she could stay. She should have realized this with a month-to-month lease. Debbie refused to leave, insisting she would never have moved in at all had she thought she would be put out in four months. Bea and Jim filed a claim against Debby requesting immediate possession and back rent. Both sides hired lawyers and one of the lawyers suggested mediation.

The success of the mediation hinged on helping the parties understand the triangular communication dynamics; Chris had wanted things to go well but had little ownership in the situation. They also put themselves in one another's shoes. Bea and Jim had once been tenants who, like Debby, went to court to argue against eviction. They were currently living like sardines at Bea's mother's house.

Debby had truly cared for the property; her repair work was a permanent improvement, even though much of it was unauthorized. She was panicked about not having a place for herself and the kids, although, when asked directly if she was preparing to leave, she broke into tears and nodded.

The dispute was resolved by Debby agreeing to be out in three weeks. If the place she hoped to get fell through, she could temporarily stay with her mother. Bea and Jim dropped their claim for back rent and agreed that Debbie could take the flowers she had planted. The formal outcome was an agreement to dismiss. The mediation allowed Debby to concede to the inevitable while maintaining face.

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