Lending tools to your cottage neighbours

Updated: July 11, 2019

tools-on-wooden-background Photo by Cagkan Sayin/Shutterstock

“After years of lending my tools to cottage neighbours, only to have them returned dirty, broken, or not returned at all, I have given up on humanity’s ability to share stuff. Don’t people know how to borrow? Or am I just a reckless lender?”

The simple answer to both your questions is an unequivocal yes. True, there are many people out there who are bad borrowers, but they only got that way by interacting with a reckless lender. A normal person, faced with damaged or unreturned property, will never lend anything to that borrower again and will likely hold a deep-seated grudge against the cheapskate villain for decades. Others will repeatedly lend stuff to the same sponger, always hoping for—but never getting—a better result. These people are reckless lenders. Also known as suckers. They might not be contemptible, like a deadbeat borrower, but still. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me six times, including the time you “lost” my cordless drill off your dock, just call me a dope.

It would be a shame if a small group of bad apples were responsible for spoiling the time-honoured cottage lending dynamic, because when the system works properly, it benefits everyone and sometimes even strengthens neighbourly relations. Polonius probably thought “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” was solid advice, but, let’s face it, he made some bad judgment calls in Hamlet and probably never had to borrow a copper-pipe flaring tool to fix the propane lights at his island cottage.

At its best, cottage lending is a two-way street. I borrow your electric winch, and you borrow my gas pressure washer. Even nicer is when cottage lending becomes a group thing, as in lending a hand. Each spring I help you step the mast on your sailboat, and you help me drag my water intake out past the weedy shallows. In the fall we help each other to pull out our floating docks. This neighbourly reciprocation is a common activity for cottagers and a thing of beauty that can be ruined by the local leech. So how do we beat the deadbeats?

Like civilized society, cottage lending should be governed by a set of rules, some personal and some universal, to prevent the whole system from devolving into chaos. For example, I have a personal rule against lending anything with a cutting edge. Because if you have to borrow a set of chisels or my chainsaw, there is a high likelihood that you don’t know how to operate or sharpen those things, and they will be returned duller than a Sudbury hoe blade. Which is the same as if you had damaged them. My personal borrowing rule—listen well, deadbeats—is that if you lend me something and I break it, you are entitled to receive a brand new replacement for the borrowed item. I keep the busted pole pruner, now repaired with duct tape. 

Some universal rules governing the lending process include the idea that borrowing a specialized item that most people don’t own—such as a carpet steamer or timing light for a stern drive engine—is perfectly acceptable. But constantly asking neighbours to lend you a hammer or a drill or a case of beer marks you as a deadbeat. Repeatedly borrowing the same thing, unless part of a quid pro quo arrangement, makes you not only a deadbeat but a freeloader. As does borrowing recreational items just because you are too cheap to buy them yourself. Borrowing your neighbour’s bass boat because you need to ferry guests to the landing after your own motor threw a rod is totally legit. Borrowing the same boat to go fishing every other weekend makes you a jerk. One last rule: lenders must remember that the longer someone keeps something of yours, the less likely you are to get it back. They’ll start to think they own it.

Apparently, lending and borrowing is a hot topic for cottage people, and after a quick canvass, I came away with some clever solutions to bad borrowing. One, practised by a number of lenders, is to invoke a fake deadline. For example, you agree to lend a neighbour your portable pop-up gazebo but specify that you must have it back by July 10th because your niece needs it for her wedding. That way, when you ask for the gazebo, there is no awkwardness, and the borrower will have no choice but to comply. One devilishly clever person I heard about, when asked to lend something, will ask to borrow something in return as a form of collateral to ensure her property is given back intact. Like a cottage-country hostage exchange. I know another person who subsidizes his power tool purchases by renting them to friends. This, of course, scatters potential borrowers, deadbeat and legitimate, like pollen in a breeze.

Is it possible that bad borrowers are not to blame for their own actions? Maybe they don’t even know they are moochers. As a public service, here are some clues. If you begin a cottage project by calculating the savings you will realize by borrowing tools from neighbours, you are a deadbeat. If you are a cottager who does not own a toilet plunger or an axe, you are a deadbeat. If you borrow good wine and return cheap craptacular plonk, you are a deadbeat. If you return gas-powered devices with anything less than a full tank of fuel, you are a deadbeat. If you regularly borrow rope, guess what you are? A deadbeat. Get it?

After years of non-stop lending, a friend of mine deals with a buddy’s constant requests for tools in a simple, non-confrontational way. He just texts the would-be borrower a screenshot of the tool requested, straight from the Canadian Tire website. “Hey, Phil, can I borrow your ladder again?” Shazam! Maximum Fibreglass Grade 1 Step Ladder, 8 ft., $109.99. “Sure, help yourself. And keep it this time.”

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