Even Roommates Need A Contract

by admin on October 29, 2013

I am a homeowner who rented a spare bedroom to a single male boarder and his two dogs. Currently, I am working like the dickens to get him to move out, with light at the end of the tunnel. This has been an uncomfortable, and occasionally ugly process.

He’s mid-30’s, works full time, with no drug or alcohol issues. When we met, he was living at a campsite. Yes, I know….red flags. He explained he was having trouble finding a rental due to his two larger-sized dogs. I mentioned having a spare room. I was clear that I didn’t need a roommate financially; that I was looking for someone who would be helpful around the house, with the result of increasing my free time on weekends. In return, I’d charge less than market.

It felt like a good fit; and he, and his dogs, moved to my home sans-contract. Despite my words about helping out, he quickly settled into a routine of doing the bare minimum, and then often only after having to nag him about it. For instance, cleaning up after his dogs in the yard. His attitude after moving in changed markedly as well. The enthusiasm and friendliness melted away to gruff indifference, in which “hi” seemed like a challenge for him. Any request to change his MO was met with defensiveness, and a willingness to argue.

I put up with it for about two months. At that point, he had eroded my goodwill. Besides the small rent I was collecting, there were no benefits to having him around. Besides dealing with his poor attitude, the negatives included his taking over the common spaces and television in the home whenever he was not working. Besides sleeping, he spent no time in his room. I began spending all of my time in my bedroom in order to avoid him….almost as though I was the renter.

At the sixty-ish day mark I no longer looked for tactful ways of saying things, and made it clear I would no longer be accepting rent from him. This was met with anger, which (regretfully) I served back in a healthy portions. I believe I mentioned something about his state of poverty as a middle-aged adult bearing a direct relationship to his attitude problem. When I mentioned his laziness around the house, his reply was something to the effect of, “since you own the home, you should be prepared to do the work necessary to maintain it.”

He’s got a few days left in the rental period, at which point I will give him the option of leaving on his own. If not, I will have no other choice than to file trespassing charges. Uggg, not how I hoped this would turn out.

Besides the obvious advice of not finding renters who live at campsites, what could I have done better to ensure my renter knew my expectations, and would not move in without being prepared to meet them? A weekly “chore list” feels like I am treating an adult as a child, but otherwise I am relying on their word and character, which seems like a crap shoot at best. 1027-13

The “two large dogs” would have been the first red flag for me.  Regardless of how well behaved they are, they will still create more dirt and possible wear and tear on the house.   It’s like you had 2 or 3 roommates, not 1.

It is good to give people a helping hand up but through these experiences we do discover that some people are in their predicaments because of choices they have made and continue to make.

Now you know the value of a rental contract even if it’s for a roommate, particularly for unconventional rental situations where labor is swapped for a room or a reduction in rent.   Having a weekly “chore list” would be childish if it was you, the homeowner, laying out a list of mandatory chores to be done each week as if you were the parent commanding a child to obey.    But having a conversation prior to the move in date to discuss each person’s expectations of the living arrangements and then codifying them in a written rental contract is a wise way for two adults to reach an amicable agreement with no misunderstanding as to what was expected later on.   COmunicate clearly what you expect a renter to contribute to the operation of the house; i.e. prompt cleaning of dirty dishes, bathroom cleaned once a week, if a shared laundry then clothes cleaned and removed from the dryer and laundry area promptly, dog poop cleaned up in the yard weekly (and have some place where this is intended to go…compost pile?  special trash bags and can?), a security deposit for any damage the dogs do to the house (scratches on door jambs is common), etc.

{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Ralphie the Buffalo October 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Reading the main post and many of the comments tells me how lucky I have been as landlord and tenant. Between undergrad and graduate studies, I had about a dozen roommates in seven years. College dorms are one thing – there is a code of conduct, an on-site Resident Advisor and a definitive process for dealing with troublesome students. Even in the more carefree days 40 years ago, no one wanted to find themselves homeless in the cold of a Colorado winter, halfway through the semester, as housing options were few and far between. We self-policed our floor, and had various non-lethal ways of handling loud music, noise during finals, girlfriends who stayed over too many times, and other situations big and small that arise from 30 adolescents in too small a space. The only time our RA ever took action was when the hijinx got out of hand and resulted in physical injury and property damage.

In grad school, I rented a two bedroom townhouse, with the 2nd bedroom going to other students, but few stayed for more than a semester (work, transfers, marriages, etc). They ran the gamut from a couple folks that were cheerful and helpful to others that seemed to deliberately enjoy making my life miserable. One hid rent checks from me (‘it’s on your desk’ meant ‘its in the telephone’ – literally), another had her boyfriend doing work on her car until 2am (and then sitting on my couch while covered in grease), a third ran study groups nightly until midnight six days a week.

When I got my first job and moved to a big Northeast city, I swore I wouldn’t have another roommate until I got married. Prices, however, caused me to reconsider – entry level employees didn’t make much and my housing options were very limited. I found a two bedroom apartment in a new high-rise, and offered the 2nd bedroom to my company as an employee flop. They were paying $2K monthly to house and feed their traveling employees, while losing $1M / month due to a system redesign. They jumped at the idea (I asked only for the right to approve the person and terminate the agreement), and I thought my problems were over. Unfortunately, I first got a ‘cougar’ who was working her way through the 20-somethings in the firm before getting the ideal roommate (out late, in late). He replaced the booze he drank, paid for cable TV, and was gone for a weekend every two weeks – what could be better?

When he left six months later, a newspaper ad got me a slew of responses. I turned down a guy with a large dog, and a couple of others that I had a bad feeling about (good advice!) and found a guy who seemed personable and responsible. It didn’t take long to find out I had made a bad mistake – he didn’t keep anything clean, slammed the door so often my neighbors complained, and took phone calls at 1am from his psychiatrist, who was on the west coast. I asked him repeatedly to clean up his act, but it didn’t take, and a small pay increase made singledom possible. Rather than lose the lease, I explained the situation , gave him 30 days notice, and followed up at D-14 and D-7, reminding him of his date to be out. On the day he finally left, I took his housekeys and told him to clear his stuff from the storage locker, and leave the key inside. Once the door closed behind him, he had no way of re-entry. I didn’t expect to get a last check for utilities, but finally did a month later.

The point of this diatribe is that I got lucky many years ago – sublets now are usually illegal, and evictions are hard to do. I had no time or money for lawyer at that point, and things would have probably gotten ugly. With background checks, credit checks, and God knows what else possible, you can at least make an informed decision about move-in. Putting it all on paper for move-out is your protection. Do the research now, so you won’t get bitten later. As many of the comments above have shown, the relationship between a landlord and tenant is often strained, and both need to be on their guard and ready/willing/able to sever it quickly if/when something goes wrong.

“Live alone and like it” – I think that was a song title?

Ralphie the Buffalo
In the High Meadow

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Dee October 30, 2013 at 2:25 pm

@Ergala – Um, wouldn’t “north” be rather relative? so, no, I don’t know where you are talking about. My landlord experiences are in context of sharing a house, and you better believe I will screen my tenants very closely. The one, and only, time we did not was a huge mistake. Many renters have a sense of entitlement and do not want to live in a manner consistent with owning a home. If you want me to be a good caretaker and neighbour then I expect you to treat that home as if you owned it. Any renter that does not want to prove that is someone I stay far away from. Most renters we’ve had have been great. They tell us that we are really respectful of them and provide a wonderful home. It’s a two-way street – why should any homeowner, who has invested their all into that home and puts in untold hours of upkeep regularly, be expected to take a chance on just anybody? Your example sounds like a particular nutcase, far extreme from someone who wants to view the renters’ current dwelling. Having said that I do not want pets and am very hesitant about children; you wouldn’t believe the crap some renters expect landlords put up with using both as an excuse. And, yes, we’ve been renters with both pets and kids. And we always treated our places as if we owned them, usually leaving them in better shape than when we moved in and thus proving ourselves to future landlords, and once we accumulated really great references we no longer had to settle for dives.

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LawGeek October 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I would like to add to JWH’s post. I am one of those volunteer lawyers who staffs the help center in my local landlord-tenant court. It may indeed be a good resource to do your own eviction proceeding if you cannot afford an attorney (although LT attorneys tend to be one of the cheaper categories of laywer).

In my help center, we ask people to briefly describe the situation, then tell them which form they need and where they can purchase them. We also have informational handouts including example forms (already filled out) and guides to the law. I am impressed that so many people here picked up immediately on the legal error in the original post – you cannot file trespassing charges against someone who is a resident.

It is feasible for someone to do their own holdover or nonpayment proceeding, but you have to be very careful. Even the smallest error – such as making a 30 day notice returnable on the wrong date – may cause you to start all over again. Often the cost of putting up with the person for a longer time due to error is not worth the money saved doing it yourself.

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Calliope October 30, 2013 at 4:18 pm

@Cat, just because you did it doesn’t mean everyone can. And you didn’t buy your first home until 35. Would it have been fair for someone to make assumptions about your reliability or your work ethic when you were 34 and still renting?

Beyond that, not everyone wants to be a homeowner. If a person would prefer to work 40 hours a week, rent a place to live, and have free time to enjoy hobbies as opposed to working 60 hours a week just to afford to own a house, what’s wrong with that? I’m a 32-year-old homeowner. The vast majority of my friends still rent. They’re not lazy or unreliable or poor at managing money; they just aren’t at a place in their lives where they want to buy houses.

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Sugaryfun October 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Yep, as others have said, next time get everything in writing.

Also, though it seems like adults should not need one, a chore list is a good idea. When I moved into a share house with friends someone suggested a cleaning roster and I said “no, we don’t need that! We’re all adults here!” Big mistake. One guy ended up doing all the shopping and most of the cooking and I ended up doing up pretty much all the cleaning, with the others contributing the bare minimum (some of the washing up, vacuuming their own bedrooms only). They weren’t doing this to annoy us, they just genuinely didn’t understand how much needed doing and how often, having always had someone do it for them before. When you move in with someone you need to be clear about each other’s expectations.

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JeanLouiseFinch October 30, 2013 at 5:32 pm

OP – I won’t go into all of legal implications which I assume, you are now investigating. But I do want to advise you to let the local police know what the situation is in your house and ask them for advice on how to handle getting this guy out of your house with minimum conflict. I am simply concerned that as a woman in her 60’s, this person could cause a great deal of trouble for you and maybe even cause you harm, rather than move out peacefully. Please be careful with this, and let us know what happens.

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Angel October 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm

I agree with JeanLouise, give him a time frame when you want him to move out, and if he gives you any trouble at all, call the cops. I would be worried that he would do harm to you as well.

I hope you now realize how foolish it is to let someone move in to your home who you do not know that well–and expect them to help you with household chores. Not very realistic at all. You don’t have anything in writing and are not sure what sort of rights he has–it depends where you live. A letter from your lawyer may be enough to scare him off!

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Ergala October 31, 2013 at 7:42 am

@Dee someone can be the neatest people in the world but be the absolute worst tenants. You don’t truly know someone until you rent to them or live next to them. We’ve had neighbors that make me want to pull my hair out and scream. They act like they own the entire house we have apartments in. Their home is neat yes but their attitudes in regards to their neighbors SUCK. Hence why we are now getting a house. I’m done with it. And of course the landlord does nothing about it because these people are very sweet to their face. So no, seeing their home only tells you if they keep a neat home, not if they are decent people.

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Lynn October 31, 2013 at 9:49 am

Everything you need to know about renting in California is in here… http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/catenant.pdf

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Dee October 31, 2013 at 1:00 pm

@Ergala – and that’s why past references are essential. No references? No rent. There are multiple facets to good tenants and each one must be determined. That’s how a good landlord earns their money – they really work for it.

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Ergala October 31, 2013 at 9:09 pm

@Dee so what would you do if someone was getting their first apartment? Man I’d still be living with my parents if every single landlord required I have rented before…..I know many people who lived with their parents until they graduated college, usually around 22 or so. I happened to move out when I was 19 and I was lucky that I found a landlord that had a soft spot for young adults just out on their own. I had tried to get a few other places but they wouldn’t accept my application because I was a first time renter. When my husband and I were looking for places together we only had one that would rent to us. The others thought we were much younger than we were. One place even said they don’t rent to unmarried couples because too much “drama” follows. We tried to explain we were engaged and in fact getting married very very soon. Nope not until we had rings on our fingers. I’ll have to remind my hubby that all arguing magically disappears once you place the ring on your finger ;)

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Dee October 31, 2013 at 11:36 pm

@Ergala – there are always places to rent that aren’t fussy about their tenants. These are usually less than wonderful. But, like a first job, it is a stepping stone; you put in your time and keep the place nice and earn a good reference. The one time I took a chance on young people moving away from home for the first time; they begged for the chance as they were so discouraged at the dives available for those with no references. Big mistake. So now I make sure my tenants have earned the right to rent our nice place. We earned our references when we rented and it is a good lesson, too.
I personally don’t care if my renters are married, engaged, living in permanent sin, cross-dressers, transvestites, aliens from another world. The most fractious renters we have had were a grown mother/daughter pair. Even if they could have gotten married to each other I highly doubt it would have resolved their issues. But, perhaps that landlord you note had different experiences with unmarried couples. Who knows?

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Ergala November 1, 2013 at 11:04 am

@Dee that makes me sad. Man, after having to live in a “dive” and losing most of our furniture due to people infesting the building with fleas and bed bugs ( I was not about to bring those with us into a new place)….I was not happy at all and felt like we were getting shafted left and right. Just remember that not all people who are new to renting are going to be irresponsible. I do know that if a landlord acts like I cannot be trusted right out of the gate or gives me a vibe that I may be a bad tenant before even moving in I won’t rent from them, and I sure won’t be giving my friends their information either. I’ve had people who were moving who asked me if I knew of anyone renting out a house or apartment, I made sure to highlight the ones to absolutely avoid if they didn’t want to be made to feel like criminals or children. I live in a small town and when we were moving here our friends who already were local told us specific landlords to avoid. The reasons ranged from them being slumlords to attitudes like I just mentioned. I’m in my 30’s….I don’t appreciate someone making me feel like I am not worthy of paying them money to live somewhere simply because they are suspicious of anyone who comes to rent. I don’t look my age either, I look about 10 years younger so in my 20’s. People see me, and then see my two children and automatically assume I’m some young woman who made bad decisions. My husband looks young as well. Sorry, married for almost 10 years, in my 30’s and we’re at a point where I am a stay at home mom. Thankfully we’re getting out of the renting nightmare next month.

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Anonymous November 1, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I agree with the poster who said that it sounds like the OP wanted a house-elf rather than a roommate. House-elves cheerfully cook, clean, and are always friendly to their “masters,” regardless of how they really feel, and regardless of how they get treated in return, because they’re just so grateful to have a roof over their head. I’m not trying to be mean, but that was an incredibly good use of a Harry Potter reference. Maybe the guy was grateful at first, but eventually in roommate situations, even when people get along, they slide into the rhythm of everyday life, and feeling at home in their new home, and that’s normal. In some roommate relationships, it works out fine, but others never make it past the “honeymoon phase,” because when people stop being on their best behaviour, and start being real, it’s really only then that the roommates can see whether or not their personalities mesh.

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Dee November 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm

@Ergala – you certainly have your experiences but I don’t see how you’ve come to your assumptions as to how we are as landlords. It feels mighty judgmental given you don’t know us beyond the screening methods I’ve mentioned. All I can say is that our screening ensures we are as pleased with our renters as they are with us. It’s a win-win situation. I have had self-righteous renters apply and they are so demanding of their rights that that is a red flag right there. I’m sorry to say but you strike me as one of them. I’m sure you would not be happy renting from us, and I think that feeling would be mutual. I think that proves that our screening methods work.

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Me November 3, 2013 at 12:15 am

I’ve shared accommodation under a wide range of circumstances – I think about 30 roommates over the years, with neutral to good circumstances (no bad cases).

Having someone rent a room from you is almost never going to be something that makes things easier for you when it comes to housework and chores. Even a quiet, well behaved roommate who cleans up after themselves is still going to have a presence and a footprint in the place that’s going to be more fuss than being by yourself.

If you’re trading work for reduced rent, you need a contract – specify exactly what they are doing in return for the rent reduction, how it should be done, and at what frequency. This should be done before they move in. Before having someone move into a home you own for the first time, get legal advice. Find out what the rental/eviction laws are in your city (it can be surprisingly hard to get rid of an unwanted tenant, even one defaulting on rent) and how to draft a good rental agreement. If you are planning on a work for rent situation, check the legal details of that, and how to eject the tenant if they don’t hold up their end of the contract.

Before taking someone on as a roommate (or moving in with them), talk with them. Ask them to describe themselves, and what sort of life they like to lead, if they have any particular requirements when it comes to noise/cleanliness. Get references – former roommates, employers, etc. Be clear about your own requirements. If you’re renting a room to someone, clearly spell out the use of common areas – kitchen, laundry, TV. Discuss how to pay shared bills, housecleaning schedules and tasks, policies for houseguests (drop-in, regular and overnight), noise levels. Be specific – if you don’t them bringing home one night stands, say so. If overnight guests are not allowed (even a boyfriend/girlfriend) be clear about that, or if you have a limit (one night a week okay, 7 not). Be very upfront if you object to things like smoking or recreational drug use in your home, or if you have policies about illegal web downloads when the internet is in your name.

For pets – I’d only recommend taking a roommate with pets if you’ve had that type of animal as a pet before, so you have some idea of what is normal and expected – cats climb on stuff and need a litter box, dogs bark and may jump on people, and need to be walked. Spend some time with the animals to get an idea of how well they are trained. Take an extra pet deposit, to cover any damage the animal does. Be clear about how much *you* are willing to do for the animal – if you aren’t willing to take care of the animal when they are away, be clear about that, and settle what they’ll do in that situation.

And go with your gut feeling. If someone looks great on paper, but you get an off feeling, *listen* to that, or you’ll regret it.

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Ergala November 3, 2013 at 8:49 am

@Dee our landlord thinks we are extremely laid back. However when I am woken up at 3 am by my neighbor’s ex girlfriend screaming outside his door and banging on it for over half an hour…yeah I tend to get edgy. Especially when it’s mentioned to the landlord and we are told he’s a “nice guy” and it’s probably a one time thing (it isn’t). We finally started calling the police. The building has wood floors and his front door is right over our bedroom so when she was doing that it sounded like she was IN our bedroom. But here’s the thing, when I am told stuff will be taken care of and it isn’t I have every single right to be upset. When we moved in here we were told that before we did the carpets in our apartment would be replaced if not professionally cleaned. They were DISGUSTING. The day we moved in I discovered neither had happened. It’s been a year and they STILL turn our feet black. Underneath the carpeting is a beautiful wood floor but the landlord doesn’t want to remove the carpeting until after we move out due to the hassle. He’s a great landlord otherwise but there are somethings that are big deals that are small deals to him. Our electric bill is $200 a month and we have nothing big running. We have completely changed all our bulbs to the low cost ones, our computers are the new low energy use models….so is our TV. But our bill remains over $200 a month. Our neighbor ran his AC all summer and his was $75 a month. We don’t even have an AC and ours was so high. Our landlord won’t look into it and the electric company only deals with stuff on the outside of the building. So it’s probably a wiring issue but we’re kind of screwed. We don’t stamp our feet and scream about it even though it’s breaking us each month. We’ve mentioned it since we moved in and got our first bill ($145 for the first 2 weeks we were here). Nothing has been done. However he did put in a ceiling fan this past summer when we mentioned it was very muggy in the living room and the windows don’t open. It’s incredibly frustrating because you’d probably view those things as no big deal but to us it IS. Like when we had a wicked bad mouse problem….we found where they were coming in and we needed to actually patch the wall behind the stove to fix it. Never happened. So my cat was catching them and then getting worms constantly because he was catching mice. We put a mouse trap under there and it was going off 3 times a night. Absolutely NASTY. Not to mention my cat was somehow getting it out from under the stove and bringing me dead mice still in the trap. I screamed a few times at 1 am. We’re moving now and we’re done with it. I just can’t deal with the neighbors and hearing they MUST be good tenants because they pay their rent and are “nice people”….yeah they are but their habits and associates are NOT. One neighbor said we couldn’t put anything on the front porch yet he hangs his waders from fishing right over the banister outside our apartment. He’s the maintenance guy as well so I can’t argue with him or our landlord. He has also started putting old bottles underneath our living room window on the porch. Yet I can’t hang a flag or put a hummingbird feeder out. It’s incredibly frustrating.

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