Our house, is a very very sick house...
December 15, 2008 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Our house is in sad state of disrepair. We'd fix it if we could, but we don't own it. We'd be persistent with the "landlords" but, we don't pay rent or bills. How do I tell them in a forceful, but considerate way that the house needs to be fixed?

SO and I live in a small house built in the 1930s, updated in the 1960s, and then bought by SO's boss/ dear friend a few years ago. It's a cute house in an old neighborhood. It's just sick and needs help. Help that I can't afford to give it (as we are not the owners.)

Boss makes a good living, he and his wife bought the house next door to him as a guest house/office. He then moved SO in to the house after hiring him (they'd been friends and collaborators for over a decade before this.) Then SO and I met, fell and love and I moved in to the house, with the Boss' permission, of course.

When I moved in, I spruced the place up--turning it from a bachelor pad to a home by throwing a coat of paint in every room, buying furniture and reflooring one of the bedrooms. I did this all with permission from the owners.

Now, a few years later, the bathroom has a mold problem that no amount of bleach or scrubbing can cure (it seems to stem from the drywall or behind the tub.) The tile in the bathroom is cracking, the grout is washing away with every shower. The countertops and backsplash are disintegrating, and the house is in need of new windows and doors. There's a roof leak in the back patio.......I could go on. These aren't so much cosmetic issues, as they are general safety and structural issues. I can fix cosmetic issues, in fact, I enjoy it. But this house needs a professional's touch.

Because we don't pay rent or bills, obviously this puts us in a tricky position in asking for the repairs. SO has mentioned to them certain issues with the house, and they never materialize into repairs. I'm sure the electric bill is higher than it should be because of the old windows, doors and floor boards.

Boss and his wife don't really seem to care about the general well being of their property. They did fix the plumbing this year when we had the water pressure of a garden hose in our shower for a couple years, but it took a year from them knowing about the problem to something being done about the plumbing.

They do make sure the lawn is mowed, they built a pen for the dog we rescued (without us even asking), and they are incredibly kind and generous folk. We all have a great relationship and sometimes I don't know if we could ever move because they're so awesome. I just don't feel like our house is going to last another 10 years!

How do I effectively point out the issues plaguing the house, while maintaining the peace and not sounding like we've suddenly become freeloaders and the house doesn't seem "good enough" anymore? Should I just not say anything? (even though that doesn't seem right to me) I'm just trying to be a good "renter" and a good friend. At the moment, moving to another place isn't an option due to my crushing school debt and the current projects SO has with the Boss.

Can anyone lend any advice, anecdotal or otherwise to this situation?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Since you've been living rent-free for a while, can you offer to take on some or all of the costs this would incur? It sounds like you've got a sweet deal, and perhaps your offer to assume the cost would make the landlord more likely to want to go ahead with the projects.
posted by tractorfeed at 3:33 PM on December 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you're not paying rent or a mortgage, why don't you offer to pay for the repairs? I mean, you're living there for free.
posted by desjardins at 3:35 PM on December 15, 2008 [17 favorites]

Seems to me that if the repairs don't get done, the value of the property would decline, and they'd lose equity. Which means that in the long run, doing the repairs might cost them less than not doing them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:36 PM on December 15, 2008

It never worked on a useless landlord I once had, but can you somehow convince them that doing repairs on an as-needed basis is much cheaper than having to do them all at once (say, when they put the place up for sale)? I can't imagine that there's a diplomatic way to tell them that some of their lack of repairs may put them in an expensive position of having to correct code violations, but maybe you can think of one.

Since you don't pay rent, you don't have much leverage, and since they run no risk of losing rent-paying tenants, they don't have much incentive to fix the problems. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 3:37 PM on December 15, 2008

Well, let's face it . . . you are freeloaders. That may be completely cool with the people from whom you freeload, but it doesn't change the essential fact. (It sounds like your SO has some sort of deal which maybe includes the rent, and the owners are cool about you living there . . . but you're *definitely* freeloading from what you describe, and in general "crushing school debt" does not excuse one from having to pay rent of some sort to someone.

What would you do if they kicked you out? You'd have to buy or rent a place, obviously. I'd figure that you should figure out the minimum rent you'd have to buy, slice that in half and put it towards fixing up the place - you're still coming out way ahead.

You don't give any information about how or why the living situation is the way it is, which might be helpful.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2008 [9 favorites]

If you're living there rent-free, the awesome thing to do would be to put aside a portion of what you would be paying in rent, then casually mentioning to your landlord that you are really grateful for the nice place and the sweet deal, and that "we'd like to put in a new bathroom or windows or whatever as a gesture of our appreciation. If that's ok with you, I mean."
posted by Aquaman at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2008

What would a fair rent be? Make a plan to start spending 1/2 that amount on the house. It's a win:win, you get half-price rent, they get their house fixed. As you get work done, get permission, and get it done properly. They may offer to pay for some or all of it. Work it out so that you pay at least a portion; it will foster good will, and it's fair. Do be effusive about your appreciation for the house.
posted by theora55 at 3:43 PM on December 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Agreed with others... if you want repairs, you should offer to pay for them, or at least offer to share the cost, or start paying rent. When you ask for the repairs, ask what he wants in return.
posted by jknecht at 3:47 PM on December 15, 2008

I think the problem is that, even though you use the words "landlord" and "renter," that is not the case. You are the perpetual guests of friends, who are letting you live there while you don't have the money to live anywhere else. As a guest, you don't ask for your host to repair his home, and you don't point out issues with their home.

That's not to say that it sounds great, but until you are in a place where you pay the rent and bills, that's what you've got.
posted by Houstonian at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

How do I effectively point out the issues plaguing the house, while maintaining the peace and not sounding like we've suddenly become freeloaders and the house doesn't seem "good enough" anymore?

You can't. Your best bet is to make a list of everything that needs repairing, and take it to the "landlord." Tell him you want to get this stuff fixed, and ask "is it OK if I fix it myself? Be sure and thank them for letting you live rent free for so long. Tell them you'd like to repay them by making the house they own (and you live in, for free) a little bit nicer.
posted by nitsuj at 3:57 PM on December 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Piling on that if you don't pay rent you really don't have any leverage. Save up to do the repairs yourself or pay to rent better place to live are your two fair options here.
It's possible that your husband's pay includes rent, but if that's the case, he can move out and ask for a raise. Even if they already owned the house, they do pay property taxes, something you're not having to pay.
posted by fructose at 3:59 PM on December 15, 2008

The first time I moved into a really shitty old rental house, and started getting upset about the fact that the landlord was absolutely failing to live up to his obligations under the Tenancy Act, one of the older and wiser tenants pointed out to me that we were living under what he called the Italian Deal: if the tenants don't kick up a fuss about necessary repairs, and just quietly do most of the stuff the landlord ought to be doing according to the rules, then the landlord will continue to rent out the house at below-market rates.

Sounds like you have the Boss Deal, which works similarly only the rent is even lower.

You have a choice: you can (a) budget for these repairs out of your own pocket or (b) rock the boat.

I suggest to you that (a) will cost you less in the medium to long term.
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 PM on December 15, 2008

Nthing that you should pay for some of the repairs you want yourself. I do pay rent, actually a great deal of rent, on an apartment in a nice part of Manhattan. And in reality, I have an awesome deal because my apartment is rent stabilized. To get something comparable in the same neighborhood I would pay twice as much. When I moved in the landlord had just done some renovations, but two things bothered me: the beautiful but painfully scuffed up hardwood floors, and the cheapo and tiny (but brand new ) kitchen cabinets. So with his permission, I paid to refinish the floors and replace the cabinets. It was an investment in my living space that has given me immense satisfaction, even though I don't own the place.

I understand part of your rational... it's their place, and they should care. But you can't push the matter. You have an incredible deal, and if I were you, I would make some of the repairs: a. to make your living space better, b. extend the habitability of the place so you can stay there and c. as a gesture of thanks for the owners. You aren't entitled to ask them anything, and this smacks of being a choosy beggar.
posted by kimdog at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2008

They do make sure the lawn is mowed, they built a pen for the dog we rescued (without us even asking), and they are incredibly kind and generous folk.

You don't seem to understand how lucky you are. You are living rent-free and you're asking for a "forceful" way to tell the owner the house needs fixing? After the owner built your dog a pen from the kindness of his heart? You are, on any interpretation, freeloading, and I'm really amazed that you don't feel the responsibility to cut the grass yourself. Wow.

How do I tell them in a forceful, but considerate way that the house needs to be fixed?

You don't. You just appreciate the fact that you're living somewhere for free, and you move if you don't like it.

At the moment, moving to another place isn't an option due to my crushing school debt and the current projects SO has with the Boss.

No, moving is an option. Everyone in the adult world pays for the roof over their head. No one is obligated to live where their SO's boss wants them to live. You've lucked out to have free lodging and you're free to either fix it yourself or move if it's not up to your standards.

Maybe there's something I don't understand here, but you seem to be living under a crushing sense of entitlement.
posted by jayder at 4:19 PM on December 15, 2008 [19 favorites]

He then moved SO in to the house after hiring him (they'd been friends and collaborators for over a decade before this.)

Is the house explicitly a part of his compensation package as an employee? If this is the case, he is paying rent (it's just coming directly out of his paycheck) and is absolutely entitled to any services a landlord would normally be expected to provide. If it's just kinda vaguely understood that living rent-free in that house is part of his deal as an employee, but it isn't actually codified in his contract, I'd say you have some legitimate grounds to expect that the house be maintained but that realistically if it isn't forthcoming your best bet is to just move out and ask for a commensurate raise. If you two really are just living there rent-free as a favor from this guy, well, I think that case has been adequately covered.
posted by contraption at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

1. Estimate out how much you might pay for rent in a similar setup.
2. Start putting aside half that amount each month for the next six months.
3. After six months, approach the landlord with a plan of what your concerns/priorities are. Offer the amount you've saved up so far, asking them to match that amount, and offer to continue paying that amount for the next year if they are willing to match it.
posted by furtive at 4:43 PM on December 15, 2008

I don't understand the question. You weither tell them -- turning your question into a statement -- or you do the work. Or you move out and take on all the costs associated with paying rent or owning a house. Pick one. /landlord of multiple properties who also has someone living on a property rent free. If they would ever call us with problems regarding repairs I would fix them, probably just after releaving them of their tenancy.

In the end, the problem is with your agreement with them, or lack thereof -- it's obviously missing some detail. Clear that up first, then talk about repairs.
posted by Dick Paris at 4:57 PM on December 15, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - you can save the snark or take it to metatalk please, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:33 PM on December 15, 2008

Yeah, bonbothegreat has it. You will risk more than the rent-free house and the job, but the friendship.

I think you need to move to a place where you pay and have more control over your circumstances.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:43 PM on December 15, 2008

I imagine if the folks who own your house read this you'd be out on the street, which might help you gain some perspective on what you're asking for here...?

New windows cost thousands and thousands of dollars. You can put up 'ghetto wrap' -- plastic sheeting to insulate them -- for five bux. For free rent, get used to ghetto wrap.
posted by kmennie at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2008

I agree with others that 'forceful' was the wrong way to conceive of approaching these issues with your hosts, but some of the house's specific problems should probably be addressed. It sounds as if the tile installation around the shower has broken down to the point that water is infiltrating the walls and creating the mold issues. It's probably too late to save the tile, but they might be able to throw in a fiberglass tub surround and caulk it properly, and thereby prevent further damage inside the walls. Similarly, the roof leak should be fixed before it causes more serious degradation of the structure. Unless they plan to bulldoze the house someday, it's in the landlords' interest to fix these problems sooner rather than later. The rest of it, though -- windows and doors, countertops and backsplash... it really doesn't sound like you have any business complaining. Fix it, live with it or leave.
posted by jon1270 at 6:12 PM on December 15, 2008

"Hey, we appreciate you giving us a place to stay for as long as you have, but we're going to start looking for a new place. The house is great, but it's getting pretty run down and we don't feel comfortable making demands of you, since we don't pay any rent."
posted by electroboy at 6:43 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are paying rent regardless of what the other posters think. It is part of your SO's compensation for collaborating with his boss/landlord.

I would make a list of repairs sorted by importance in terms of structural and required down to cosmetic wants. I would tell the bossman that you are saving to make some of the necessary repairs on your own. I would give him a copy of your list. I would tell him that you want to pay for them, but it may take a little time. If he repairs them in the interim, you will pay him back over time. I bet he makes the necessary repairs and tells you to forget about the payback.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:50 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'll try some constructive advice:

Find out what each repair entails in absolute detail. Costs, supplies, time, contractors, everything. Bring your landlord a plan - a detailed proposal - for each repair you would like done.

Approach landlord plan-in-hand. After pleasant chit-chat, say "I was thinking that your house really needs some repairs. For instance ..." Then start going over, in detail, the repairs. "We'll have to do a, b, c. I've found this great contractor, highly recommended. Might take about x-number of days. And here's how much it'll cost." Make sure you let them know that you'll take the lead on getting everything done, all they have to do is pay the bill.

And thank and thank and thank and thank them for their generosity, coolness and general awesomeness. Because they are rad.

This approach has been successful for me at work, at school, and at home in situations where I have little or no leverage.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:51 PM on December 15, 2008

What would happen to your free house if your husband left his current employer/friend for another job? If he would then lose the house, I'm thinking it's part of his compensation package rather than really being "free."

I'd approach the landlord by saying something like "I'm concerned about the structural integrity of the house, and am concerned it might lose value if we don't get some repairs done on it. I think it would be less expensive to get the repairs done now rather than wait as things may get worse. Do you have any ideas on how we can work together to get these things done?"
posted by hazyjane at 10:56 PM on December 15, 2008

As people have suggested, a noteworthy question about whether it is in fact free. If your husband left the job, and his replacement didn't need or want the place, would that person get the same wage as your husband and no house or a higher wage and no house?

If the latter, to the extent that the answer is clear, seems markedly more realistic to find a pleasant way to get something done. If the former, Nthing the thoughts about 1/2 market-rate rent/mo. going into repairs.
posted by ambient2 at 11:50 PM on December 15, 2008

I have the "Italian Deal" that flabdablet mentions. I/we gladly do any and all repairs including replacing kitchen, new windows (a few at a time), and a few years ago I replaced the heating system for a couple apartments (though I was in a position to get this done.) I do this work with joy in my heart as the landlord appreciates it (volubly and frequently) and in return we've had the kind apartment that I will not boast about any more than to say, I will not tell anyone what our rent is.

Consider doing the repairs your rent, except the pay-off is not only financial, but by showing you care about the space, you will warm the heart of your landlord - win-win.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:34 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to talk with your hosts about their home, I suggest you don't talk about "our" house (as you did in this post), and I suggest your SO talk with them... not you.

I don't think they will be receptive, as they already know about the problems and are not fixing them. It's their office, after all, that you are living in, so I assume they are in and out of it. Also, you've mentioned the problems before. And I'm sure they got the house inspected before they purchased it (since you've been there for years, things have gotten worse, but surely some of the issues were problems when they purchased the house).

However, if you agree with some of the people here that living in their house/office is part of your SO's pay package, then definitely it is your SO who should have the conversation with the owners. You don't renegotiate your SO's pay, the worker negotiates pay with their employer.
posted by Houstonian at 3:24 AM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

If the roof collapses or the interior walls fall apart from water and mold damage, they will either have to repair it when selling the house or sell it at a loss.

You're living there for free. I'd suggest your SO approach his friend and say "Hey, there are some issues with the house that are going to cost you a ton of money in the long run when you have to fix them so that the future buyer can meet FHA regulations for a mortgage. I'd be happy to do the repairs I know how to do, if you want to supply the material"

Or some variation of that. Maybe you guys throw in some money since you are living rent free... maybe they buy raw material and you buy the tools... whatever.

If they have any business sense they'll take you up on the free labor and want to keep the equity in the home.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 7:30 AM on December 16, 2008

The problem with paying for the repairs, is that all the repairs she's listed are pretty expensive to fix properly. New windows will be ~$500 each, roof repairs are anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on the severity of the problem.

I guess the best course of action would be to get estimates for all the work that needs to be done, then figure out whether having it fixed is cheaper than rent. If not, then it's time to discuss with the landlords whether they'll share the costs or if you're going to start looking for a new place.
posted by electroboy at 9:44 AM on December 16, 2008

I don't see this mentioned, but is it possible that the repairs are not being done (or put off for so long) as a very non-confrontational way of getting you to move? The dog pen may not have been for you, but that they don't want your new pet digging in their yard...
posted by blackkar at 5:49 PM on December 16, 2008

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