Want to create a formal legal roommate agreement, not a landlord/tenant lease document
February 23, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm moving in a roommate. What can/should I do to protect myself legally?

The house I live in is actually a duplex, two basically identical apartments stacked on each other linked through a shared laundry room. The house belongs to my partner, who is going to be away for work for a few years. It's nearly paid off, and we're wanting to be here long-term, so we're hanging onto the property and I'm staying here to keep it running while he's away.

For reasons having to do with revised zoning laws since this building was built in the 1950s, the status of the lower apartment as being rentable is questionable, so we're choosing not to actually rent it out.

I'm looking at taking in someone who will live downstairs as a cost-sharing roommate. Several factors are easy to decide: the downstairs has its own address and electric meter. Shared resources in the house (internet access, satellite service) are easy to split up as far as bills go.

A lot of the standard roommate contract stuff won't need to enter into this: the roommate would have their own apartment, with separate kitchen, bathroom, living space, etc. So a lot of the tedious conflict-creating matters of living with someone else don't need to apply. The shared laundry room would be neutral space between us, and that is likely easily managed between two adults over 40.

What I really need is to find a way to formalize this roommate relationship without it becoming a full-on landlord/tenant document which could lead to tangled problems should any issues ever arise. Something which makes it clear that this person is not a renter, but is a roommate, with reduced privileges from full renter status, but still guaranteeing an amount of security to both parties. Something which, worst case scenario, I could rely on as a legal document to show that they are not meeting their financial end of the agreement, and be able to extract someone unwillingly from the premises should that be required.

I'm looking for resources, example documents, and other such things (even issues I haven't thought about yet) to help me shape an agreement we can both sign to help us both feel secure and protected, yet clearly delineated what is expected of each party.
posted by hippybear to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So you want to move someone into a house that your partner owns and you are in charge of, and you want to do so while avoiding becoming this person's landlord and while avoiding any penalties for having a tenant in an illegal apartment? You need a lawyer. There is no way that we can help you answer this question (especially since you've given us no information about where you're located, but even if you did, we still couldn't answer). You have very specific legal needs, and you need legal advice to avoid being on the hook to either your renter or the government for situations you didn't anticipate.
posted by decathecting at 7:57 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, I agree. Given the situation, it would be worth your while to pay for a couple of hours of lawyer time to consider the situation and devise the documents you need.
posted by HuronBob at 8:01 PM on February 23, 2012

This is exactly what lawyers are for.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:01 PM on February 23, 2012

I recently met with a lawyer about a cohabiting situation, and one thing which was pointed out to me was that in most places, you cannot create a legally binding document that forces people to sign away legal rights they would already have. Even if they do sign such an agreement, they could contest it in court if it came to that, on the grounds that you cannot ask them to give up rights they are entitled to. So, even if you don't *call* yourself a 'landlord' it may be that you still have the responsibilities of one given your situation.

For instance, in my area, it is illegal to discriminate based on family status, including pets. Many leases do have a 'no pets' clause in them, and most tenants do honour these clauses because they either don't know the difference or because they don't care or because it would cost too much to go to court to fight it. But *if* a landlord here tried to evict you because you broke the no pets clause and you wanted to fight it, you could---and the fact that you signed the lease would be immaterial.

So, see a lawyer. Because it might be that you are not allowed to legally do what you want to do. It may very well be that you can do so illegally i.e. without creating legal documentation and just taking in the 'roommate.' But a separate apartment with its own kitchen, bathroom and everything? It may be that if you want legal documents, you *have to* be a landlord here.
posted by JoannaC at 8:12 PM on February 23, 2012

Wouldn't it be simpler for you to rent the entire house from your partner, and then seek a housemate through Craigslist, etc. to share costs? This makes it pretty much just like any other roommate-seeking situation, except that the roommate gets the sweeeeet deal of lucking into their own private apartment.
posted by desuetude at 8:21 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

If someone pays you money to live in your house, they legally have "full renter status" and their privileges cannot be legally reduced. You should just do a formal lease.
posted by twblalock at 8:51 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of this will depend on the laws in your state and possibly city. I've seen different laws about the status of someone renting a room in Maryland vs. in California, and different right/protections for the tenant and the landlord in each state. There might be several different legal classifications based on the specifics of your situation, like the person you rent to being a lodger vs. a tenant vs. a roommate.

If the place downstairs already has its own address and electric meter, have you looked into having some sort of zoning exception made so you can just do this legally? I think that usually involves posting some sort of sign and giving people the chance to contest it--I've seen signs like that posted in some places.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:02 PM on February 23, 2012

When I decided to start renting out a room in my home, I called my city help-line and asked if I needed to get licensed as a landlord. The woman said, "oh, honey, if you're going to be living there too, you're not a landlord. You're a roommate. And that means you can discriminate in all kinds of ways!" I am not joking.

What I eventually figured out is that, at least where I live, if you reside in the property as well (which it sounds like you do, because of weird zoning laws it's considered one property) you can write up whatever kind of archaic lease agreement you want. You want a roommate that's sober/doesn't drink alcohol? Put it in there. A roommate who agrees to not have overnight guests? Put it in there. A roommate that doesn't smoke cigarettes? Put it in there. A roommate who will respect your space/privacy/right to be an evangelical Christian/cross-dresser/speak only Dutch while indoors/juggle flaming objects? Put it in there.

The only CATCH is that almost none of that is legally binding. Agreements strictly about money are, but agreements about who cleans the bathroom how often, or has overnight guests, etc, are more murky.

I suggest you google "sample roommate agreements" (there's a ton out there, especially aimed at college students) and create your own based on your needs. If nothing else, it's just a (faux) document for you and your renter to look over together and discuss each other's expectations ... such as common areas of the home, borrowing a cup of milk from the fridge, having overnight guests, taking out the trash ...

Oh, and lastly: TALK TO YOUR HOMEOWNER'S INSURANCE. You don't want to risk some hack falling down the stairs and suing you/the landlord/whatever you decide to be; make sure you're covered!
posted by athena2255 at 10:20 PM on February 23, 2012

Something which makes it clear that this person is not a renter, but is a roommate, with reduced privileges from full renter status

This makes it clear that you need a lawyer as this distinction is rather informal, and not legal like you want. Please get a lawyer so you can tell the next mefite who asks this how you benefitted from a lawyer's counsel.
posted by karathrace at 12:51 AM on February 24, 2012

Which country do you live in?

In the UK, you would want to draw up a standard lodger agreement in this scenario, which is possible to do without a lawyer being involved but is still a binding document. You would also be legally required to keep the deposit in a separate account from your own financial affairs in case of dispute. However, the national/local laws where you are may be different. There's weird differences that make a house of multiple occupancy (ie. a place where a number of renters live together) into a separate dwelling, such as whether the renter has a separate locked entrance to their house. (when I was a student, we lived in separate rooms which locked with a Yale lock - despite having a shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, we still needed our own separate TV license and phone account *per room* becaude the presence of a lock meant they were legally separate addresses.) The rights of a lodger (ie living in a house where landlord is present) and the rights of someone renting the place themselves are very different here. If it's the case where you live, you need to be clear what exactly you're providing.

You need to contact your local housing charity (Shelter cover this here) and/or a lawyer to be clear that everything is covered.
posted by mippy at 6:35 AM on February 24, 2012

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