What to do about elderly tenants in a house we might purchase?
March 16, 2012 4:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering purchasing a house. It's a fantastic midcentury home, it's got the perfect square footage, a pool, a really cool atrium entryway, and it's structurally sound. It's also being used as a group home by about seven elderly people and one mentally disabled younger man. They seem very nice. One of the elderly men is living in the garage. It's not a converted garage, just a regular two-car garage with exposed structure and wiring, etc. The house is clearly not being maintained well, and frankly, it's pretty depressing to see.

SOMEONE is going to buy this house. We love the house. We can easily imagine ourselves living happily inside it. It's probably the only chance we're going to have to live in something as architecturally significant as this, as houses like this really don't come into our price range, ever. It's perfect for our family, our lifestyle, it's in the school district we want to be in, I could go on and on.

So, if we buy the house, it comes with little old people. Sweet little old people who were really nice to my kid when we went to view the house. They have six months left on their lease. We can ask the seller to break the lease and give them sixty days' notice, leaving us with thirty days of landlording them. Kicking them all out seems cruel, but allowing that situation to continue seems like elder abuse. In any case, the way they are living seems like some laws are being broken.

What the hell do we do? Do we get social services involved? Please don't say "buy a different house," because then we're going to be worried about what happened to these people anyway, and we also won't have an amazing midcentury house, which would be all of the lose, none of the win.

Some info about us: we live in Southern California. The house in question is a short sale, so we're negotiating directly with the bank, but there is an actual person who owns the home. We can't afford to pay the mortgage on that house and the rent where we're currently living simultaneously, and we can't afford to fix that place up while we're not living there. The rent they pay is about six hundred dollars more a month than what our mortgage payment would be, but it seems awful (and unlawful) for anyone to be paying rent to live in a garage. We don't want to be evil.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First, perform a quick sanity check. Find out what the lease contains. Unless the lease explicitly contains a provision allowing for the lease to be void upon selling the home, the seller cannot just unilaterally break the lease with the seller's tenants.
posted by saeculorum at 4:31 PM on March 16, 2012

I agree taking rent from an old man living in a garage is unethical.

I don't think you should feel bad buying the house. But I do think, just as a human being being presented with this information you need to act on their situation. That doesn't mean you need to magically become an expert, so I think social services is a logical next step.

If you personally know anyone who is a social worker or nurse or non-profit worker in a shelter who might know the right people, I would also ask their advice about the best contact people in town and maybe help introducing the tricky situation. Not sure how thins work where you are, but in Canada, I would also speak in confidence to my MLA about this, as they will also have good connections and sometimes the ability to help fix a weird situation with creative connections.
posted by chapps at 4:37 PM on March 16, 2012

Other stuff aside, if you want to not be evil? Don't force them to move in sixty days. Moving in sixty days is hard for a family of young, reasonably-able people. Give them a reasonable amount of time to make other arrangements. If they're paying more than the mortgage woudl be, then you *can* afford to pay the mortgage and your current rent, you'd even be netting $600 extra a month. Save the $600 for a few months, let them get moved, spend it on fixing stuff up. If it seems like whoever is helping them out is not handling the move in a healthy way, might be moving them into worse accommodations, etc, then I'd contact local authorities to look into it. Whatever you're taking in rent from this point would only be temporary while they made other arrangements, and if he's been in the garage thus far, I don't think it's necessarily hurting him enough to need to rush the process.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:46 PM on March 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

As a practical matter, in California, they will be entitled to relocation benefits if forced to leave before their lease ends. It could be very expensive and, regardless of what you do, you need to be clear about who will bear that cost.
posted by carmicha at 4:49 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know nothing about these people, their finances or their options. Generally, people living in garages are not doing so because they have a lot of other options, and I promise you there are worse places to live. Take that seriously.

Consult a real estate lawyer. Clarify your responsibilities and exposure. Buy the house. Allow them to see out their lease. Nothing in your 100-year-old house is going to get irretrievably worse in six months. Secure or repair anything leaking, exposed or broken. Be a good landlord. This too shall pass.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:04 PM on March 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agree that the humane thing to do is allow them to stay the full six months -- who knows where they'd be going that's worse than this house. But definitely talk to a lawyer, and make sure that to the extent allowed by CA law, your contract provides that the SELLER is responsible for any liability caused by this arrangement. I think (but I'm not an expert) CA law is very protective of tenants, so it may not let you off the hook for those six months. If "the way they are living seems some laws are being broken" then you, as the owner of the house, may be held liable.

IAAL, so I tend to be paranoid about these things -- in real life, the risk may be pretty low because, at the risk of sounding like a coldhearted bastard, it's likely than nobody cares about these people enough to make a stink about it. But definitely talk this over with a CA real estate lawyer.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:14 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the group homes for elderly and disabled people that I am familiar with are run under the auspices of SOME kind of umbrella authority- an Office of the Aging, an Area Resource Center, SOMETHING. Is that the case with this home, or is this just a share house that happens to involve older and disabled people?

If it is just a share house, I would contact whatever organization like the ones mentioned above and get their take on this and on finding a safer, more habitable living arrangement for your soon-to-be tenants.

If it is run by some organization right now, I would call the attorney general in your state and say that there is a vulnerable elderly person living in an unimproved garage while supposedly being supervised by $AGENCY and are they the right office to contact about this or do they have a number you could call instead?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:18 PM on March 16, 2012

First, the house sounds great and perfect for your family. Second, why not find out all you can about these elderly folks? Ask the current person behind the short sale. If their rent covers the mortgage plus, why is the current owner being forced to sell? That sounds odd to me. Who pays the rent? Separate checks from all the tenents or does an agency pay or who? Is it possible that two were roommates and one decided proactively to move into the garage because it gave him more room and more privacy and really didn't suck too bad? Have you talked to them? You said they seemed nice.

One risk you take besides the legal risk described by chickenmagazine above is the financial risk. This pays if they ALL stay through the end of the lease. But, if a few decide they found a better place after 3 months, then you could be outlaying versus the mortgage which is a situation you clearly stated was not good. I assume you are not going to chase some old guy for the last two months rent. Is (are) there security deposits? What if they stay but they do some damage or their cheap ass movers break things on the way out? Can you get insurance on the house if it is a rental?

Before you go calling social services, find out a lot more about them, the details of their deal and about your legal rights and obligations. Maybe you could purchase the house now, but close on it when the lease expires? If the rent is truly covering the mortgage, the bank should hang in there for an extra 4 months or so.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:28 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

The current situation with the house seems strange. Group homes are usually affiliated with an organization or licensed person/group. Plus, doesn't the owner have a plan for their tenants or is their plan to just foist it all off on whoever buys the house?

I'd find out everything I can about the current situation, and then also coordinate with local social services, advocacy orgs, and a lawyer. These people will need a fair amount of assistance getting into new housing whether you own that house or not. I don't see how speeding up the transition schedule would be harmful as long as it's done in a coordinated manner with advocates.

This is a bit complicated, but I don't think it's worth walking away from the house considering it's ideal for you and your family in all other respects.
posted by quince at 5:40 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Short sales are everything but short. I'm trying to buy a house short sale. Submitted my offer in september, it was accepted in december, but I'm still not in. YMMV, but its conceiveable those nice old folks' lease will be up before you even secure financing.
posted by bricksNmortar at 5:50 PM on March 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yup, seconding bricksNmortar; the average time for a short sale, I've been told, is six months. (I made an offer before Thanksgiving, hope to close later this month.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:28 PM on March 16, 2012

3rding the 'short sales are not short'. Put in a 'Hail Mary' offer on a place in July, taking the 'spot in the queue' of the previous buyer who had sat in that queue for god knows how long. Heard nothing nothing nothing of consequence until October. Finally closed the week before Thanksgiving. I had fallen in love with the place like it sounds like you have, so it was a stressful time for me.

You have plenty of time to get this worked out to your satisfaction, so use all of the options you have on the table.
posted by msamye at 9:10 PM on March 16, 2012

I would start with the assumption that any group home as such is going to be state-regulated and subject to local zoning codes. Since you are dealing with a private owner, that sounds like they may be flying under the radar somehow, but you should be able to find out. If they don't have a lease with a provider, they may be providing the services themselves (in my state, this is called an adult family home, and has more liberal regulations than nursing homes). Look up registration for such facilities. If you can't find it that way, see if they have a company registered in their names. Finally, call the city and ask about any permits or zoning districts that apply. You don't have to drop any dimes at this time; just gather facts.

Once you know whether they are legitimate or not, you'll have a handle on how they are supposed to be regulated. I can't imagine any licensed facility housing someone in a garage that has not been properly converted to a living space, so this would be a violation, or more likely point to an unlicensed, uninspected facility. I would also expect them to be operating on a cash basis, as using federal program funds comes with inspection regimes. Still, such places exist and may even be legal where you are, and free will applies. If someone isn't actually being abused, and is of sound mind and body, I'd be a little more libertarian.

If they know you're buying the place, they do know what's coming down the pike. For the most part, I'd lean toward just ending the situation the easy way by taking the property over, but if you were to give some state or city inspector's business card to the tenants as they leave, well .... the operators might get more scrutiny next time.
posted by dhartung at 11:11 PM on March 16, 2012

Check your local tenant protection laws. In San Francisco Ellis Act evictions (where the owner is taking the rental property off the market), elderly tenants get 1 year's notice and $3400 in relocation benefits on top of the $5105 in relocation benefits that any tenant gets.
posted by slidell at 1:02 AM on March 17, 2012

If you genuinely suspect that the situation is one of neglect and exploitation, then you should report it as elder abuse.
posted by jann at 1:43 AM on March 17, 2012

Clear you conscience about the "living in the unconverted garage" part. Most elders remember a time when we didn't all live in climate-controlled McMansions, and clean, dry and serviceable was acceptable. I'm sure it's much better than a tent in Korea, or a hooch in the jungles of Vietnam.

I gather they use the facilities in the main house, so this is basically just a summer house in the yard that would otherwise cover and protect cars; it's just protecting something more important than a car right now. It's also probably more comfortable than about half of the housing stock in Venice Beach or Oxnard. Southern California is not really known for temperature extremes.

As long as they are maintaining reasonable cleanliness standards in the kitchen and bathrooms, this is no different from having eight college students in a house, except that they probably respect the property better than students would. Elders tend to put more importance on maintaining their independence rather than going to an assisted living facility, where they have to surrender all of their benefits and have no control over their lives. For the able-bodied, it's a prison sentence, plain and simple.

I agree about the short sale taking forever, especially since this is a special property. Even if you go ahead with the purchase agreement yesterday, it's likely to be at least 180 days before you have the keys, if then. I don't think you are going to have tenants when you finally close.

One thing to check for: with CA water restrictions and penalties, make sure that the water service is currently legal and up-to-date. It's a common lien in situations like this, where usage may be greater than predicted. Otherwise, go big for the dream house.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:05 AM on March 17, 2012

I might be missing something, but why can't you tell them that they're out when their lease it up, take the rent for that period (don't take the garage-dweller's portion if that's an issue) and move in when they move out?
posted by benbenson at 10:01 AM on March 17, 2012

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