Considering renting out a room
April 5, 2016 5:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering renting out a room in our apartment. The income would allow my ex-husband and me to finally separate after our "temporary" arrangement of the last 6 years which followed 9 years of separation. I'm desperate! But I'm not sure if we are likely to find someone to rent, given some drawbacks to the situation.

We live just outside Boston, in Belmont (next to Cambridge). Our apartment is very large, over 2 floors. On the 2nd floor are the "public" rooms: the living and dining rooms, the kitchen, and the 1 very small bathroom, along with 2 bedrooms, and a front and back porch. The 3rd floor has 2 bedrooms, and a large "playroom." The renter would be the only one using the 3rd floor, except for maybe some very occasional use of the other bedroom as a guest room. The 2 floors are connected by a small, steep, winding, uncarpeted stairway which is tucked away off the living room. it's kind of a drag being so far away from the 1 bathroom. Also, the 3rd floor is not actually part of the steam heat system. The rooms all have a small strip of baseboard, electric heaters which are adequate to keep the rooms warm in winter, except that they are not on thermostats. They must be manually turned on and off. So if you keep it on after you get into bed, the room will get heated all night long--expensive. Also, the 3rd floor is not very attractive. All wood floors, but the large middle playroom is also completely covered in dark fake wood paneling with no windows or skylights at all, making it very dark at all times. The 2 bedrooms have windows and plenty of light. But fairly ugly paint jobs. Good closets, though. The renter could have their choice of the very large room with a small closet, or the small room with a ridiculously large closet. And they would also have full use of the playroom, currently furnished with a couch and chairs and an old, working TV. And they would have tons of privacy. There would be no reason for anyone else to go upstairs.

Our house is just a few doors away from a very convenient bus which gets you to Harvard Square in less than 20 minutes and runs very, very frequently. It's a very nice neighborhood of lots of similar 2-family houses, safe and pleasant. It would be super convenient for the subway, and maybe particularly attractive to Harvard or MIT students or visiting academics.

The renter would have full access to the kitchen and also the 2nd floor porches, which are very nice to hang out on. Also, they could use our washer and dryer for free (though they are waaaaaay down in the basement).

Oh, and we have 2 cats. Right now they spend some time upstairs, and there's no door to cut them off from going up there, but I supposed maybe we could rig something up?

I see that the going range for a bedroom in a shared apartment in the Greater Boston area is very expensive right now, around $800 to $1200, depending on location. I was thinking we could rent it out for $400 (maybe $600?), keeping it low to compensate for it's drawbacks.

Aside from my concerns over whether we are likely to be able to even find anyone, and what a reasonable rent would be, I'm not sure what else I should be considering. I haven't lived with a roommate for almost 30 years, no one other than my family since that time. I don't love the idea, but it would enable my to finally separate from my ex-husband. I'm really looking for more just a boarder, not a roommate that we'd be friends with or spend any time with. What are the things I need to consider before going any further with this plan?

So, to sum up:

Pros (for potential renters):
-decent room and storage size
-bonus playroom for their exclusive use
-low rent

Cons (for potential renters):
-share 1 tiny bathroom with me and college-student son
-bathroom (and kitchen) far away from bathroom
-bedroom not great climate-wise; hot in summer (we can provide window AC); cold in winter
-playroom is very dark and gloomy
-living with family who don't want to form relationship (I mean, we're very friendly and open to becoming friends, but we wouldn't all be 20 somethings sharing an apartment together)
-no parties! Can have friends over, but not too many, and no rowdiness

Would you rent this (these) room(s)? How much would you pay?

Thanks, all!
posted by primate moon to Home & Garden (22 answers total)
Just to make sure this is clear, this is one of those three story places and you and your son occupy the second and third floors? I think my sister basically used to live in exactly this sort of place. So the renter would pick one bedroom and you would keep the other for a guestroom that they could maybe also use? That's actually not that unusual and if I were you I would charge more like real rent for it. And I might invest in some thermostat option (or a timer) for the baseboard heating (my sister's place was identical with this issue, it was challenging) if possible. "House has cats" is also not that unusual. Is there decent internet in the place?

I would make sure you knew the rules inside and out in terms of subletting. A mistake you could make is presuming you can pick and choose who you have and kick them out if it doesn't work but there may be more complex issues than that, so be sure you understand them. Rules like no overnight guests are not that unusual with boarder situations. I'd just be clear about what you are looking for (there are a lot of AskMes about what to think about in roommate situations) and I think you'd have your pick of people for that room even if it was in the $700-800 range.
posted by jessamyn at 5:22 PM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

And just as a side note, I have a partner who had a two bedroom in Belmont and would rent out his son's room when the son was at his mom's via AirBnB and he kept it full as much as he wanted to. Another possibility if you don't want to commit.
posted by jessamyn at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2016

If I were looking for housing in Boston right now, I would be willing to pay the prevailing 1BR share rate to share your place. As a 20-something non-party-animal, your lifestyle would be way more attractive to me than shares with 3 other 20-somethings with unknown habits. If I saw this room advertised for half the going rate, I would be suspicious it was some sort of scam. Your room is in all likelihood more attractive than many being advertised at $800-$1200.
posted by silby at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

Things to know about "renting a room".

1. Unless the two spaces can be permanently separated and the tenant's space would have a bathroom and kitchen, you need to look at this as more of a roommate thing and less of a tenant thing. In that case, they would "have use of" the whole apartment aside from your own bedroom or other blatantly private areas of the house. "Hey look you can sit in this playroom and watch TV if you want" isn't really a privilege in that case, it's expected when you share a house with someone.

2. If you do separate the spaces and offer your tenant The Whole Third Floor or whatever, you should assume they will use it and will not want you to commandeer their part of the house for guests as needed. If you're giving up the guest room so as to create this tenant situation, you give it up for real. If you're not giving them exclusive use of the third floor or otherwise separating out the apartment as Your Space and My Space, that's also fine but it needs to be one or the other.

3. You can't really control this person. If they like to crank the heat all night, they get to crank it no matter if you happen to think that heating their space is "expensive". You can't control when they have visitors, and while you can ask them to keep quiet hours and not host parties, you may not be able to enforce that to your satisfaction without a lot of annoyance for you.

4. You can't really offer a room for half the going rate and then be like "NO HEAT FOR YOU!" or "we get to be all up in your space but you can't be in ours" or the like. You kind of have to assume the overall social contract and charge what that's worth to you.

5. If you own the apartment and they will be renting from you, seriously consider what your responsibilities are as a landlord and what rights your tenant will have. The whole winter temperature thing especially gives me pause about this, as in most cities in cold climates there are local laws about habitable temperatures and tenants having access to heat.
posted by Sara C. at 5:30 PM on April 5, 2016 [18 favorites]

You might want to think about hosting exchange students. I have done this in the past, and have made pretty good money, and it's a situation where you would be the boss, not in a roommate situation. You would have to provide meals, but for instance The Newman school pays $1100 a month per student and you can host 2 students. There is also an organization called Global Immersion that places different short term groups as well as longer term university students. What's nice is there is a middle man who can help you work with your guest if any issues pop up (I hosted almost 100 different students and there were only 3 times where I needed to ask students to leave.

Feel free to memail me if you want more info.
posted by momochan at 5:41 PM on April 5, 2016

OK, if it weren't for you being in Boston I'd think this is a lousy deal. But since you're in Boston I think you can get more than $600/month and whoever it is you get will be happy about it.

It is more like a roommate than a tenant, though - the bathroom, kitchen, and heat together make that completely obvious.
posted by SMPA at 5:43 PM on April 5, 2016

I'm sorry to threadsit, but I phrased my concern about the heating system badly. What I meant to convey is my concern that the primitive heating is not possible to really control. It's either no heat and cold, or all heat and hot. I shouldn't have mentioned expense. I want whoever is in that room to be comfortable, whether it's my son (currently) or a "paying guest," to use an antiquated term.
posted by primate moon at 5:44 PM on April 5, 2016

Disclosure up front to potential roommate that the baseboard heaters are a pain to control. That seems like an easy problem to solve with an oil filled plug in radiator in each room.
posted by Karaage at 6:06 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who have said given the current rental market in the Boston area you should be able to rent this out pretty easily, even given the drawbacks. I also agree that pricing it more at market rent (I would guess $800-$1000/month) will make people less suspicious and make the unit easier to rent. I would NOT call the playroom a "playroom" in your ads - something about this term makes me think "kinky sex den" or something weird. I would call it an office or bonus room.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:09 PM on April 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

For 20 min from Harvard Sqaure by bus, and buses in Cambridge aren't always on time the location isn't spectacular for a student at one of the 2 big schools, unless they have a car. What about parking? 8 years ago I paid $800 to share a 4 bd apt with 3 other people with one bathroom and living room, close to Kendall square.

How about electric heaters that can be thermostat modulated, chart say $750 so it covers the bills. i would cute up the place, if the play room is dark get some nice lamps. Advertise as all inclusive so they don't have to deal with bills every month. Offer excellent internet/wi-fi.

I agree with targeting exchange students. they are around for a short while and intent on having a good time - the place might be just a place to crash for them. Both schools also have mid-career programs, you could add your place to the list of options the schools give to as available accommodation in the area. Find a student of staff to help you post it to an insider listserv.
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 6:12 PM on April 5, 2016

So, Belmont is not a tremendously attractive location for a person without a car. (There are no buses in Boston that run "very very frequently," she says, laughing bitterly.) You don't mention parking. Your person is probably looking at a 30-40 min. commute each way if a Harvard student, and more if MIT. And the prospect of sharing a bathroom with a college-age young man is, well, off-putting to anyone not a college-age young man. However, given the current insane housing market, you can indeed probably scrounge up some desperate grad student new to the area if you price it right. I think you will do better if you offer it as a "bedroom + study" and give exclusive access to both bedrooms on that floor. That would increase the appeal to an academic.

You do need to be realistic--if you are sharing a kitchen, especially, you WILL be sharing time with the renter and you WILL have to work out the tedious details of roommate-hood like cleaning schedules and the like. If you rent to a non-U.S. person, as is fairly likely if you are targeting grad student types, you will need to remember that there are different expectations around cleaning and other aspects of sharing space in different cultures and be prepared for that.

I wouldn't make the price below $600 if you're planning on advertising via Craiglist, simply because the site teems with scammers and a genuinely bargain offer will get filtered out along with those who have no house at all and the people planning to murder the tenant. If you are planning to advertise on the institution-affiliated websites, you might be able to go a bit lower without suggesting that you're a Nigerian prince.

(P.S. Do NOT call the "playroom" that. Among adults that signals something other than what you mean. It will attract weirdos and scare off the solid sensible types.)
posted by praemunire at 6:26 PM on April 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

All these people telling you to think of it as a roommate are in some sense right, but you are also within your rights to be super draconian if you want, especially if you lower the price. Lots of places in the Bay Area say no kitchen or public area use.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:31 PM on April 5, 2016

What I would do in your shoes is get a microwave, mini-fridge and bit of shelving, convert the 'playroom' into a living room/mini kitchen and offer the whole third floor as an apartment, with no common spaces except the bathroom. Throw in wifi and use of the basement laundry, and it would be an attractive option.

But do look up the rules in your area regarding what is legal and what is not. For example, in my area, there is some latitude for a bit of bossing around if you are renting out a part of your own house. But it's more about stuff like smoking and pets (if I am allergic, I can forbid my tenant from having them). I don't think you can really say that your paying tenant can only have a few friends but not too many come over.
posted by JoannaC at 6:43 PM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

After her separation/divorce, Mother-in-law did something similar successfully for years by seeking out grad students (often from outside the U.S.) in fields like Physics, or law school, divinity school, or medical residents; i.e. serious students, sometimes older, who spent a lot of time studying or away from the apartment. She put flyers up in places they frequented, along with other higher tech. recruitment methods. She was in her 50's and 60's at the time, and had not had roommates since she was in her 20's, but it worked out fine.

Also, I agree that you may want to do some spiffing up of the rooms in question with some paint, and better lighting (if the paneling in the "playroom" is so ugly, why not just do some kind of paint job or alternative wall treatment?)
posted by gudrun at 7:03 PM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is all great stuff. Some points:

-Yes, the bus DOES run very frequently. Every 5 minutes during rush hours, every 15 or so rest of the time. I, my ex, kids, and others rely on it for daily commuting.
-Making a kitchenette doesn't seem to make sense as the nearest source of water of any kind is a floor and several rooms away. And what a drag to carry dishes up and down!
-No, of course I won't refer to it as a playroom. It's a sitting room or living room.
-We could offer a parking space in the driveway, but we already share with the 2 cars from our downstairs neighbors, so it could be tricky--having to move the car to let others out. I'd rather avoid, but I suppose for more money we could make it work.

This sounds do-able. I'm planning to make it available starting in June. Thanks for all your help!
posted by primate moon at 7:03 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I were in Boston, I'd be interested in renting this. I'm a light sleeper and being on the top floor is necessary (the absence of a roommate on the same floor is a bonus). I'm sure there are others like me in Boston.
posted by kinoeye at 7:24 PM on April 5, 2016

primate moon: "It's either no heat and cold, or all heat and hot. I shouldn't have mentioned expense. I want whoever is in that room to be comfortable, whether it's my son (currently) or a "paying guest," to use an antiquated term."

Depending on how the power is routed it would be a simple matter for an electrician to install either a wall stat (best) or a built in stat (much less effective but way better than only on/off). Worst case she'd have to replace the complete base board unit for one with an integral stat but they are super cheap (a 2' is ~$26 and a 8' is ~$90) and they only take ~15 minutes to change out.

If you do decide to go with a plug in space heater you can estimate the size you need by knowing baseboards are 250W/foot. Measure your current heaters and make sure you get a space heater of at least that size. But I'd stay with built ins. You probably don't have an abundance of circuits up there and it would be a shame to heavily load one with space heat.

Also as a move in incentive you could offer your new roommate carte blanche to paint their room whatever colour they like and give them access the last week of May.
posted by Mitheral at 8:46 PM on April 5, 2016

Thanks for the ideas, Mitheral. However, I don't own the apartment, I rent. So I can't really make any changes. I MIGHT be able to paint the sitting room white to try to lighten it up, but nothing beyond that.
posted by primate moon at 5:11 AM on April 6, 2016

As a former Cambridge resident and MIT grad student, I want to add a bit of perspective: I think you're (1) overestimating how "bad" the quality of the apartment is (it's a bit unusual, but housing stock in the Boston area is OLD and this is by far not the worst thing I've seen/heard of) but also (2) possibly underestimating the drawbacks of the location, in particular for grad students.

For some perspective, I had a $1000 bedroom last year in a duplex 3br/1.5ba with 2 grad school roommates located equidistant to Inman, Kendall, and Central squares in Cambridge with full access to the kitchen/living areas etc.. This was IMO a much superior location to Belmont for most grad students -- walking distance to the T and to school, a lot more bike lanes, a much higher concentration of commercial establishments (not just bars/drinking establishments, but grocery stores, dry cleaners, cheap restaurants, etc.)

If I were being honest with a potential long-term grad students (i.e. 1 year+) relocating to Cambridge for school, I would personally advise them against renting in Belmont. Part of the "sell" of the Boston area for grad students is the ability to live a car-free walkable lifestyle, and in my experience that kind of lifestyle is a lot easier in Cambridge/Somerville/parts of Boston and Brookline than further out.

Also for a lot of grad students there is a very, very high premium to be paid on being close to school, and also being able to travel back and forth at very odd times. A frequent bus ride to Harvard Square is fine if you commute 2x/day, but if you're like my former roommate (works in a lab at all hours of the day, often has to pop in at hourly intervals for 12 hours to run an experiment) that bus ride is going to get old super quick.

Anyhow, I don't mean to come across as super negative or down on your space. I just wanted to be honest though because I think that I'm not the only one who's going to have this perspective, and thus that you think carefully about how to price it and also about what your likely market is going to be.
posted by andrewesque at 6:47 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing I don't think I've seen mentioned yet---It's almost certain that the playroom/sitting room really can't be offered as a bedroom if there is no window or other means of egress. If Belmont is like every other city I've lived in there are strict codes about what qualifies as a bedroom in case of emergency.

Editing to add--MA law has lots of details and nuance about landlord/tenant rights. It sounds like you're not familiar with those. It would be worth your while to attend a community ed course that gives you an introduction and pointers for further resources.
posted by Sublimity at 7:52 AM on April 6, 2016

Wait, hold on, you don't own this apartment? You're renting this apartment, and you're planning to sublet these extra rooms out to another renter? Does your lease say that you can do this? Do you have your landlord's written approval?

IANAL, let alone a lawyer licensed in the state of Massachusetts, so this is absolutely not legal advice, but this might be a good starting point for looking at MA subletting laws to see how you might move forward with this.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:18 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

.One thing I don't think I've seen mentioned yet---It's almost certain that the playroom/sitting room really can't be offered as a bedroom

Nobody mentioned it because she doesnt appear to be planning to do that?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:21 PM on April 6, 2016

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