Apartment Guru: The Mooch Upstairs

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bad tenantDear Apartment Guru,

I am a homeowner who intended to rent out the top floor of my home. I did a lot of work myself but was unable to finish the place up. Five months ago a friend of mine who is a skilled carpenter contacted me looking for an affordable place to live. We made a deal that he would work on the place for three months and then move in and pay one hundred dollars less than I would otherwise ask for in rent over the first three years. Well, the guy never "got around" to fixing the place up (I think he came by once or twice and stared at the walls). But because he hadn't made other plans he decided to move in anyway. He paid the agreed upon price the first month, but has since decided that the place doesn't meet his comfort and he doesn't want to pay the amount we decided upon.

I really need the rent, especially now that my own financial circumstances have changed. But the place definitely needs a lot of work. I told the guy (who I am thinking is less and less my friend these days) that he should take up his woes with the "contractor" but I'm not sure what rights I have here. Can you help me out?

-Blaming the Contractor

Oh Blaming,

Didn't your mama ever tell you that if you want a thing done right, do it yourself? Because if she didn't, well...she should have. Or at the very least she should have told you that if you want a thing done right but can't do it yourself, sign a contract. I'm assuming you didn't do that or you probably wouldn't be fretting about what rights you do or don't have. It also sounds like you are fairly new to the landlord game, so you should know, your tenants have a lot of rights - the biggest one being, the right to livable living conditions.

If you really are in need of the additional income, making a big deal out of this might leave you high and dry. After all, at least your "buddy" is willing to pay to live there (even if it isn't at the rate you had hoped.)

Lucien, a real estate advisor in Los Angeles points out, "Some money is better than no money. Even if this person is proceeding to 'bait and switch,' it may be necessary to take your lumps for a little."

Perhaps you and your carpenter "friend" can write up a contract this time asking him to continue to fix the place up. Make sure to be very clear on your terms, what his rates are (subtracted from rent) and even consult a lawyer on what stipulations you can make -l ike whether or not you can evict him if the work is not completed to your specifications by a certain time. Getting a person out of your house is a whole other column - but let's just say, it ain't easy. (The good news here is that if you were to take this thing to court, your tenant would not be allowed to stay in a dilapidated home. On the down side, you would likely have to reimburse him for the time he has paid to live there.)

Lucien suggests you might be in a better situation than you think you are. "At least with a 'friend' you can appeal to friendship when they decide to act like a jerk."

Furthermore, you have a skilled carpenter living in your not-up-to-standard apartment. Now go upstairs with a hammer and nails and help him start making it worth the rent you expect to be paid.


The Aparment Guru is Joselin Linder, co-writer of
The Good Girls Guide to Living in Sin and Have Sex Like You Just Met. Having rented apartments and houses in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Columbus, OH and abroad in Prague, CZ, she knows what it means to live in home you don't own and still make it homey. Anything she doesn't know, she isn't afraid to ask.
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