Getting a Lodger in California AKA a Roommate
Recently I got a roommate, marking the first time I've dipped into landlording on my own. Here's how I did it, and lessons I learned along the way.
This isn't my first encounter with real estate in general, though. We recently bought our condo, and before that I had experience dealing with my mother's rentals as I grew up.
I've developed a fairly cynical view on rentals, both because of landlords I've seen and tenants. I've seen my childhood home be trashed by renters, and I've seen landlords neglect their properties to greedily extract profits.
Which is why instead of immediately diving into my process of getting a roommate, I need to start with this huge disclaimer:
Being a Landlord is a Huge Burden of Responsibility
Nothing irks me quite so much as the dudebros who tout landlording to be the ultimate form of "passive" investing. They couldn't be further from the truth.
Landlording is about delivering the skilled service of property management for renters. In our contemporary times in the US, this service largely falls onto the shoulders of investment companies and private "mom & pop" owners.
These private entities do it in lieu of any strong housing support from the government. People need housing as a basic human right, and someone needs to provide it. If the government doesn't do it, then I commend the people who step up to fill that needs gap.
However, the housing system is subject to the same capitalistic pressures as the rest of society. Whilst the pursuit of profits is not inherently a problem, it does open the way to lots of abusive landlord behaviours.
Not every landlord is greedy or evil, but even then they can still cause damage in their ignorance or through neglect.
Which is why I absolutely despise labelling being a landlord as "passive" investing. If you think of it as a hands-off cash cow, you will treat it in a hands off manner. Which is how you neglect someone's shelter.
Before considering "investing" in real estate, question your motives for doing so:
Are you simply seeking mythical high returns for low effort? Don't be a landlord.
Are you trying to utilise an asset you own that would otherwise sit idle? Maybe being a landlord works for you.
Are you ready for the ethical considerations of being responsible for someone's shelter? To have incredible influence over someone else's life and stability? Are you ready to not abuse that influence?
Are you willing to put in the hours of management work, both proactively and reactively? Then you might be a good landlord.
With that rant over, let's briefly talk about the state of California's stance on landlords.
California is Hostile to Landlords
The overwhelming attitude impressed upon me by everyone is that California hates landlords. It's difficult to evict tenants or squatters, to the point that we expect half a year at least to do so. The courts also apply deep pockets theory to landlords, assuming that because landlords are wealthy enough to own real estate they can better afford costs.
There's a lot of little details like that which drive this hostile impression, not many of which I'm familiar with – after all, I have limited experience with the courts.
My family on the other hand has much more collective experience. They were all opposed to me getting a roommate. The largest reason is because they have been burned too many times before with renters – there's too many risks of things going wrong.
I'm also hesitant to become a landlord because I dislike most landlords I've seen. I don't want to fall into the same bad behaviours I see in others. I would prefer to act ethically and respectably at all times.
Another reason I'm wary to engage in renting out real estate is because I'm in Southern California and I've been surrounded by radical friends – mostly communists. Landlords are gauche in those circles, and housing is a social issue we'd love to see solved in a better way.
That said, I decided that my dearheart and I needed to try being landlords at least once for our growth.
What's the Difference Between a Lodger and a Tenant?
California defines lodgers in a way slightly different from most states:
As used in this section, “lodger” means a person contracting with the owner of a dwelling unit for a room or room and board within the dwelling unit personally occupied by the owner, where the owner retains a right of access to all areas of the dwelling unit occupied by the lodger and has overall control of the dwelling unit.
– California Civil Code
A lodger is therefore a single roommate living with the owners in the house.
Generally lodgers have the same rights as tenants, and a lot of tenant law applies to lodgers. However there is one major difference: evicting a lodger is allegedly easier than evicting a tenant.
That's because after the proper notice period has been given and passed, lodgers who remain on premises are considered trespassers. They can be arrested for it.
Again, though, this is allegedly. De jure versus de facto can be quite the divide.
What is likely to happen instead is that the police show up for a trespasser the lodger insists on tenant rights, and the police don't want to get involved. So they'll say "take it to civil court" and leave you with a hostile tenant in the house.
It cannot be overstated how stressful it can get to be living with someone you're trying to evict. At least with normal evictions, you don't see the people every day and there's a lot less room for things to go horribly wrong.
If you try to lock out the lodger anyway, they may end up taking you to court for a wrongful eviction, and again, California does not like landlords. Taking the matter into your own hands can backfire soundly.
Now that the disclaimers are all out of the way, let's look into the actual process!
How to Get a Roommate: An Overview
To get out roommate, I did the following:
- Research and Discussion: I spent several weeks/months in advance of anything just getting a feel for the market by looking at other room for rent listings.
Then I discussed with my dearheart what criteria we would accept or reject. For instance, no smoking was a hard limit. We also decided on quiet hours for the household, and other rules like which fridge shelves go to the renter.
- Tailor a Room Listing: Don't make it generic or short. Spend a lot of time putting relevant information in there.
Be sure to include information about yourself, not just the room!
- Screen Prospective Roommates as They Come In: Once you make contact with a candidate, you should have a short screening to make sure they meet your bare minimum criteria.
I did this over private messages on a roommate app.
- Interview the Candidate: If they pass the screening questions and are still interested, then we moved onto a phone interview. This is more in-depth with around twenty-five questions.
- Schedule a Showing of the Room: After things go well with the interview and we were ready to proceed, we scheduled a room showing.
- Have Them Submit an Actual Application: I used avail.co for my official applications, where candidates paid for background and credit checks.
- Create and Review the Lease: I drafted my own nine-page lease and sent it by email to the candidate to review. Everything is negotiable, but they didn't have any issues with my draft.
- Sign the Lease: Lease signing day is a big day, where the agreement goes into effect. It can happen before move-in day, but in our case we did it the same day as move-in.
- Move-In Day and Inspection: About the same time move-in occurs, you'll want to do a walk-through of the dwelling and note the condition of everything.
Take pictures, as they're invaluable when it comes to proving damages.
What to Put in a Roommate Wanted Listing
Crafting a good listing is a lot of effort, and I periodically revisited mine to tweak it. Here's some things worth putting in the listing:
- Point out amenities like laundry, the walkability of the area, and whether the room is furnished or not.
- Clarify which spaces are shared and which are private, such as the bathroom.
- Include information about yourself! Roommates are far more acquainted than normal tenants, and having compatibility makes for a smoother business relationship.
- State any fees up-front, such as the credit check.
- Be sure to include rent, utilities, and the security deposit.
- Point out house rules, such as quiet hours or no overnight guests.
How to Screen a Roommate Candidate
As mentioned in the overview, the initial screening of a candidate is supposed to be a short litmus test carried out over a low-stakes medium like direct messages.
There's two main goals I come to the screening with: making sure the candidate has read the listing, and seeing how communicative they are.
With that in mind, I usually ask three or four questions:
- Do you smoke, or use weed?
- Do you have pets?
- Who will be living here, just you?
- We're a queer couple, is that something you're comfortable with?
A good response will answer each question directly, without missing any. They might expand upon some points, and offer more information about their situation. Such as owning a pet but leaving them with a relative for their stay.
How to Interview a Roommate Candidate
Next is the in-depth interview! It's best to perform it in a high-bandwidth channel like phone calls or video calls or even in person at a coffee shop.
This is a great time to both learn about your candidate, and for them to ask questions and learn about you. Any questions they ask, you might want to consider as feedback for putting into your listing.
That said, don't assume that people read the listing, or that they even remember it after having searched through dozens of places. When you're doing the interview be sure to drop reminders about the room, and information such as the rent rate and security deposit.
Communication is also about saying the same thing in different ways to make sure there's comprehension. For example, in my screening question "we're a queer couple" is euphemistic. It's better at this stage to be more specific and clarify what we mean by that.
Here's some of the questions that are important to bring up:
- Why are you moving? The first open ended question you should ask. What prompted this change for them?
- How long do you plan to stay?
- What do you want in a roommate? Another open-ended question that lets them share their values. Don't expect eloquent answers, but peace, quiet, and privacy are standard answers.
- What is your workday routine like?
- What do you like to do on your days off?
- When is your usual bedtime?
- Are you friends with old roommates, and do you have references to share?
- How often do you have guests over?
- How will you pay for rent? This is mostly asking "Do you have a job or savings?"
- How often do you cook?
- How often do you drink alcohol at home?
- Is there anything else you want to tell us? This is a great open-ended question to end on, as it lets them volunteer information important to them.
Besides those questions, I also asked housekeeping questions; ones that should be easy one-word answers.
- Have you ever been convicted of a relevant crime?
- Have you ever been evicted?
- Have you ever broken a rental agreement?
Taking Things Slow to not Rush into Mistakes
It took us four total months to find a decent roommate and get them moved in.
In total we interviewed a handful of candidates, but we had the magical negotiating power of being able to say "No" and walk away.
We don't need a renter, we don't need to rush to fill a vacancy. This gave us great leverage for finding someone decent.
We're not trying to maximise our profits by getting someone in there as fast as possible, we're trying to be resilient and find a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Along the way, though, we found candidates who had urgency to their search. Some were being forced out of their current housing, which made sense. One had urgency that didn't make sense, and he turned out to fail a few criteria in our interview.
Don't fall for any urgency on the renter's behalf. As people in the industry will tell you, everyone has a story. Don't rush into making a mistake, stick to your timeline and do your due diligence.
How to get a Good Roommate: Be Transparent
Act in a manner that attract the kinds of candidates you want to deal with. If you want upstanding people with the utmost integrity? Be upfront, communicative, and steadfast in your morals.
Underhanded tricks will get sketchy people, and drive away the good candidates.
To that end, I like to be transparent about the whole renting process. For instance, I decided to offer a single-price rent instead of separate rent and utilities. There's sticker-shock to seeing the rent so much higher than for other rooms, but when the numbers are actually run my offer comes out cheaper in the end.
Importantly, a single rent price is transparent and upfront. It doesn't waste people's time.
Along the way I also would explain the process to candidates. Calling forward the next step, like "Before a phone interview, I like to ask a few screening questions..."
Getting a roommate is probably the hardest part of the journey, but there's still the closing of our business relationship to contend with. I can't wait to see how to handle that.
Of course I hope that it will be a smooth transition, and not end in an eviction.
All in all, this has been an interesting experience for my dearheart and I to grow our skills with. Everything from drafting the lease to interviewing people has offered us some benefit.
I'm glad we bought our condo, since the plan was always to have a second bedroom to rent out with it:
The Update and Retrospective
Since this article was originally posted, a year has passed and the update article has come out:
The short gist is that while I learned a lot from being a landlord for a year, I don't wish to pursue it any further. After all, a queer landlord is still a landlord, and too many people treat landlording as a passive investment instead of the perilously fraught systemic problem that it is.