Ideas from the Front
Shared Housing Situations Stay Cozy With Living-Together Agreements
Posted Aug 1, 2004 3:36 PM CDT
By Margaret Graham Tebo
Cohabitation agreements aren’t just for lovers anymore. And they’re not just about who gets whose money in the event of a breakup, either.
Take, for example, the 45-pager that Clackamas, Ore., attorney Veronica Schnidrig drafted for two women who shared a house but not their personal lives.
The first woman had owned the house with her husband. When they divorced, he moved out, and the dissolution decree said that he was entitled to his half of the home’s equity. The wife didn’t want to leave the house, but she simply could not afford to buy out her ex.
Enter woman No. 2, who also couldn’t afford a house on her own. She had been renting a portion of the upstairs of the house from the divorcing couple and wanted to stay put.
The solution was for the renter to buy out the ex-husband’s interest and share the home with the ex-wife. The ex-wife would live on the first floor, while the former renter—now new co-owner—lived upstairs. Since the house could not be subdivided, the women sought Schnidrig’s help to manage their shared use of common areas.
The solution was a “living-together agreement,” a document covering everything from storage in the garage to throwing parties in the yard. To create the document, Schnidrig cobbled together parts of real estate contracts, leases, joint ventures and security agreements, in addition to drafting whole sections on things like payment of utility bills and the right of first refusal for each party should the other decide to sell her interest.
“When you’ve got two virtual strangers sharing a property in which they both have ownership, you need to cover all the contingencies,” Schnidrig says.
In some areas of the country where housing is particularly expensive, house sharing is becoming increasingly popular. And organizations like HIP Housing Inc. in pricey San Mateo, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, have sprung up to match “home seekers” with “home providers” based on mutual interests, needs and personalities.
At HIP, which stands for Human Investment Project, agreements that govern the particulars of living together are standard operating procedure. Matched parties receive a nine-page home-sharing agreement that they are encouraged to discuss, customize and sign, says program director Laura Fanucchi.
“We sit down with them and go through the agreement to make sure everybody understands what they’re getting into,” Fanucchi says.
The agreement spells out such issues as sharing meals: how costs will be divided, and who will shop, cook and clean up. It also addresses smoking, visitors, privacy, security, phone usage, laundry, furniture, parking, storage and pets. Home sharers are also provided with information on resolving disputes, and mediation referrals are available when necessary, Fanucchi says.
Of course, even couples who are romantically involved sometimes need written agreements when they decide to live together. Frederick Hertz, who practices in Oakland, Calif., says that he drafts such agreements for his clients. Often, he says, the contracts are “about reproducing the rules of family law in a contract where the law doesn’t recognize the parties as a family.”
But, he says, unlike the case of home sharers, he believes that certain issues of daily life between couples are best discussed, not contracted. Hertz says he draws the line at couples who wish to include sexual infidelity clauses or who want to condition their obligations on one party seeking counseling or improving his or her attitude. Many such clauses are void as against public policy in California, and say more about the state of the relationship than about a need for legal protection, he believes.
“Certain things really need to be worked out by the couple,” he says. “If they need a legal agreement over the little things, there’s likely already something really wrong with their relationship.”