#1379: Friend is going back on an informal housing agreement.

Hi Captain,

SHORT: A friend invited me to stay in their newly-purchased under-renovation home until my govt benefits started and I would be able to secure housing. I promised to look out for the house since they wouldn’t move in for a couple months and do some of the remodeling myself as a handy-person in exchange, though they insisted I didn’t have to do anything. Then a few weeks after I moved in they want me out.

I don’t know how to respond. I feel like they are going back on a promise. A big one too, since I have nowhere to go, and spent $800 moving my boxes of belongings there since I can’t do heavy lifting myself. On the other hand, it IS their home and they have say over it. Our arrangement is unofficial.

In the interest of self preservation I want to ask to stay, and I was really tempted to argue and get angry since this isn’t what they promised and it’s devastating to me personally. I don’t know how to do this though. How can I have this hard conversation? Is there a way I can bring up their promises without sounding entitled to their property and kindness?

LONG: This friend recently came into unimaginable wealth and so bought the home. They have an anxiety disorder so significant that at one point in their life they essentially couldn’t do anything at all. While it seems handled now, they get easily overwhelmed. I help project manage the renovation by making phone calls and scheduling, as well as maintaining a Trello list of all the tasks needing to done and notes on progress. They can’t do those things themself without breaking down. I also gave them homeowner 101, demoed walls, did small electrical work, and advised on what in the 90 year old home was worth restoring or better to replace, since century homes are a hobby of mine. All this to say I’ve been trying to make myself worth it. They aren’t living in the home, they’re still in a rental unit while they wait for the big renovations to be done. They’ve decided they want to move in the next few weeks, saying they want all of their house and they don’t want a roommate.

I explained to them when they originally extended the offer it can take a year or more to get disability benefits. I’ve done that once every two weeks as well, since they constantly ask if I’m done yet. I won’t even get another conversation with my lawyer until the end of the month, much less progress on the case. It’s a really complex and long process, nothing will speed it up.

Additionally, I’m neurodivergent and notorious for missing things during interactions with people. I only know what you tell me literally and directly. I know about nuance and stuff, but I have to insist most people be as literal as possible with me because I miss it if you’re not my lifelong friend or a book. This friend is similar, but not nearly as bad. in the couple months I’ve lived there, they often think they’ve literally said something and in fact never did, and then get upset with me for ignoring what they (never) said. I try not to get too frustrated because i can’t keep a handle on it. I like them and I’m grateful for the housing and I don’t want to ruin it with flaws I know I have.

I don’t think it needs too much explaining. There was a promise made, I warned them of the timeline, they OKed everything, and now they’re not OK with everything and have given me a deadline, no matter how it will turn out for me. I’m upset that their own shortsightedness or whatever this is is going to have me on the street if I don’t talk to them. What do I do?!


Give me whatever witty name you want haha

PS: I’m aware of legal routes, but I want to explore the interpersonal first, since we’re friends in an informal arrangement.

Hello there Witty Name and OH NO!  That is so stressful.

Let us pause for a not-at-all-brief public service announcement: One of the most common questions in my inbox has to do with informal housing relationships that have outlived their utility.

  • “I want to get my own apartment when our lease is up, but I know my roommate won’t be able to afford the rent here on their own, how do I tell them?”
  • “My brother started crashing with us in 2020 when his college went fully online, which was fine, but why the heck does he still live here?”
  • “I want to break up with my partner but I’m afraid that they have nowhere to go and will be homeless. But I want them out!”
  • “My roommate’s partner is here 6 nights out of 7, hogs the common spaces and the bathroom, but doesn’t pay rent or bills.”
  • “I started living with my friend/let my friend move in but it’s not working. How do I hang in until our lease is up/break the news?”

Witty Name, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that most of the letters about this are from the person with relatively more negotiating power in the situation: The leaseholder/homeowner, the person who wants to do the breaking up, the person with the means to leave, which is not the same as your situation at all. But they do have the common problem of, “Housing is human right, not a commodity, what the fuck*” and “We agreed to something that was supposed to be temporary, didn’t put it in writing, and didn’t discuss an end date or contingency plan when we made the arrangement, and now we’re fucked.”

*Seriously, at least half of my inbox would become moot if people could afford to stop living in incompatible and downright abusive situations.

My overall PSA is this: When mixing friendship, family, and/or romance with money and housing:

1. Put it in writing. “But we’re faaaaaaamily/close friends/in love we shouldn’t have to…”  Ummmmmmmmmmm, maybe so, BUT CLEARLY MANY OF YOU DO HAVE TO, so do it. “Let’s just spell the details out now so that everybody’s protected in case of emergency and we never have to fight about it.” 

If you ask to put things in writing, and the other person resists, strongly reconsider sharing living space with them at all for any length of time.

2. Assume nothing. Put all of it in writing. Money, bills, chores, maintenance, meals, guests, all of it. If one person is providing labor like cleaning, babysitting, or home repair in exchange for reduced housing costs, spell out costs for supplies, an hourly rate, deadlines, reasonable working hours, etc. so that things are fair and balanced. [Letter Writer, I am worried that if you don’t have written approval for the changes you made to the house that you could be on the hook for *damages* resulting from knocked down walls, etc.]

3. Include an end date from the start so everybody knows where they stand. If your intention is not to have someone move in forever, convert “Come stay with us until you get back on your feet” into “We’re happy to host you for up to two months [or whatever period you honestly, enthusiastically want to host the person] while you look for work and new housing, let’s check in at the one month mark and see where things are at.” If you’re the one moving in, and nobody suggests and end date, you can propose one of your own. “I think I’ll need to stay for _______ amount of time, is that possible? Let’s check in around _______ to make sure everything’s still cool.” 

You can always negotiate an extension if that’s what truly needs to happen, but I promise you, I PROMISE YOU, everyone will be better off if “temporary” is clearly defined from the beginning.

4. Make – AND DISCUSS – a contingency plan for what happens if things aren’t working and somebody needs to move out sooner than planned. Do this right at the beginning, when everybody maximally likes each other and has high hopes for everything going to plan. If you never need to refer back to it because everything is smooth sailing, great! But if you do need it, it will protect everyone.

Witty Name, hello, let’s get back to your specific situation, aka “Great….thanks? ….For the advice,? We did exactly none of that, so what now?”  You are in a time-sensitive, high-stakes negotiation and I want to help you navigate it as much as I can with what we’ve got.

First, I suggest that you assume you will actually have to move out on the date your friend told you and plan accordingly. Direct the bulk of your energy, any remaining money, time, and other resources to the urgent project of finding a new housing situation.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of things you could do: Make a list of any other friends and family who might be able to put you up for a while, loan you funds, store your stuff, or let you use their address for mail. If you’re already working with a social worker or other govt. benefits expert/agency on securing benefits, call them and tell them you are losing your housing in a matter of weeks and see if there are any emergency funds or programs available. Your lawyer’s office may know some places to call. (I believe you that there is no way to speed up the legal process you’re in, but there might be programs or bridge funds that you don’t know about and an expert in disability benefits might.) “Emergency housing assistance” + “Your location” are going to be useful search engine terms for you. Look also for house-sitting and pet-sitting (where you stay in the person’s house) jobs. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere it’s summer now and everyone is trying to go on vacation, so there might be more demand than usual. You urgently need to Not Be Homeless, so start there.

Stop all work on the house. On principle, pour no more energy into a living space you are being evicted from. Also, you literally don’t have time. Communicate with your friend/landlord as little as possible for the time being, and when you do be brief, polite, and non-committal. “Hey, got your text, I need a few days to think things over and plan, talk soon.”  Don’t send FEELINGSTEXTS.  The illusion that everybody is still friendly is useful right now.

Next, if you think you might have legal avenues, find a local pro-bono landlord/tenant attorney or legal clinic and talk to them about your options. Because the arrangement is informal, you might not have a lot of room to maneuver, but there are sometimes rules about eviction lead times and notice that may buy you a little more time. I know you want to try to work things out directly with this person before invoking the legal system, and that’s admirable, but if a lawyer thinks that you have no legal recourse, you ideally want to know that before you try to talk it over with your landlord.

Do not tell your landlord that you are talking to a lawyer. Do not threaten legal action. Do not brainstorm aloud about legal action. Talk to an actual lawyer, privately, and then either take legal action if that’s appropriate and your least worst course of action, or don’t.

Now, I want you to total up all of the time you spent working on your friend’s house (planning time, training time, admin time, handy-person time,) as well as any supplies you paid for. “Pay” yourself the going rate for this kind of work where you live and add it up. I don’t want you to *say* or show this number to your friend right now, I just want you to know what it is. How much would they have had to pay someone to do what you did? How does it stack up against market rental rates where you live? While we’re doing math, how much money would get you & your stuff moved into a temporary housing situation for say, three months? Write these numbers down.

Worst-case scenario planning, researching your options, checking into legal avenues, doing math: Check. Let’s talk about how to approach your friend once you have more information in front of you.

This is one of those situations where, you can be right about everything being unfair, but being right doesn’t cancel out power imbalances and other facts of the situation. Whatever you agreed, whatever “should” be happening right now isn’t happening, and it’s essential to accept that and deal with what is actually happening.

The facts are: Your friend owns the house and – for whatever reason! –  doesn’t want you living there anymore. I’m sure the labor you offered was a big help to them, but something about that exchange or situation is not working for them, to the point that they are willing to go back on their agreement and pretty much nuke the friendship from space in order to bring it to a close. Their reason might honestly boil down to “I thought this was going to work and then realized it’s not working,” which, is shitty and puts you in a terrible position, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I believe that you spelled out everything from the start, but your friend asking you every couple of weeks “When are you going to get your benefits/move out” indicates to me that they never planned on having you be there for a whole year, and there is pretty much zero chance that you’ll get them to let you live there indefinitely now that they’ve asked you to leave.

My thinking is, if you can accept that they want you out, and plan with all your might for that outcome, you may be able to negotiate for other things that will help you with Project Don’t Be Homeless. What you actually ask for is going to depend a lot on the specifics of your research and contingency planning, but the best and most realistic possibility I can think of is asking for direct financial assistance. You said they recently came into “unimaginable wealth.” So would they be able to give you a lump sum that would set you up for at least a few months in a safe rental? Sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money, and it sounds like money would solve everybody’s problem here.

Strategically, I would not present this as “You owe me for all the work I did and for screwing me over!,” more like, “I understand that you want me out by ______, but to make that happen I need at least _______ to put down a deposit on a place and move my things again. Can you cover those costs for me?”

In your shoes, I would assume that asking this person for money is a one-time thing, and therefore would ask for the biggest lump sum that would actually be enough, with extra padding for them to negotiate downward and still cover your essential costs (vs. trying to ask for just a little here, just a little there). Remember the calculations about how much it would cost for the services you provided for free? Make what you ask for bigger than that number, but don’t actually say “you owe me” while it’s still a “friendly” request for “help.” If they acquiesce, they are basically paying you to leave without a fuss, so ask for what would help you just get the hell out of there with little or no fuss.

If asking for money fails, then your legal and other research will come in handy as you figure out what to do next. I wish I had more “fix the situation so you can have what you initially agreed to” options, but I really don’t. Your (soon-to-be-extremely-former) friend wants you to leave and has the power and resources to get you to leave, so your best path is to work out how you can take care of yourself given that reality. Processing exactly what happened and why, mourning the friendship, and feeling all the feelings are a project for when you’ve got a safe roof over your head. It sucks. I’m sorry.

I’m wishing you all the luck.