Life

How to Safely Lend Your Empty Home to Someone Who Needs It

Whether you're helping a friend with roommates who aren't following safety guidelines or giving an assist to an essential worker, here's how to responsibly loan out your living space.
May 25, 2020, 12:00pm
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How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When “shelter in place” orders went into effect, many living spaces were left empty. People who own multiple homes chose one residence, while others opted to go into social isolation at the home of a family member or significant other.

If you currently have an apartment or home that’s empty, there’s no shortage of people who could really use the space. Whether you want to help a friend who’s crammed in a small apartment with roommates who aren’t following safety guidelines, or provide housing to healthcare workers who have traveled to assist their colleagues, lending your living space to someone in need can be an excellent way to be helpful to others in your community.

With the country in crisis mode, it may be your natural inclination to get someone into your open space ASAP. But lending your living space to someone else isn’t something to rush into. There are two major factors to take into account as you work out an arrangement: Protecting yourself legally, and ensuring the process is safe for everyone involved, both of which take some preparation and care. Here's how to offer space to someone in need without putting yourself or others at risk.

Get Your Paperwork in Order

The first step is to make sure you’re protected legally—which can be complicated if you rent your apartment or home. Brian Pendergraft, an attorney who specializes in tenant and landlord rights, says to review the fine print of your lease to see if it allows subletting. Many leases have rules against the practice, but there’s always the chance that it is permitted or just that there’s nothing in your lease stating you can’t lend or rent your space. Pendergraft also recommended looking for an “unauthorized occupants” clause that may forbid anyone but the tenant from staying in the space long-term.

If you signed a lease that doesn’t permit subletting or unauthorized occupants, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make it work. “Leases can always be modified in writing by both parties,” Pendergraft explained. He recommended contacting your landlord and explaining the situation—after all, this is an unprecedented time, and some landlords may be open to making adjustments in order to help others. If you do reach an agreement, Pendergraft emphasized the importance of getting it in writing and having both of you sign the modified lease. A verbal agreement or an email chain is far less likely to protect you if legal issues arise. If you own your living space and are part of a homeowners association, this could add an extra step—make sure the association is looped in throughout the process.

Establish Safety Guidelines in Advance

The overarching purpose of lending your living space to someone is to prevent the spread of COVID, so it’s crucial that you and the lendee are on the same page. Friends have had major disagreements about following social distancing guidelines, so make sure you’re lending your space to a person who’s fully compliant. Offering someone a space to isolate is a big deal, so don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and ensure that the lendee is taking this situation as seriously as you are. First and foremost, you’ll want to closely review the safety guidelines for the city and state of the living space to make sure the lendee is committed to following all of them. Guidelines vary depending on location, so your guest should be aware that rules may be stricter (or more lenient) than those at the place they’re coming from. If your guest is coming from out of state, check your own state’s guidelines. “Some states require that they quarantine for 14 days,” said Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease doctor and assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. If you’re lending your space to someone from out of state, make sure that they are prepared to not leave at all for 14 days—no exceptions.

Other things to discuss, for starters: not allowing guests to visit, and ensuring that the lendee is vigilant about wearing a mask and social distancing when running essential errands and properly sanitizing upon their return.

“Be aware of what your state is requiring and how [the directives] might change over time,” said Robert Amler, the Dean of School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former Chief Medical Officer of the CDC. “A guest should certainly be expected to comply with the social distancing, handwashing, and face-covering that’s been established in your area.”

The mutually agreed-upon safety guidelines should be put in writing and included as part of your legal agreement.

Make a Legal Agreement With the Lendee

It may feel awkward to ask a friend or essential worker to sign legal paperwork, but Pendergraft says it’s crucial to work out the details of your arrangement and put them in writing. This applies to both owners and renters. The paperwork should include the length of stay, the monthly rent (if applicable), who is responsible for handling repairs, and a commitment from the recipient that they will fully comply with the social distancing rules in the geographic area (including a commitment to not hosting guests), as well as all the applicable terms of the lease about the building's rules.

Because most of us aren’t experts in tenancy laws, Pendergraft recommended working with a lawyer who can review the paperwork and ensure that you don’t end up with a legal nightmare on your hands. “[Involving a lawyer] will cost a couple hundred dollars, but it could save you thousands” if anything goes awry, he explained. If you don’t have anything in writing, Pendergraft explained that you, as the master tenant, could end up in a situation where you have to provide housing services, even if tenants don’t pay agreed-upon rent.

“[Additionally], most jurisdictions have minimum livability codes where housing providers must provide housing that at a minimum is safe, sanitary, etc. So a master tenant will always have obligations to their tenants,” said Pendergraft. “On the other hand, many jurisdictions will not enforce tenants to pay orally agreed-upon rent. So you'd end up in a lopsided situation where a master tenant is providing housing for free, if [this is] done incorrectly.” He has dealt with both situations in his practice, and explained that looping in an attorney in advance can help avoid both of them.

If you’re lending your space for free, the guest won’t have tenants' rights and will be considered a squatter if they refuse to leave on the agreed-upon date. However, you’ll likely still have to go to court to evict them. But it’s important to note that if they’re paying rent, even a very small sum can give the guest tenants' rights. The laws vary by state, so this is also something you’ll want to review with your attorney based upon your location. Pendergraft noted that, in most jurisdictions, the owner can’t take away tenants' rights for a visitor who is paying rent—even if you do put it in the legal written agreement, he said it likely won’t hold up in court.

Prepare for the Move-in

Once all paperwork has been signed, focus on the safety aspects of lending out your living space. Before the temporary tenant moves in, do a deep clean. “You want to make sure the entire space is disinfected with a cleaning product that’s at least 60 to 70 percent alcohol or is a bleach solution,” said Meyer. “Focus on high-touch areas like door knobs, light switches, and countertops.” (Don't mix bleach with other cleaning agents, though—here's more information about safely cleaning with bleach.)

Meyer also recommended referring to the CDC’s detailed guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting a living space. If you’re lending a furnished space, it would be ideal to have the new occupant bring their own linens. If that’s not possible, be sure to thoroughly wash all sheets and towels (as well as dishes) after you’ve used them for the last time.

Once the cleaning process is complete, take the extra precaution of leaving the space empty for two to three days. “We’ve seen that the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours,” said Amler. If possible, leave the space unoccupied for that period of time.

Hand Off Your Keys Responsibly

Because keys count as high-touch surfaces, Meyer said they should be wiped down with a bleach-based cleaning product before you hand them off. “Even though we’re talking about surfaces, the primary way [COVID] spreads is person to person,” she said. This means arranging a no-contact handoff, like leaving the keys under a mat or in a lockbox. If that’s not an option and it must be done in person, make sure you’re both wearing masks and practice social distancing during the exchange. Stay six feet apart, place the keys where your new occupant can clearly see them, then part ways.

“To be on the safe side, [the new occupant] should wipe the keys down again after they take them and sanitize their hands,” said Amler.

Be Cognizant of Your Neighbors’ Safety

If you’re lending a single-dwelling unit that has no shared space with another family or unit, Amler and Meyer said the guest should simply follow the safety guidelines established above and take extra precautions like wiping down elevator buttons before and after touching them.

Some apartment buildings have common areas for residents to relax and congregate outside their own units. Many buildings have closed these spaces due to COVID, but Amler recommended designating any common areas off-limits if they do happen to be open.

However, some living situations have common areas that can’t be avoided—for example, you may live in a suite that has a shared kitchen or bathroom, or in an apartment building where the laundry room is a shared space. If your lendee will be using them, be sure to speak with everyone else who uses these areas in case they have any concerns. Both Amler and Meyer said the guest must continue to be vigilant about hygiene, wear masks when they’re in that space, and always maintain a distance of at least six feet. This may mean waiting longer than they’d like to do laundry or make dinner, but it’s a small sacrifice to make in order to ensure everyone’s safety.

Even if the lendee won’t be sharing space with anyone in your building or neighborhood, consider giving your neighbors the courtesy of letting them know that someone new will be staying in your living space, and provide information about how long they’ll be staying and why they’re there. Assure your neighbors that you have a legal agreement with the person that requires specific safety measures. Ask if they have any questions, and consider giving them your number so they can call or text you if they have any safety concerns after the move-in.

Agree on What to Do When It’s Time for Your Guest to Leave

When the guest vacates the living space, Amler and Meyer said they should follow the same cleaning process that you did before they moved in—a deep clean with a focus on high-touch surfaces—and, ideally, leave the space vacant for two to three days.

If all parties involved are fully committed to prioritizing the safety of the community, lending your living space to someone in need could make a world of difference in their life during this stressful and frightening time. Just make sure, as with everything right now, to use plenty of disinfectant, keep your distance, and be as generous as you can—while also being responsible.

Follow Caitlin Flynn on Twitter.