What to Do When a Roommate Underpays on the Rent

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee, CC BY 2.0.

“We need to talk” is among the most terrifying sentences possible.

I was in the living room when my roommate Carla* dropped that one on me. My mind raced through possible irritations. Had I left a dish unwashed? A faucet running? The bathroom not quite clean enough? Had she finally cottoned on to the fact that I was the one who had been swiping her cotton swabs one at a time? I kept meaning to get my own box, I just kept forgetting ever since I ran out in July. Of 2016.

But before I could confess to my theft of personal hygiene supplies, she just came out with it. Someone had been underpaying rent.

By her tone it was clear she didn’t mean me. Carla and I are direct enough with each other that she would have just said it. (Not “someone has been underpaying” but “you have been underpaying.”) Removed from the line of inquisition, I breathed a sigh of relief, and resolved to get my own box of cotton swabs.

The next question was obvious: Who was the under-payer living among us?

There are six of us in the house. We all moved in piecemeal, one at a time (no couples), and as housemates, not friends. Our rooms are all priced separately, with most of us paying around $750—some a little over, some a little under—to get to the full house rental of $4,470. We’ve never had the money talk as a house, which means most of us don’t know exactly how much everyone else pays.

Because we talked about it, I know that Carla pays $760 a month and I pay $730 for a smaller room. Since $4,470 divided six ways is $745 a person, which was close to what we were both paying in rent, I didn’t quite know what she was getting at. However, as a solution I told her that since we share a bathroom I wouldn’t mind balancing our portions so we each paid the same.

“This is bigger than just the two of us,” she said.

I had been thinking that all of our rooms were approximately the same size. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might not be; my own rent was so spectacular for the location I’d never questioned the math. I pay $730 a month for a converted attic in downtown Berkeley, four blocks from the metro, easy walk to campus. I practically won the lottery.

But, of course, the rooms are not nearly the same size. Five of the rooms are reasonably close in size—among them Carla’s room and mine—but there is one exception.

Our house has one master bedroom with a private bathroom attached, and Will, the roommate who lives there, frequently travels for months on end, renting out the room on Airbnb for around $50 a night (a figure he did not disclose but which Carla and I, in our best Nancy Drew/Scooby Doo team-up, found out with some light sleuthing on the local Airbnb listings). When we found this out, it occurred to Carla and myself that neither of us knew what Will does for work. Carla works admin. Greta is a dog trainer. Brendan is a carpenter. Daniel works security. I write and I deliver packages. But Will is a mystery.

Added to the urgency was the recent notice from our landlord informing us that, beginning in January, the rent will increase by $150 a month to $4,620 for the house. A figure which, according to the terms of the lease, we are all of us responsible for. If one tenant underpays, then it’s all our necks on the line.

Clearly it was time we had the money talk.

To be fair, none of us had ever set the rates for the rooms. They had been assigned arbitrarily a decade ago by whoever was then the master tenant. As new tenants moved in, they received the old figure from the tenant they replaced, with the yearly rental increase split evenly between everyone. Which means what might have started out as a small difference ten years ago had snowballed over time.

Once Will got back in town we had a house meeting and all disclosed openly how much we paid in rent. As suspected, most of us paid in the neighborhood of $750—except for Will, who had been paying $800 a month in rent for a master bedroom with a private bathroom in downtown Berkeley. A slot in a bunk-bed in the same neighborhood goes for $775. The mystery of the underpaying tenant was solved.

Though not the mystery of how to fix the rent.

Our landlord prefers not to get involved in house politics, and left it up to us to resolve how we wanted to divvy up the rent. Nonetheless we decided as a house to bring him in as an impartial party to measure the square footage of all the individual rooms. We could then use that information in a roommate rent calculator. (Though I reflexively offered to pay more even before my room had been measured, an eagerness left over from my past eviction.)

After we had the footage, Carla punched in the numbers in the calculator and got the result. For the coming year most of us would see our own portion of the rent diminish, despite the increase in house rent overall. My rent would drop to $700, as it would for most of the other tenants. Carla’s would drop to $740. And Will’s room would now reflect the market rate for a master bedroom; with a $250 increase, he’d start paying $1,050 a month.

It might seem like we were just trying to find a more socially acceptable way of giving a roommate the boot. But as tenants, we do not have the power to evict anyone. Even though several of us question the ethics of using one room of our house as a hotel, no wants to push anyone else out. Both Greta and Carla have offered an in-house solution to switch with Will if he would prefer a more affordable room. We are not family, we are not friends, but we are still the six of us responsible towards each other.

The money talk is never easy, but progress comes from pain. Progress which in our case means rental rates that more accurately reflect the market. Now that the information is out there, we know exactly how to hold one another to account.

*All names have been changed.

Cirrus Wood is a bike messenger and freelance writer/photographer. He lives in Berkeley and works in San Francisco.

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