It was supposed to be just a few weeks. That was the deal. Your college friend Trisha was blindsided by her husband filing for divorce and needed a place to crash until she could find her own apartment. She's always been a bit of a mess, but you couldn't turn your back on a friend in need, right?
Now "a few weeks" has turned into eight months. In the beginning, she at least pretended to browse Craigslist for cheap sublets and part-time work, but now she doesn't do much of anything, unless binge-watching Netflix can be considered a full-time job.
You finally work up the nerve to ask Trisha to leave. Your place is just too small and your boyfriend thinks she's a leech, eating all your food and never offering a dime for groceries, let alone rent. You break the news gently to Trisha; she has to be out by the end of the month.
And then she breaks the news to you: Nope, she's staying.
"This situation is more common than you might think," says Janet Portman, an attorney and executive editor at legal website Nolo. "And the law isn't terribly helpful to the people who are doing the kicking out."
Technically, getting rid of a freeloading friend should be a cinch, says Portman, the co-author with Marcia Stewart of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide." House guests who have overstayed their welcome have no legal right to stay at your property. Nobody wants to call the cops on an old college friend, but a house guest who refuses to leave is trespassing, which is a crime.
Guest Vs. Lodger Vs. Tenant
The problem, says Portman, is that police are extremely wary of forcibly removing someone from a property if there's even the slightest chance that they aren't a guest, but in fact a tenant. Because dragging a tenant out of their home without a court order is called a "self-help eviction," which is illegal and the tenant can sue both you and the cops. A tenant could also sue you if you throw his belongings out the house or change the locks.
All your freeloading house guest has to say is that they've been helping pay for groceries or watching your dog when you go away for the weekend (whether or not it's true). Even if there's no written lease and no rent has changed hands, they can claim that they are a tenant or a "lodger." A lodger is someone who rents a room in a home where the owner also lives. Tenants have their own standalone unit.
If Trisha is staying in your guest room and convinces the cops that she's providing even minimal help in exchange for a place to stay, she's a lodger. And evicting a tenant or a lodger is a civil matter, which means the cops won't touch it. Congratulations, you're a landlord now!
As Trisha's unwitting landlord, you then have to follow state law for evictions. In California, where Portman practices, you first need to give Trisha a "notice to quit." This is an eviction form which notifies her in writing that she has 30 days to voluntarily leave the property. What happens next depends on whether Trisha is a tenant or a lodger.
If a lodger in California refuses to leave after 30 days, they can be kicked out without going through a court-ordered eviction process, because after the 30-day mark, they are officially trespassing.
But if a tenant won't budge after 30 days, a California landlord has to file a lawsuit in civil court for an eviction, which can take additional weeks to finalize. Assuming you win the case, the cops can then be called in to remove the good-for-nothing from the premises, forcibly if need be.
'They Were Scammers'
All of this costs money. A savvy freeloader might do everything in their power to prolong the process to make it as painful and expensive as possible.
"What often happens is the homeowner pays the guy to leave," says Portman. "And believe it or not, there are people who pull this nonsense."
Portman remembers when a gas line explosion in San Bruno, California left thousands of people homeless in 2010, and big-hearted neighbors took in the displaced, only to be shocked when months later the rescued house guests refused to leave without a payout. Some turned out not to be real victims at all.
"They were scammers," says Portman.
The best way to protect yourself from the emotional and financial train wreck of evicting a house guest in court is to put something in writing from the start. It's awkward, yes, but it's really important for the friend to sign a statement certifying that they are indeed a guest, not a tenant or lodger, that they are not paying rent or providing services in exchange for lodging, and most importantly, that you, the owner, can ask them to leave at any time.
"I can guarantee you that most people are not going to want to do that, though," says Portman. "They have a gut feeling that this person is trustworthy, then it goes south and that's how lawyers make their money."