Moving in With a Homeowner: How Do I Keep Legal Ownership of My Personal Property?

What can you do to protect your property rights when you move in with a homeowner?

People cohabitate in all sorts of ways, perhaps because they agree to share a house (or housing unit) from the outset, or because one party moves in with the other. Legally speaking, they might style this arrangement as a standard landlord-tenant relationship or take joint ownership as tenants in common or tenants by the entirety, to name a few frequent examples.

In all of these situations, disputes can emerge over ownership of the personal property each party brings into the relationship. While houses and apartments are examples of real property, personal property includes all the other sorts of common physical stuff, such as computers, TVs, refrigerators, carpets, cars, and lamps. If you bring it into the household, you probably want to leave with it, or have some recourse it it's damaged or needs replacement.

Disputes over personal property are particularly likely to arise in situations where one party owns the home or apartment, and the other either rents a room there (such as a roommate or tenant) or lives there rent-free (perhaps a significant other or friend). If you are moving into a homeowner's place, what can you do to ensure that your personal property remains yours?

Strategies to Safeguard Your Property Rights

There are a number of ways that you might consider securing or clarifying your property rights.

  1. Create a written agreement. Before you move your first box into the house, and before you start picking out your curtains and bathmats, have a forthright discussion with your future housemate about the division of property. Discuss what furniture and appliances exist in the house, and whether you have permission to use them. Discuss what furniture or appliances the homeowner expects you to buy or replace. Discuss what should happen in the event that a piece of furniture or appliance used by both of you needs replacement during your cohabitation. Once you come to agreement on these various topics, put it into writing, date it, and sign it.
  2. Maintain a spreadsheet. The simplest way to keep track of the various personal property in the home is simply to list it. A spreadsheet of this nature should normally have three columns: (1) What are you bringing into the home? (2) What is your housemate bringing into the home? (3) And what are the two of you bringing into the home (buying) together? Beside each entry, record a value, to the extent that you have a reliable estimate. Beside each entry, you should also record whether the item is intended to be "shared use" (accessible by both of you, such as a TV in the living room) or "exclusive use" (such as a TV that will stay in your bedroom). You and your housemate should agree to a final version of this list before you move into the home.
  3. Split costs for new items 50/50. If you live in someone's home for a long period, it is likely that over time, you will both wish to add or replace furniture or appliances in common spaces. This could include a new microwave in the kitchen or a new lamp in the living room. It is also likely that the house may need some repairs. To the extent that your initial written agreement did not address these sorts of upgrades, additions, or repairs, consider an agreement to split the costs 50/50 (or 33/33/33 if there are three of you, and so on). An even split will feel most "fair" when all housemates have access to the common property.
  4. Take photographs. Inevitably, the condition of certain items will change over time. The suede couch will be stained by the negligence of your housemate who spills a glass of wine; you will trip and shatter your housemate's expensive vase; you will let your housemate borrow your car, and he will back it into the driveway door, damaging both your car and his house. In short, the "status" of property is likely to change. When you move into the home, you should photograph the items that you are bring in as well as the items that already exist there (at least the most valuable). Take pictures of each room. You may find that this evidence could come in handy if a dispute emerges later.
  5. Label items. This is perhaps the most old-fashioned approach, but a simple piece of masking tape with your name on it, affixed to the back of a painting or the bottom of a lamp, may save it from going out with the garage sale that your housemate holds while you're on vacation.
Whenever humans cohabitate, some degree of conflict is inevitable. But by creating clarity at the outset of the relationship, you and your housemate can avoid many problems down the road.

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