The Win-Win Of A Work-For-Rent Arrangement

By Thursday, May 14, 2009 23 2

Update in 2014: Our most recent housemate who gardened in exchange for rent, Dan, was a joy. I’m  grateful for his good work, and his positive presence in the house. He’s 63, in contrast to our prior work-for-rent folks, who were recent college graduates. 

Who says that single people ought to live alone, or that married couples wouldn’t want or need a housemate? I’m happily married and I love having a housemate who helps us garden, clean the house  and tend our urban chickens in exchange for rent. It raises our quality of life altogether, and also reduces overall carbon footprint.

This piece below first appeared as a guest post at Get Rich Slowly.

“Friendly married couple, both professionals in sustainability, seeks one competent, friendly person to serve as Home & Garden Manager in exchange for free rent.”

That’s the opener to the Craigslist ad that has turned our weedy front lawn into a beautiful garden,  freed up six hours of our time per week and yielded us a lot of fun at no cost.

Conversely, two bright, energetic college graduates have each repaid about $2,500 on their student loans that they would still owe if they hadn’t been (one at a time) our housemates, working in exchange for rent. A work/rent exchange can be a win-win for both parties, especially in this tightening economy, and could revolve around child care, home repairs, cooking, painting, etc. rather than gardening. While some people would craft this as a landlord/tenant arrangement, especially if living quarters were completely separate, it works nicely for us as a housemate arrangement.

Here are the common-sense rules that have worked for us.

The recruitment ad should be specific, giving a clear picture of what both parties should expect. Here’s the rest of our Craigslist ad:

We’re offering:

  • Pleasant house with spacious, sunny bedroom for you
  • $15-$20/hour in rent/util. for skilled, reliable work
  • Great location by Mt Tabor Park

You are:

  • Organized and able to keep an accurate work-log
  • Happy to work 6 hours/week without excuses
  • Experienced at gardening & housekeeping
  • Able to make vegetarian meals and enjoy them with us
  • Experienced at living with others
  • Equipped with references, both employment and housemates
  • Comfortable with green lifestyle, i.e. CFL’s, low hot-water use, composting

If you are qualified, please email a letter of interest and your phone number. I’ll call or write back if I see a possible fit. Thank you!

________________________________________________________

The “hiring” process is similar to that for any job, with the addition that you definitely need to like being around this person. If their written information looks good, do a phone interview. If they sound good, have an in-person interview. Volunteer lots of information, including downsides (“Sorry, but your bedroom will be hot in the summer.”) If everyone is seeing a fit, arrange a paid trial work-session. (Seeing the person actually work is the most important step.) Finally, check references from both employers and housemates.

The applicant must feel right to you at each stage in order to move to the next stage. Past experience in hiring is great, but even without it, you can generally tell if a person is responsible and has the work ethic and social skills you need in a working housemate.

The paid work-session tells you much more about a person’s actual work-skills than either their resume or references – but references are still crucial. Also critical: do you like the person and feel comfortable? The housemate fit is probably more a make-or-break than their work-skills.

Have all parties sign a simple, written agreement. Ours was a single page and included cost of rent plus utilities; rate of starting pay and possibility of raises; our groceries agreement; spreadsheet-based work-log to be updated and turned in every Sunday. It was for six months, with either party able to cut it short with 30 days notice.

Be willing to supervise your housemate who is working for rent. They can only succeed in their role with your active involvement, especially in the beginning. Be clear on what tasks they will do. At the same time, don’t micromanage, or expect perfect performance. Be quick to praise and appreciate.

Practice healthy boundaries. When they are not working, they’re off duty, i.e. your housemate and not an employee. It’s not a 24/7 job. Conversely, if the agreed-upon work isn’t getting done steadily, the person may need to pay the difference in cash (if that’s in the written agreement), or eventually be asked to leave. I once wrote a note to Steve when he was temporarily slacking off: “This is a real job, despite the fact I like you. Do these tasks today.” He did them.

Have fun with the new, different situation. Our ‘working housemates’ have brought lively, positive energy into our home, and plenty of laughs. Most have remained our friends after moving on to other living situations. Someone asked me once about the wisdom of having a ‘stranger’ live in my home. I replied, “Well, all of my friends were strangers — until they became my friends.”

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23 Comments
  • CR12
    May 14, 2009

    interesting idea, I hope this opens some of our eyes to the idea. this a great way to lower our carbon foot print. you might be interested in another way to lower your carbon foot print, check out http://www.e3bank.com they are a bank that gives out reduced interest rates to those who invest in green products.

  • Paying Back Student Loans
    June 30, 2010

    Glad those people paid those student loans off.. for other readers…The best thing for people wanting to go get an education is to do what ever it takes to avoid private student loans. Those types of loans are high in interest and can literally ruin a person’s credit and way a life right off the bat. My 8k in private ballooned due to interest compounded monthly during school to 30k over the years in school. Choose a cheaper college and carefully choose a degree. Fill out the FASFA form and try to get grants to help pay for your education. Don’t waste your time and money on a worthless degree where you won’t be able to get a job when you finish with your studies. If you are already in large debts with student loans then pick up a second job if you have to so that you can knock down the principal quickly or you may never see the light of day. The government ones are much better because they offer repayment options and flexibility, private ones do not. Just my 2 cents ~Jayme

  • Alison
    July 2, 2010

    Thanks for the advice, both of you.

  • Kevin Canada
    August 27, 2010

    I am looking for a roommate or room situation. I currently live in Long Island, very reliable, quiet, non smoker and honest person. Probably the ideal roommate, I do have a medium size dog, very sweet and a joy to be around, I won’t give her up so I have to find a place for the both of us. I pay my rent on time every month, have steady income, want to live and work in the Big Apple where its all happening. I am politically involved in different issues another reason for moving to the city.

    I have plenty of references, am a professional, Executive MBA University of Denver, former military officer and business owner. My life right now is involved in real political change in this world, would be nice to find a kindred spirit to share a place to live.Not looking for a relationship or anything like that just a safe place to live. Will be willing to work in exchange for rent or anything like that as well.

    Kevin Canada

    kcanada@safe-mail.net

    631 778-5024
    631 419-6132

    • Alison
      August 28, 2010

      Kevin, Reading your comment, I’m not sure if you know that I live in Portland, Oregon — fairly different from the Big Apple. You sound like a great person and I wish you success in your search for a good place to live.

  • Laura Canale
    August 27, 2010

    Looking to transfer out of Nevada, Willing and not afaid to work hard. I work for the school district now k-5. only 3 hours a week . I love to garden , cleaning is my specialty any houshold chores. and preparing meals. I can also paint and love to help others. Please let me know How this work for rent goes. Happiness comes from within I know but Las vegas sure make it hard. Sicerly Laura

  • Alison
    August 28, 2010

    Laura, My husband and I moved to a different, larger house and right now are looking for a housemate who pays traditional rent (with money) rather than by contributing services to the household. I can empathize that Las Vegas would be a hard environment for someone with, say, non-materialistic values. I wish you all the best. I do know of at least one person who got the idea of working for rent from me, then approached someone he knew with the idea (she had property needing lots of work and he had the skills she needed) — and she accepted his work-for-rent proposal!

    I think the trick is in having the skills that the household needs, and then negotiating and putting the agreement into writing, with a modest expectation of, say, a six-month duration.

    Warm wishes and thanks for writing, Laura.

  • LJ
    November 24, 2010

    Any legal issues come up with this? I’m considering doing this myself, but was told I had to treat the person like an employee, with SS paid, etc. The contract alone seemed like a hassle, but the state requires a bunch of stuff such as certain clauses in certain fonts/sizes for any rental agreement. I’m trying to figure out how to legally include a work/rent exchange.

  • Alison
    December 5, 2010

    LJ, The short answer to your question is that no, I’ve experienced no legal issues around this.

    Longer answer: That’s not to say there couldn’t be any.

    Deeper answer: Barter is part of the human condition, as are informal financial transactions. If we were to invite a relative or friend to live with any of us because they couldn’t afford to live independently, or simply because we liked them and enjoyed their company, it’d be normal for them to not pay formal rent, but to somehow contribute to the household, whether with some child-care, cooking, mowing the lawn or what have you. It’s hard to imagine any of this being a taxable event.

    Similarly, when people in the U.S. have garage or yard sales, we might garner a few hundred dollars from the sale of our unneeded stuff. But I have yet to meet anyone who declares yard sale proceeds as taxable income, though legally it probably is taxable income. It seems too intrusive to most citizens to have the state involved in that way.

    So, LJ, I don’t have a simple answer for you, and I imagine that a few different people in whatever state you live in would have different takes on the situation.

  • joe z
    December 28, 2010

    Time and time again I have done work for people in exchange for rent and in most cases have made a little money because I can do a lot of things and it made me kind of family.Good for me as I have none.A contractor/gardener(am a Master Naturalist)/Singer Performer/plumber etc. can cost a fortune so they got a bargain too.As long as BOTH people can get along and agree on boundaries as well as respect one another it works.Starts getting sticky when the homeowner starts thinking you are their slave and then the tenant looses interest in doing the RIGHT THING. Then the RIGHT THING to do is talk it out and if they can not find common ground it is time to move and thank the homeowner for the opportunity to help. Is very hard for a lot of people to do.I have churches to back me up as I have done work for them(both finnish work and singing in their choirs.Am a Principle singer.So have the ( Christian ethic I guess) .Plus I grew up in the LOVE generation in the 70s and things were a little different back then. Takes special people to work and live in the same space.I have never had a problem that could not be rectified and sometimes it was just the end of the job so I moved on.I thank everyone who has trusted me in the past and thank God for the chance to matter. THANK YOU!!!!!!!

  • Barbara
    June 24, 2011

    Hi Alison- this is great!

    • Alison
      June 24, 2011

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks! Such a pleasure to meet you, David & Delilah at Melissa’s wedding last month. Thanks too for your good voicemail. I need to visit your website now. Keep up your good urban progressivism in San Diego!

  • Nick
    September 20, 2011

    I love the article and I think its a great idea.. especially in this economy!

    A friend an I are doing a work-for-rent exchange with the owner of an old building built in 1906.. we are rehabbing it in exhange for rent equity. We gave an estimate and proposal.. they pay for materials and we provide labor.. its been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.. im saving money as a recent grad.. and learning tangible skills that will last a lifetime.

    jarboeinitiative.blogspot.com/

    please check it out and leave your feedback. These opportunities are out there.. go get them!

  • Tara
    April 21, 2012

    My husband and I are actually trying to find someone in Vegas to let us do this. It isn’t easy cause for some reason Las Vegas is the biggest place for scams.

    • Alison
      April 22, 2012

      Tara,
      Way back when I was in college, I wanted to work on a family wheat farm in Kansas, but didn’t know anybody in Kansas (I had seen a movie in that setting that inspired me). I networked with churches, explaining who I was, the situation I was looking for, and what I could do for people. A nice priest linked me up with a family — and I got to work on a wheat farm. I see churches as places that build trust and get everyone past the scam mentality.
      Warm wishes on your search!

  • Jodi DiCenzo
    July 15, 2013

    hello, and thanks for your thoughts. would you be willing to share a sample agreement that you’ve used for these housemates? are they considered employees?

  • Ashley
    September 5, 2013

    May I ask how much rent you were asking? The monetary equivalent?

    • Alison
      September 5, 2013

      Ashley, it’s ranged from $400-$500/month, inclusive of utilities (three years ago we moved to a larger, nicer house).

  • JoeyH
    January 26, 2014

    I am looking for a oppurtunity, I have worked in exchange for rent in the past and it seemed to work out great. I have even done some personal training in exchange for time share as well in the past. I believe that things must be understood first and must be in-detail because taking advantage is part of the human nature also. I believe in balance and focus on positive energy. I would like to find a place that I can do great work and feel comfortable in my surroundings. I am outgoing and a glass half full kinda guy. I see all sides of things and recently just turned 4o. Moving to the west would be something I have never experience but would love to. I am living currently in the rat race of the DC metro area and would like to step outside of the GOD of money we all seem to serve and focus on my spiritual richness with a tranquil setting and living situation.

    Thanks!

    • Alison
      January 28, 2014

      Joey, You sound like a great person. And I completely understand your desire to get out of a rat-race environment, into a more tranquil and and spiritually rich setting. I wish I could offer you a work-for-rent situation in my household. But we don’t need anyone this year. I’ll bet, however, that there are a number of households in any given city or town that would be interested in having someone like you join them, and work for rent. Blessings and luck in your search . . . . you only need to find one good fit.

  • Deepak Saxena
    April 16, 2014

    Hi Alison,

    I live in Portland myself and have had successful informal work trade situations in my house in the past but am about to enter a much larger and long term one (exchange with someone to be a live-in property manager at a second home) and am wondering if you would be willing to share your written agreement you had? I’ve done some google searching and there’s not much out there in regards to formal documents covering this… :/

    • Alison
      April 17, 2014

      Deepak, I just emailed it to you. Hope it’s helpful. It sounds like you’re quite win-win oriented :). Please visit Diamond-Cut Life again sometime. Like-minded people strengthen and encourage each other.

  • Joel
    April 23, 2014

    Any tips for those of us looking for situations such as this? What to search for on craigslist? Any other sites with listings? Thanks in advance.

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