The Spare Bedroom Conundrum

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There are several things that fall within the realm of "things renters want that worry their landlords." Some of the more obvious ones are garbage disposals, dogs and barbeque grills, all for insurance and safety reasons. But one of the more surprising ones is the spare bedroom.

There are plenty of reasons why a renter would want an apartment with an extra bedroom. They may work from home and need an office. They might have partial custody of a child or be expecting a new baby. They may have a lot of friends or relatives out of town who stay with them occasionally. But when some landlords hear that you are seeking more bedrooms than you have occupants they will deny your application. Today we'll discuss why and provide some possible workarounds.

What's the problem?

One must understand in these situations that landlords, especially those who have been in the business for more than a few years, have probably been burned by dishonest renters. Just as renters who have lived with irresponsible landlords learn to mistrust future living situations, the same happens in the other direction. Landlords and property managers pretty much have to operate on an assumption of bad faith. When you say you want a spare bedroom for whatever reason, your new prospective landlord may be thinking any of the following:

  • You want to sneak in an extra roommate who wouldn't pass a background check.
  • You want to list the room on AirBNB.
  • You want to use it as a grow room.
  • You will be running a business out of it that may require city licensing and inspections.
  • You will be at home all the time, using more resources and causing more wear than anticipated.
  • You're a hoarder with too much stuff that will be hard to remove if you vanish.

For this article, let's call these "disruptive use." And yes, for a landlord all of them are causes for concern. Background checks exist for a reason, and everyone living in an apartment really should be on the lease. AirBNB is heavily regulated in Chicago and some apartment buildings have banned it outright. Grow rooms tend to put a very heavy load on the wiring of a building that can cause fires and brownouts, especially in some of the city's older buildings with antiquated electrical systems. For every work-from-home renter who remotes in to an office computer for desk work, there's one whose "home based business" is a day care with a bunch of kids tromping around all day.

Now, you may be thinking, "hey, it's my home and my right to do any of these things if I want to." But think about it this way: would you want to live in the same building with a neighbor who was doing one of these things? Would you be willing to deal with the additional noise, foot traffic and heightened personal risk? Probably not.

So here's how you get that spare bedroom without too much drama.

For normal use

If you're looking for an apartment with a spare bedroom for any of the more legitimate reasons I mentioned in the intro, you need to be able to prove to any prospective landlord that you intend to use it for non-disruptive purposes. Remember, no matter what your real reason is, a previously burned landlord will assume you are lying. You need to prove that you are telling the truth.

If you work from home, you need to provide documentation of your job. This includes your employer, your working hours, your power and internet needs, and how much traffic your work brings to the building.

If you are self-employed and work from home you need to be able to prove that you understand city business licensing laws. You also need to do the necessary due diligence with the city to find out if an apartment will qualify for a home based business before you sign the lease. No landlord wants you to move in and then break the lease two months later when you find out from city hall that you can't use the space as you intended. If you already have a home based business license for your current residence, bring that with you.

Home workers need to understand the concerns a landlord may have. How much power and water will you be using? How many clients will be coming and going? Will you be receiving a lot more packages and mail that could clutter up the lobby or put additional work on the front desk staff? Do you need faster internet than the building can provide? Are you doing something like Youtube that requires a completely silent recording environment? Have that conversation with the landlord so they know you are being considerate and have done your homework.

If you have friends or relatives who visit you on a regular basis you need to prove that too. Social media can be helpful in this regard. If you have Instagram or Facebook photos that document a consistent history of visits from these people then you can use that. If you have partial custody of a child then you need to provide documentation that proves it. If you're expecting a baby and are not a woman who is already showing then bring proof from the doctor or adoption agency. If you're a foster parent then bring documentation of that.

If any person over the age of 18 is staying with you for more than 14 days a year, or if there is any point when they will be sleeping in the building when you are not present, be ready for the landlord to request a background check on them and possibly add them to the lease. Two weeks per year is a very common break point in property management for defining the difference between a guest and a resident.

The point being, you need to understand the point of view from which your prospective landlords are operating and prove that you are acting in good faith.

For disruptive use

All of that is great but what if you actually do want the room for one of those "disruptive use" cases? Well, you have three options. You can lie about it and pretend that you're going to use it for normal reasons. You can take the ignorance is bliss approach and either keep silent about your intentions for the extra room or work with an agent so the questions can never be posed before you get the keys. Or you can be up front and honest with the landlord and prepare for your apartment search to take much, much longer than normal.

From the perspective of my own personal morals I would say you should follow that last option. Once again, assemble as much documentation as you can. If you're growing plants bring power bills and photos from your current residence to show what sort of load you're putting on the building's wiring. (You are growing legal flora for strictly personal use, right? African violets, maybe? Award-winning greenhouse zucchini?) If you're running an AirBNB bring your records and ratings from your current place. If you've got someone who wouldn't pass a background check for whatever reason, bring them with you to the showing. If you've got a bunch of furniture you inherited from Great Grandma, bring photos of how it's arranged in your current place. Be ready to be rejected a lot. But be happy when you find a place that accepts you despite your non-traditional housing needs. You won't have to spend a whole year living in fear that you'll be found out.

The faster and less labor-intensive option is to work with an agent. If an agent is showing you around and handling the background checking and the lease, it's very easy for you to find a place without any of the more pertinent questions ever arising. You may wind up having to go with your second or third choice of apartments before you get a landlord who doesn't count noses as compared to bedrooms, but you'll probably find someone who doesn't ask so you don't have to tell.

As for lying about it, well, some folks do prefer that option. If they didn't, we wouldn't have any need for this article, because there would be no landlords who've been burned by disruptive tenants using spare bedrooms for naughty reasons. And if you are the type of renter who takes this sort of approach to apartment hunting, well, you're probably a) not reading this article and b) if you are, you don't want my goody two shoes input on the matter. If you get caught in a lie you are probably going to shut that landlord down mentally for anyone else who comes along in the future and needs a spare bedroom, especially if your "disruptive use" causes a major problem. That goes for the folks who use agents too.

Have you ever encountered friction from a landlord or property manager when trying to get an apartment with a spare room? What did you do? How about the landlords out there, have you ever been burned by someone who lied about why they need a guest bedroom? Let us know in the comments!

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Kay Cleaves

2 thoughts on “The Spare Bedroom Conundrum”

  1. I am gobsmacked. I had never even considered any of this information! Thanks!

    1. It is definitely a situation that happens more to certain groups of renters.

      The argument that government-approved subsidized renters will "sneak in" their ex-convict children/spouses/etc. is very common when NIMBY neighbors want to protest the construction of senior housing around here.

      As for the grow rooms, we had one building with about 6 floors worth of studios. Tenants paid for heat there so we had to pull estimates from the electric company every year for usage. It was very easy to spot the ones who had intensive gardening going on because their power bills were always 3-4 times higher than anyone else in the building.

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