House-Sitters and the Law in California (Or: how to avoid cuckoos.)

Common Hawk-cuckoo, Cuculus variusMy grandmother is moving down from her house in San Francisco to my family in San Jose. Apart from all of the emotions involved in leaving her home of nearly half-a-century, we have the very real concern that thieves may take the lovely and unique furnishings. While family and friends fill the house daily with packing and organizing and the Tuesday drawing sessions my grandmother has run for decades, we need a more permanent solution until the house sells.

Thus, we are thinking about finding a house-sitter. Being a legal nerd, I spent the afternoon sussing out what laws might guide our relationship with a house-sitter:

  1. (How) is a house-sitter different from a tenant?
  2. How do we sever the relationship if the house sells or it is a bad fit?
  3. What laws govern this relationship?

NB: I am not a lawyer (yet!), this is not legal advice, everything below is specific to San Francisco, California. Here is how California laws might guide our relationship with an unpaid and unpaying house-guest in a single-family, non-rented home:

There is no clear law on the subject. There are three possible legal categories a “house-guest” might fall into:

1) “Tenant.” Though the legal definition of tenant in California is:

a person who rents or leases a rental unit from a landlord. The tenant obtains the right to the exclusive use and possession of the rental unit during the lease or rental period.”

A lot of legal opinions online argue that anyone who gets mail at a house, stores their things there, has no where else to stay, and refuses to leave is a tenant. I think this is like assuming all fair use is a violation of copyright law until a court rules otherwise–the most conservative approach, which does not reflect the definition in the statute but does keep the owner (of the house or the potentially infringing expression respectively) safe from having to sue/be sued. There is a second, generally unused and more specific term which might apply:

1.1) “Lodger.” This term is specific to one person living in one room in a house a single owner owns and occupies:

“a person who lives in a room in a house where the owner lives. The owner can enter all areas occupied by the lodger, and has overall control of the house.”

Lodgers have fewer rights in California, can be evicted with 3 rather than 30 days’ notice in San Francisco, the owner can enter their room at will and without notice. Here is the relevant law.

2) “Guest.” The legal definition below assumes the owner was a landlord of a rentable property, so it may not apply:

a person who does not have the rights of a tenant, such as a person who stays in a transient hotel for fewer than seven days.”

Guests can be evicted without notice, which is the primary right which is concerning if we were to have a house-sitter.

Female Asian Koel - Koha3) “Employee.” The term “house-sitter” has no legal definition, and while there are several professional house-sitting organizations, they all seem to assume that house-sitters are the employees of the owners of a house. While some of the house-sitting organizations assume the house-sitters are paying/being paid, I could not find any mention of claims of tenants rights as most of them consider themselves employees. “Being paid” can both mean being paid for plant-watering, dog-walking services or payment in kind, i.e. through free lodging and utilities.

This term seems to be most useful, as it encapsulates the relationship without conferring tenants’ rights.

Last note: It is important to speak with the home insurance company about 1) how/whether they cover injuries for house-guests, and 2) what they think of house-sitters.

That was extensive, I know, but it is nice to know where we might stand if we were to get a house-sitter and if something were to go wrong.

It seems to me that the vaste majority of house-sitting situations exist in a legal grey-area–the land of goodwill and trust (where I spend most of my time). Here people honor contracts not because the sherif or judge might jail/fine them otherwise, but because they are good people trying to do their best in the world.

House-sitters may be accruing rights, and may look like tenants to some judges, but most are grateful to be living rent-free in expensive cities and were expecting unstable and temporary living arrangements. Those few house-guests/house-sitters who behave poorly receive most of the attention online. It is for those corrosive individuals that nit-picky laws were designed and we all must atone for their sins by abiding by them.

We will probably use one of these sample contracts if we choose to get a house-sitter, just to make sure we’re in agreement on our roles. It sure would be nice to have one worry tucked away in this season of drama.

PS: Orthographic note–the cuckoo pictured above is from a species notorious for stealing nests and killing their eggy occupants. Just like the worst-case scenario would be of a house-sitting going terribly wrong.

Inspirational Quote:

“No man but feels more of a man in the world if he have but a bit of ground that he can call his own.  However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep; and that is a very handsome property.”–Charles Dudley Warner

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