The Moneyist: I rented a 3-bedroom apartment for $1,500 and charged my roommates $800 per room. I got a $100 cut each month. Was I wrong?
I rented a three-bedroom apartment from the owner.
He got inconsistent rents via room rentals. Empty rooms paid $0. His rent was $500 per room. I took the entire rent upon myself: $1,500 a month plus utilities. Room rentals in the area were $700. I repainted. I furnished the place. I maintained it.
I took a room myself and rented the other two rooms for $800, with each paying one-third of the utilities. I did the work to get the roommates. They paid for themselves. If they left, the financial burden was on me. I risked the investment. My logic: I should be paid for my work.
In my opinion, they didn’t earn the right to pay $500 a month. The market rent was $800 for the amenities and the location, and it was furnished. My rent was one-third of the utilities and I earned $100 every month. The landlord got $1,500 a month on time.
Eight years later, the gig ended with the house sold.
Was I wrong?
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Are you an enterprising subletter who knows how to hustle, or the roommate from hell? Or somewhere in between? You certainly saw an opportunity and you went for it. You signed a lease and took on the financial responsibility. The tenants paid market rent for a furnished apartment, and they seemed happy.
Here’s the murky part: It’s not remotely transparent. You did not, I presume, tell the people you were living with for eight years that they were effectively covering your rent, with a $100 monthly profit for your utilities. Nor did you tell the landlord you were secretly upping the agreed rent, and skimming off the top.
There is one person other who you would also be required to tell: Uncle Sam. If you believed you were acting 100% correctly, then you should follow that logic through to the finish line and declare the money as income. It’s no good if you stop short when it’s disadvantageous to you.
I do take issue with the following inhospitable — possibly even hostile — sentiment in your letter: “They didn’t earn the right to pay $500 a month.” Wrong. They had every right to pay the rent set by the landlord. They did not own the furniture you provided, and they likely covered the paint job in the first month.
But those tit-for-tat details are hardly the point. From what you say in your letter, you kept the actual rent for the house under wraps. But ask yourself: If the situation were reversed and you learned that the person subletting the rooms was making a profit from them, how would that make you feel?
“‘You were a fellow tenant who was — as far as your co-renters were aware — on equal footing economically and socially.’”
So why is it OK for someone who owns a property to charge rent and make a profit, but when a fellow renter does the same it could be perceived as sketchy? One explanation: A landlord, who already openly holds more power than the tenant, is transparent about his/her objective to make a profit.
This was something different: You were a fellow tenant who was — as far as your co-renters were aware — on equal footing economically and socially. You held the lease, but you were roomies. There is an element of subterfuge, especially if you know that there would be trouble if they found out.
It is similar to the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. If you were not breaking any subletting rules with your landlord or laws with Uncle Sam (something you did not address) it does not mean you weren’t breaking a social norm or moral code.
The Italian-American philosopher Cristina Bicchieri talks of social norms as “the language a society speaks, the embodiment of its values and collective desires, the secure guide in the uncertain lands we all traverse, the common practices that hold human groups together.”
The norm is established so boundaries are set around behavior and decisions that may or may not cause a degree of injury or hurt that lead to questions — or, in your case, a heated kitchen-sink drama in your rental. It’s up to each of us individually to set the moral thermostat for our own lives.
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