Why a House Hack is a Good and a Terrible Idea
Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. He has been featured in CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and other publications. [email protected]
Why a House Hack is a Good and a Terrible Idea
For years, a “house hack” was pretty chill. It might involve renting out an extra room to someone. When I was in my first year of law school, my two roommates, a year ahead of me, rented a small house near campus. They decided to turn the (super teeny) laundry room into a room big enough to accommodate only a tiny bed and tinier desk. That was an excellent way for them to cut their housing costs and for me to have somewhere to sleep within a five-minute walk from school for peanuts.
House hacks have evolved since then and can now involve creative (and sometimes not entirely legal) ways of dividing a property you own into subunits in which other people can live. A house hack when you own the property is one thing. When you are a renter, it’s something entirely different.
Imagine a situation where you have a roommate, which is more common these days than ever. Let’s say that you’re away for a couple of days, so your roommate does a house hack and allows someone to rent out your couch or (significantly less cool, by the roommate code) your room.
You return from your trip and find the person there, but they have refused to leave or pay your roommate for the nights they were already on the couch. The surprising and bad news is that the person now has the right to be there, depending upon the length of the stay.
If instead of a few days, it’s a few weeks or longer, this person can legally become a tenant without formally being on the lease. They are then entitled to a specific amount of notice to leave, again dependent upon where you live.
To make things worse, Josh Geist, a Pittsburgh lawyer, reminds us that:
“If you and your roommate are on the same lease, if there is an eviction, it would be of both of you, as you are both considered by the law to be the tenant.”
Yet house hacking has a bright future.
From the very 2019 trend of renting garages as living accommodations in cities such as San Francisco to renting out backyard sheds, repurposing space can, when done well, help alleviate some of our cities’ most intense housing crunches.
When I lived in Germany, I saw a fantastic house hack. A husband and wife had a lovely house on a country road. Three stories and a basement. They had a great backyard yard with a small inground pool and a little land. As their kids were all grown, they decided to convert most of the house into an Airbnb, with one unit as a long-term rental, which they decorated beautifully and offered at a pretty pricey rate to the local professional soccer team to house a star player new to the team and town.
What was genius was their addition of a remarkably functional tiny house near the pool. This was not a crappy converted shed but rather a tiny custom-built home full of things like tables and counters and a bed that you could push into the wall or pull out. They could recoup their investment in the tiny house in one year simply through Airbnb revenue.
Some will surely imagine a future where we are sharing backyard space for housing as dystopian, but it’s creative problem-solving. While the Tiny House Movement may have come and gone, next-level creative use of existing spaces is going to be an emerging theme in 2022.
Kirsten Dirksen has an excellent YouTube channel in which she shows creative use of small spaces, including those many would consider to be house hacks. From a Paris bedroom in a closet to a converted dumpster to a modern day Quonset hut, Dirksen explores the massive possibility of reimagined spaces.
Today, house hacking is even crossing over from renting to owning. Recently, a startup called Husmates was in the news because of its house hack. Their idea is to use a profile like Tinder to match strangers looking to buy a home. Yet as one real estate lawyer wondered on social media, whether Husmates recommends or mandates co-ownership agreements is an important issue.
So, whether, for you, a house hack is sharing your current living space in a non-traditional way or finding your own incarnation of a Quonset hut, there are plenty of excellent reasons to think about whether this is something that would work well for you.