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Let’s move in together (and you can help me pay my mortgage)

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There’s one question that comes up a lot among couples and is bound to be even more commonplace in a hot housing market: What happens when you’re ready to live together, but one (or both) of you already own a home?

It’s natural for a homeowner to want their partner to move in. But is it fair for that partner? And is it healthy to have a landlord-tenant dynamic in your romantic relationship?

The short answer: No, it’s not fair, and that dynamic can be risky. After all, the “rent” being paid by the partner is ultimately subsidizing someone else’s mortgage with no equity being earned, no protections of a lease and the threat of eviction ever-present should things not work out.

With many millennials and even Gen Z cohabitating before marriage, I’ve been asked fairly frequently how to handle moving into a home that one partner owns. In 2019, 12% of millennials were living with an unmarried partner compared to 8% of Gen Xers at the same age bracket in 2003. Although housing prices are soaring and moving in together may be more economical and practical, it’s important to first have a direct conversation about the risks -- and sign a few legally binding documents to ensure both parties feel safe.

The fundamental challenge in moving into a partner’s owned home is the power imbalance it creates. The home isn’t “ours,” it’s “theirs.” This means your partner can make unilateral decisions about the house and your living situation. I’ll leave aside all the emotional issues this raises and focus on the practicalities. The key questions you need to think about are: What rights does each party have to the home? What about in the event of a break up? How much “rent” does the non-owner pay? And how will utilities, furnishings and upgrades be handled?

The renting partner isn’t likely to have the same rights as a tenant simply by moving in, unless they actually sign a lease. Cohabitation and renting are not usually seen as the same thing in the eyes of the courts. That being said, it’s important to know your city and state laws. The non-owning partner may have tenants’ rights, especially depending on how long you’ve cohabitated, that will require the homeowner to go to court and secure an ejectment or eviction if the partner won’t leave willingly after a break up.

What happens if you break up needs to be a serious consideration before you agree to move in. How long would you have to move out and find a new place should things go south? Does the partner who owns the home feel comfortable with the state laws around how long a “tenant” can stay in the home after the breakup? Many of these issues could be laid to rest by a properly written and notarized cohabitation property agreement.

Once the heavy break-up discussion is handled, it’s time to consider the finances of paying rent to your partner.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to splitting living expenses when one person is building equity and the other is just handing over money in exchange for shelter. It will need to be a conversation about what feels fair in the context of your relationship. The rent should certainly not be higher than what the non-owning partner is currently paying, and it should align with reasonable market rates for the area. For some, a 50/50 split of the mortgage feels fair. Or maybe the renting partner pays for a portion of the mortgage and the owner handles all the remainder and all utilities. Whatever works for you, there should be one sticking point: The renting partner has no liability for upgrades or repairs.

Unless you directly caused damage, it should be on the partner who owns to handle any home upgrades or repairs. A renter wouldn’t have to pay for a new roof, to fix the water heater or to upgrade the dishwasher. That’s the landlord’s responsibility. This holds true in living with your romantic partner.

Frankly, you shouldn’t contribute to furniture or home decor without it being written down who gets what in the case of a breakup. (It’s just like a prenup with a marriage, which shouldn’t be such a taboo document to discuss or get.) We all think we’re going to be level-headed, reasonable people, right up until emotions flair.

For couples who elect to not get married but plan to be in a long-term, committed relationship, it is critical to handle estate planning as well as paperwork to grant your partner similar rights to that of a spouse. Should the homeowner die and the partner not be named the inheritor of the property in a will, the courts could give the home to the deceased’s next of kin -- likely a parent, child or sibling.

Understandably, few people want to have any of these conversations. It’s not fun or flirty to talk about what happens if you break up or about who pays how much, especially when you want to start the next stage of your relationship. But those who can navigate these awkward money talks will build a stronger foundation. At the very least, if the relationship doesn’t work out, you’ll be in a much better position to move on.

Erin Lowry is the author of “Broke Millennial,” “Broke Millennial Takes On Investing” and “Broke Millennial Talks Money: Stories, Scripts and Advice to Navigate Awkward Financial Conversations.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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