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A roommate is moving out; how to handle a shared property

Published: Oct 14, 2009

One of the most regularly contentious issues among roommates is what to do with all that junk you shared in common in the house or apartment, and have to somehow divide now that everyone is going his or her separate way.

It's difficult not to get emotional at the prospect of one roommate running off with "everybody's" TV, but this is the tough part about moving on -- someone's got to take the stuff, and not everything can be split into pieces and handed around to the group as a whole. There are a number of solutions to the problem, however... and the first (and maybe best) is to not have the problem in the first place...

  1. Know ahead of time who owns what

    The easiest way to settle the division of common property is not to have any. Make a standing agreement: When somebody buys something big "for the house," like a TV or mini-fridge, it belongs to them. They pay a set percentage of the price (75 percent is fair) and roommates kick in the rest as a sort of rental fee and acknowledgment that it will be shared. Then, ownership is never in question. Likewise, if another roommate damages or destroys the property, the solution is simple: they replace it with something identical or equivalent. When property is held in common, it can be far trickier to figure out what to do when something gets broken or goes missing.

  2. Buyout bids

    For property that is truly held in common, hold an auction among all roommates with a stake. "OK, who would pay $20 for this TV? $30? $40?" Split the resulting money among the other stakeholders. If you've auctioned off 10 or 11 items, you may find that the money eventually works out to be a wash, or close to it. This is also a good way to gauge who actually has the most interest in something, and would get the most value out of it -- whoever bids highest is also most likely to be in need of the item.

  3. Sell it off

    A garage sale can be a great way to lighten everyone's material load and make a bit of cash. Throw commonly held property into the sale, and split the money up among the people who originally bought it. This way there's no contention about who gets to keep the item; and if someone truly wants it, they can buy it at the garage sale price, which is presumably pretty reasonable.

  4. Choose lots

    If you've got enough pieces of property to divide up and there are no big outliers in terms of value (i.e., 14 chairs and a decent used car), you can just have roommates draw lots. Whoever draws lot #1 picks a piece of property. #2 picks the next one. #3 picks the next one. Then #1 picks again, and so on, until all property is claimed.

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