You're in the middle of a TV docudrama, your feet propped up on the footstool, when the phone rings. It's your 27-year-old son, Michael, a breathless urgency in his voice.
Michael, it turns out, has just lost his job with a computer firm in Ellicott City. Without a regular paycheck, there's no way he can pay the rent on his garden apartment in Columbia. Could he move back home to the old rancher in Cockeysville?
Given the recession and high housing costs, situations like these -- involving home sharing among relatives -- are becoming increasingly common. Instead of Michael on the phone, next time it could be your sister, Jennifer, who has just left her husband, or cousin Jack from Seattle, who has taken a job in Baltimore and needs a place to stay.
Common as they've become, home-sharing arrangements among relatives should still be handled delicately, housing specialists recommend. Otherwise, family relationships can be put in jeopardy.
You may feel obligated to take Michael back into the nest, for instance. But how do you negotiate details of the new relationship in which you become landlord and he the tenant? Most troublesome of all, how do you settle the touchy issue of rent?
"You have to talk honestly from the very beginning. Otherwise, hidden agendas and hidden resentments will come up later and give you problems," counsels Inge Hyder, owner of Roommate Referrals, a 14-year-old Columbia company that helps set up home-sharing situations.
The key to successful home sharing with a relative is to make the deal as businesslike as possible, housing specialists say. Each side should discuss his expectations in advance and, if possible, the relative should move in for a few days on a trial basis before he gives up his old housing situation.
"You've got to pull back and forget for a while that you're relatives. By keeping things businesslike, it's less likely you'll get into a rift or face unhappiness in the end," says Gerry Lauter, a housing counselor with the Shared Housing Resource Center in Philadelphia.
Housing specialists offer these pointers:
* Don't excuse your tenant from paying rent or its equivalent just because he's kin.
"Even if you're loaded and don't have any money problems, it's not good a good idea to let your relative live rent-free. People should not be allowed to move in without paying. If they do, they lose their sense of responsibility and are going to feel badly about themselves," says Ms. Hyder of Roommate Referrals.
Even if the tenant doesn't suffer by being a freeloader, resentment can build on the part of the homeowner-landlord when no rent is paid, says Ms. Lauter.
"You may resent the notion that the relative expects a handout. You shouldn't be made to feel guilty because you're asking for rent to help meet your expenses," she says.
* Determine the right level of rent with an informal survey of your local market.
"Homeowners are amazed at the cost of rental housing," says Carol Schreter, a Baltimore woman who has done extensive research on home-sharing issues.
Your spare bedroom with shared bath or basement accessory apartment could be worth more than you imagine to a tenant -- especially if your home is in a nice residential neighborhood, she notes.
To conduct your rent survey, call a real estate agent in your area or study newspaper ads, suggests Milton Marks, program manager for the Shared Housing Resource Center. If home sharing is uncommon in your community, you could compare the value of your setup with rent charged locally for a studio or efficiency apartment.
"No one is going to pay more for a room in your house with shared kitchen and bath than he's going to pay for a small, separate apartment," Mr. Marks contends. Still, he says that your home-sharing unit should command a better-than-average rent if has its own kitchen, bathroom or separate entrance.
* Consider giving your relative a discount or let him pay in services.
Some homeowners insist that a relative, even a grown child, pay full market value. While that's not an inappropriate position to take, housing specialists say, it's also common to give your kin a break on rent.
To be realistic, some relatives may not be able to pay much, due to their circumstances.
Take the case of a grown child who has become unemployed or gone back to college. In such cases, the burden of paying cash rent can often be offset through services such as home improvement or repair, baby-sitting, lawn mowing or grocery shopping.
Whatever is to be the compensation to the homeowner, the issue should be hashed out early in the process.
"It's a sensitive issue because there's so much emotion wrapped up in this. But it's not an issue that should be avoided. It's important to be honest and open and to deal with this issue upfront," according to Mr. Marks .
* Talk over the specific terms of your new housing relationship -- ideally before the relative moves in.
Use a checklist to discuss such issues as rent and utility costs, standards of cleanliness, company, food and cooking, telephone charges, security measures, furniture, storage, bedding and linens and noise.
Don't assume you know your relative as a roommate because you've known him well in the past. You might imagine that you could predict what it would be like to have 27-year-old Michael move back home. Because he lived in the old rancher through his early 20a.
But the emancipated Michael is likely to have changed in his living habits--not to mention the fact that his expectations of how he should be treated by his parents will have no doubt changed.
Says Ms. Lauter: "Making assumptions about relatives can be dangerous."