When Does a Guest Become a Tenant? Understanding Their Differences

What happens when a guest stays for a longer time period than initially expected — at what point do they become a tenant? Learn about the key differences between tenants and guests and real-world examples to distinguish the two. We'll also cover best practices for landlords to create a guest policy and how either party can properly add long-term guests to the lease as official tenants.

Nichole Stohler
Last Updated
June 11, 2024
When Does a Guest Become a Tenant? Understanding Their Differences

Allowing friends or family to visit for a short stay seems harmless enough. But when that guest overstays, issues can quickly arise for both tenants and landlords. When does a temporary visitor officially become a tenant? Defining the line between guests and tenants helps you protect your rights and avoid legal issues.

This article explores differences between guests and tenants, offering tangible scenarios when that friendly visitor has crossed into tenant territory. Landlords and renters will learn best practices for handling these situations.

Keep reading to discover tips on guest policies, adding long-term guests to the lease, and understanding your rights and responsibilities. Learn how to maintain the best experience for guests and tenants while avoiding legal pitfalls.

Key differences between tenants and guests

When a property has a long-term guest, you may wonder when exactly that guest becomes a tenant. Some of the ways you can identify guests versus tenants include:

  • Length of stay: The length of stay and contract distinguishes a tenant from a guest. Tenants sign a lease agreement and stay for an extended period, often months or years. Guests stay for short durations, such as a few days or weeks, and don't have a formal rental agreement.
  • Tenant rights and responsibilities: Tenants have specific legal rights under landlord-tenant law, including the right to privacy, a habitable living environment, and protection against wrongful eviction. They also have obligations, such as paying rent on time, maintaining the property, and following lease terms. Guests do not have these legal protections or obligations. Their stay falls under the homeowner's rules and does not involve a formal legal agreement.
  • Rent payments: Renters must pay rent regularly per the lease agreement. Guests might pay for their stay if arranged through a platform like Airbnb, but they do not have a recurring financial obligation to the property owner.
  • Residence: Tenants establish the property as their primary residence. This can involve changing their address for mail, voter registration, and other personal documentation. Guests do not establish residency because they typically stay temporarily and maintain their primary residence elsewhere.
  • Purpose of stay: The property serves as a home for tenants who participate in everyday activities and use the space for personal living. Guests stay for specific reasons such as visiting friends or family, vacationing, or attending an event. Their use of the property is temporary for leisure or short-term needs.
  • Guest policy: If the tenant follows the rental lease agreement terms and guest policies, they usually do not need the landlord's permission to have guests. In contrast, guests themselves do not have the same rights to invite other guests onto the property since they are not residents or formal tenants.

Guest vs. tenant: How to distinguish between the two in various scenarios

It's not always easy to know who is a guest and who is a tenant. Here are some common scenarios for each type of inhabitant that will help you identify a long term guest versus a tenant.

Guest scenarios

  • Weekend visitors: Friends or relatives visiting for a weekend or holiday who return to their own home afterward.
  • Occasional overnight stays: A significant other or close friend who stays overnight a few times a month or visits frequently during the day without moving in.
  • Temporary caregivers: Parents or other family members visiting to help with a new baby or to recover from a medical procedure, staying for a few weeks.
  • Daytime help: A nanny, housekeeper, or other domestic worker who primarily works during the day and may occasionally stay overnight.
  • Short-term business guests: Colleagues or business partners visiting for a few days for work-related purposes and then returning to their primary residence.

Tenant scenarios

  • Former students: College students who have dropped out without plans to return to school and now reside at the property indefinitely.
  • Long-term domestic help: A nanny or caregiver who moves in full-time to provide ongoing assistance.
  • Family members: Relatives such as elderly parents who have moved in with the intention of staying long-term due to personal or financial reasons.
  • Renting a room: Individuals who rent a room within the property and contribute to household expenses on a regular basis.
  • Subletting: Renters who have taken over the lease from the original tenant and now live in the property with landlord approval.

When does a visitor become a tenant?

At what point does a guest become a tenant? Let's cover the signs to look for:

  • Extended stay: The guest has been staying at the property for an extended period, typically more than 30 days.
  • Receiving mail: The occupant receives mail and packages at the property address. The guest may also update their address on official documents.
  • Personal belongings: When the person moves in personal belongings, such as furniture, clothing, and other items.
  • Utility payments: The guest starts paying for utilities or other services associated with the property.
  • Key possession: If the occupant has their own set of keys to the property and can come and go freely.
  • Shared financial contributions: The guest contributes to rent or household expenses on a regular basis.
  • Access to amenities: If the person regularly uses the property’s amenities and facilities as if they were a resident.

Creating a tenant guest policy

Property owners should create a tenant guest policy to set clear guidelines and provide protection for all parties. Start by defining who qualifies as a guest, and who qualifies as a tenant. You can do this by specifying the maximum number of days a guest can stay without being considered a tenant. Many landlords set their limit at 14 days within a six-month period, but this can vary based on local laws and property rules.

Require tenants to notify the landlord or property manager if a guest will be staying for more than a specified number of days. Outline the process for getting approval for extended guest stays, which could involve submitting a written request and receiving consent from the landlord. You should also make it clear that tenants are responsible for their guests' actions, including any damage caused by guests.

Set guidelines for guest behavior to make sure they respect the rental space rules and do not disrupt other residents. This includes areas such as:

  • Noise policies: Guidelines for maintaining reasonable noise levels to avoid disturbing neighbors.
  • Parking rules: Set regulations for using designated parking areas and confirm guests do not take spaces assigned to other residents.
  • General conduct: Outline expectations for guests to follow all community rules and standards of behavior.
  • Common areas: Provide requirements for guests to be accompanied by the tenant when using shared facilities.
  • Key security: Establish rules prohibiting tenants from sharing property keys with guests.

Property owners should prohibit subletting or allowing guests to stay in the unit while the tenant is not present unless approved by the landlord.

Detail the consequences of violating the guest policy. This could range from warnings to fines or even eviction in severe cases.

Guest management mistakes to avoid

Besides creating a tenant guest policy, be aware of key areas to avoid:

  • Don't accept rent from guests: Don't accept rent payments from guests. This could inadvertently establish a landlord-tenant relationship, giving the guest legal rights similar to those of a tenant.
  • "Self-help" evictions: Never attempt to evict tenants or their guests without following proper legal procedures. Actions such as changing locks or shutting off utilities are illegal and can lead to severe legal consequences.
  • Extended stays without a formal process: If a guest is staying for an extended period, do not allow them to stay without a formal process. Add them to the lease agreement and use the same tenant screening as other residents.
  • Written notices: Always provide written notices for any policy changes, rule violations, or other important communications regarding guest stays. Verbal notices can lead to misunderstandings and lack of evidence in disputes.
  • Unauthorized fees: Avoid charging tenants extra fees for having guests without clear, documented policies in the lease agreement.

Transitioning from a guest to a tenant

If you're a renter and want a guest to become a tenant at your rental property, start by seeking the landlord's approval. Once you have their consent, follow these steps:

  • Room rental agreement: Create a formal rental agreement. Use a platform like Azibo, which offers state-specific lease agreements, to confirm that the contract meets all legal requirements and clearly outlines the terms of tenancy.
  • Subletting: If the guest is taking over an existing lease, set up a subletting agreement. The landlord should approve this agreement, which should include all the terms and conditions to formalize the sublease.
  • Add to the lease: Another option is to add the guest-turned-tenant to the existing lease. This involves updating the lease agreement to include the guest as an official tenant and requiring them to be subject to the same terms and conditions as the original leaseholders.
  • Tenant screening: Conduct a thorough tenant screening to evaluate the guest’s suitability as a tenant. With Azibo's platform, you can run background and credit checks and verify rental history to confirm that they're reliable and responsible tenants.
  • Tenant insurance: Require the new tenant to buy renter's insurance. This provides coverage for their personal items and liability protection. Azibo's renter's insurance options integrate easily into the leasing process.

Understanding guests by state

When does a guest become a tenant? Regulations by state include:

Time limits when a guest becomes a tenant

  • After 30 days: Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, New York, Ohio
  • After 29 days: Arizona
  • After 14 days within a 6-month period or 7 consecutive nights: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon
  • After 14 days within a 12-month period: Missouri

If a guest contributes rent or services in exchange for staying

  • Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania

Per the lease agreement

  • Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Specific state consideration

  • Illinois: A guest is a tenant if they establish residency by receiving mail at the address or listing it on official documents.

When does a visitor become a tenant?

Distinguishing between guests and tenants helps landlords and renters protect their legal rights and maintain a friendly living environment. While guests are temporary visitors, tenants establish residency and have specific rights and responsibilities under landlord-tenant laws.

The key areas that determine when a guest becomes a tenant often revolve around the length of stay, receiving mail at the property, contributing to rent or utilities, and treating the space as their primary residence. Property owners should be aware of these indicators and create guest policies to avoid misunderstandings and potential legal issues.

Tenants should also check the terms of their lease agreement and seek landlord approval before allowing long-term guests or subletting to others. Open communication and following proper procedures can foster a positive relationship between all parties involved.

When does a guest become a tenant? FAQs

Why is it difficult to distinguish between a guest and a tenant?

It's difficult to distinguish between a guest and a tenant because the distinction often depends on the duration of stay, financial contributions, and the intent to establish residency. These factors can vary widely and be subject to interpretation.

How long can someone live in a guest house?

How long someone can live in a guest house depends on local laws and the terms of the lease agreement. It's important to check specific regulations and the rental contract for precise details.

How do you deal with long term guests?

Dealing with long-term guests involves setting clear policies in the lease agreement. This includes defining the maximum stay duration and requiring landlord approval for extended visits.

Important Note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as legal, accounting, or tax advice, nor should it be used as a substitute for such services. Always consult your own legal, accounting, or tax counsel before taking any action based on this information.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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