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Thursday question: Whose futon is it, anyway?

Posted by Robin Abrahams  October 8, 2009 06:56 AM

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Here's a question of roommate, or more to the point, ex-roommate conflict:

This is a question about ethics involving former roommates and the furniture they sometimes leave behind. Three months ago, my former roommate moved out. He had purchased an inexpensive futon for the living room (for which I purchased the grip strips to hold the mattress up—a significant percentage of the overall cost), and when he moved out, I assumed that he would be taking it with him.

On the day he gave me back his keys, however, he told me that he was putting the futon on Craigslist, but that if it didn’t sell in twelve days or so to consider it mine. It seemed like a good chance to take for a piece of furniture, so I agreed. As I’d paid the brunt of the household expenses (he consistently shorted me on the cable bill and hardly ever bought household supplies) and had done all of the cleaning, I thought that possibly getting a futon was a fair trade. Twelve days passed, a month passed, three months passed, and I never heard from him. I got a futon out of this deal, right?

Well, last night I got a text message from my former roommate saying that he wanted to pick up the futon on Wednesday. To my mind, he’s abandoned that futon, and he has no claim on it. I sent a text message in return saying that I was sorry but that it wasn’t OK and that my apartment wasn’t a storage facility. His response was that “If that’s the way you want it. I’ll be in touch soon.”

So here’s my question—Am I correct in thinking that the futon is mine? Would it be ethical to charge him a storage fee if he insisted on getting it back? I think you can tell that things didn’t end on the best note, but he isn’t a bad guy. I’m more interested in the principle of the thing than the futon at this point.

What do you all think? What unaddressed issues leap out at you from this question?

As usual, I'll post my response to your comments next week (new questions run here on Monday and Thursday, except in case of holidays; responses go up Tuesday or Wednesday and Friday). If you want more to read in the meantime, check out my other blog here.)

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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26 comments so far...
  1. Give him the futon. If the assumption was that he could take it with him without paying you anything for it at the time he moved out then you can't ask for any money for it now. You've had the use of the futon for quite some time so you probably have gotten your investment back in cost-per-lounging (CPL?) That he was a deadbeat when it came to the bills is a separate issue; just be glad you don't have to deal with that anymore. Don't waste precious daylight trying to even out old scores.

    Posted by still-learning October 8, 09 07:52 AM
  1. Well, this is a legal issue as much as an ethics/etiquette issue, and from a legal standpoint, the futon is yours.

    That doesn't solve the real problem, which is the hassle you take on if you keep the futon. Sounds like he plans to fight for the futon (which is an odd choice for him to make, given the situation). So do you want that fight? If you don't mind digging your heels in and dealing with an obnoxious person haranging you for a while, go for it -- just keep telling him whenever you hear from him, "I'm so sorry, but you abandoned this when you moved out, telling me that if you did not take it after 12 days, it is mine. So I am keeping it as agreed." Say it over and over again.

    But either way it is not ethical to charge him a storage fee. You can't impose something on someone after the fact -- you agreed to have it in your house. If you wanted payment for storage, that was the time to bring it up. If you want to keep the futon, keep it. If you want to give it back, give it back: the payment you receive for doing that will be that he gets out of your hair.

    Posted by jlen October 8, 09 08:28 AM
  1. Take the straps off that you bought and let him have it back. If you want to act like a grown up, leave them on. In the future, don't split the cost of an item with roommates. Finally, with future roommates, bring up issues like underpaying expenses when it occurs, not after you've been chewing on it for months. Put agreements in writing.

    Dealing with roommate issues is a big part of growing up. We have all been through it and have stories to tell that are funny (years later). Best wishes.

    Posted by just_cos October 8, 09 08:32 AM
  1. The cable bills and other bills that he didn't pay are a separate issue and do not mix the two. You lost your right to claim that money in their cash or items when you didn't deal with it as it happened.

    The futon however is yours in my mind. The reason is that he said he was going to sell it on craigslist and if it wasn't sold in 12 days then it was yours. For him to come back three months after the fact and want it is beyond the pale. If he had asked for it within a month I would probably be more forgiving and just given it to him even though that would have been unnecessary based on his verbal arrangement that if it was there after 12 days it was yours, and I would tell him that I wouldn't just say that no it wasn't ok.

    I would also make sure you locks have been changed and he doesn't know where you keep the spare key. If he does want it back then yes he does need to pay for the storage of it because, while it was in your apartment it prevented you from buying a replacement piece. And I would take the grips back too if you paid for them. You were more than generous in the start with your assumption he would take it all. You were even generous to say that he could keep it at your place for 12 days while he tried to sell it on craigs list, and now he wants to be petty. If that is what he wants then that is what you should give him. You have tried the nice route it didn't work, but good for you for trying. Now don't beat yourself up about it.

    Posted by WES October 8, 09 08:38 AM
  1. Someone that flaky will probably stand you up a couple of times when he schedules to come and take the futon, and will probably expect you to carry it, and maybe even rent him a truck to move it with. Do you have pets that might accidentally soil it?

    More seriously, I think you should just let him take it. It's better not to argue over something that small with someone you don't want much more to do with.

    Posted by ruthling October 8, 09 08:38 AM
  1. So let me get this straight: you and your roommate shared the cost of a futon. He moves out, doesn't want to go through the trouble of hauling it, says that after 12 days or so to consider it yours, and three months later he's taking it back? That's completely absurd!

    I disagree with your "fair trade" assumption, however. Judging by the description of your co-existence with this person, you spent your shared tenancy as a doormat, never addressing division of labor or financial discrepancies in order to keep the peace. This is fine - we all have to decide where to draw the line (and overlook some things) when it comes to shared living. But you never specifically framed the situation to your ex-roomie as a "You were a less-than-great roommate so I get to keep our futon" type of thing. So don't even bring it into the discussion. He agreed to give you the futon after a specific date, that date has long past, end of story.

    Posted by Anne with an E October 8, 09 09:08 AM
  1. This is a situation where you have to weigh principle against pest potential. Sure, you're right that he has no claim to the futon. If you really want to solve the problem on that principle, sell the futon yourself and get a couch. The ex-roommate can't fight to get something back that simply isn't there anymore. If your goal, however, is to never hear from or deal with your roommate again, then give them the futon. Is your peace of mind worth it? You'll have the karma and satisfaction of being the better person, with a bonus of no more e-mails.

    Either way you should consider an option that gets the thing out of your apartment. Keeping it will only serve to remind you of the ex roommate every time you look at it. Do you really have enough fond memories of them for that? Sell it or swap for a couch on Craigslist, then block the ex-roommate's e-mail and move on. Don't engage them, don't respond, don't communicate, don't lend energy to their dissatisfaction. Or, as I usually put it, don't feed the troll. Trust me that in the long run it's more satisfying than the instant gratification of snark.

    Posted by JoGeek October 8, 09 09:41 AM
  1. I'd say that the LW rightfully owns the futon, but I'd also say it's just not worth making a fuss about it. At most I might send the ex-roomie a text reminding him of the original deal but telling him he can pick it up if he really wants it. Something like "Just want to remind you that you said I could have it if you didn't sell it in 12 days, but if you really want it I'll be home between 7 and 7:30 on Tuesday. You can pick it up then". I would be really specific about the time you're available for him to come pick it up.

    Posted by Dave's not here! October 8, 09 09:49 AM
  1. I recommend you read up about the Prisoner's Dilemma and Game Theory. You are a classic cooperator. Your ex-roommate is a classic defaulter. You will continue to have to deal with defaulters for the rest of your life. The best strategy to deal with them (proven by mathematical modeling) is called "Generous tit-for-tat."

    Keeping the futon now would be "tit-for-tat," a strategy that results in extinction for both game players. Instead of cooperating like you normally do (altruistic person that you are), you would be meeting his default with a default of your own. As a natural defaulter, he's going to only respond with another default (dragging you to court), escalating the drama and causing you further headaches.

    In generous tit-for-tat, you would keep the futon - and go ahead and make a big nasty stink about why you are doing so: because he was a lousy roommate, he promised it to you if it didn't sell in 12 days, and your apartment isn't a storage unit.

    But then - and this is important!! - follow up immediately with a generous concession. For example, you could offer to pay him a fair market price for a used futon (which by my estimation is anything more than $0 - since you can drive around student ghetto at semester's end and find tons of free futons put out in the trash), less the cost of the grips. Or offer to help him truck a new futon home. Or bake him some cookies. The concession does not necessarily have to be just and related to the issue (i.e., partial payment for the futon). But it does have to be swift and generous - despite whatever spite you feel in your heart.

    You can try this with him now. Unfortunately, it may not work, because GTFT works best over repeated dealings over time with the same defaulter. Eventually the defaulter learns it serves him best to cooperate with you.

    While it may be too late to teach your ex-roommate a lesson, it's not too late for you to learn the lesson of how to deal with people like this in the future, since the world is crawling with them. All of us cooperators need to learn this. I wish the world was filled with only cooperators, but it's not.

    Posted by bah humbug October 8, 09 09:54 AM
  1. Seems to me this is pretty straightforward -- he asked for 12 days storage and then told you the futon was yours. The futon is yours.

    As previous posters have suggested, the background information on bill paying is irrelevant to his claim on the futon. What it is relevant to is your role in that relationship. You set a precedent for being a doormat, and your former roommmate will assume the status quo in this dealing. If you really are willing to stand up to him and keep the futon, be clear, be concise, and don't engage in any drama about it, including bringing up his past failings as a roommate.

    Posted by bluemoose October 8, 09 09:54 AM
  1. You have two choices: Give it to him, minus the strapping you paid for. He obviously doesn't do well with sharing (furniture, chores, bills etc), and never will. Let him take it, but take the straps. They are yours. Your second choice, is to remind him of the "deal" he made with you. It is long past 12 days. No one from Craig's list wanted the thing and now it is yours. He can't change the deal. Just be prepared he may argue or bother you on a regular basis.

    As far as the other expenses he didn't share, I agree with other posters, you were a doormat. You should've spoken up then. Lesson learned. Next time you have a roommatee, discuss shared labor and expenses up front and as it happens. It would be futile to mention to him at this point. He clearly doesn't understand how to be a good roommate and misses the mark on what maturity and shared responsibility in a relationship (of any degree) really are.

    Posted by jaye October 8, 09 09:58 AM
  1. Yes, if the facts are indeed as you have presented them, technically the futon is yours. Not because he shorted you on household bills (irrelevant except to your motivation for keeping the futon - perhaps you intended to sell it yourself eventually?); because he said you could have it. No, you cannot charge him a storage fee, for all the reasons mentioned by other posters, most importantly because this was not the agreed-upon arrangement.

    However, if you really care about principles, you lost the moral high ground & acted just as rude & immature as he did with your snarky reply to his text. A better response would have been, "But you said that it would be mine if it didn't sell in 12 days, and it has been 3 months." You would have kept the tone civilized that way & perhaps could have negotiated a compromise.

    If you're really not interested in the futon, then just let him have it. Even if you want to keep the futon, just let him have it. It's not worth the hassle. If you are planning to get another futon, remove the grippy things before he comes to claim it, but warn him that you're keeping the part you paid for. (Still a tiny bit petty, but you did buy that part.) If you're not going to get another futon but want to continue being rude & immature, remove the grippy things but don't warn him.

    Posted by GradSchoolVeteran October 8, 09 10:07 AM
  1. Looks like the majority of Miss Conduct readers are cooperators. We may have the moral high ground, but the defaulters in our lives get all the futons!!

    Posted by bah humbug October 8, 09 11:21 AM
  1. I am with Comment #1

    Posted by Tanya Torres October 8, 09 11:43 AM
  1. Don't assume malice when you can assume misunderstanding.

    "I'm sorry, I thought you said that if it didn't sell on craigslist shortly after you moved out I could keep it, so I've been assuming it's my futon now. Did I misunderstand our arrangement?"

    If he still wants the futon and you really don't, then figure out its current price as a used item and ask him to pay you for the percentage of that price that is the straps.

    Posted by Meg October 8, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Technically speaking, the futon is yours based upon the agreement you two made. It all depends on whether you really want to fight over this. If you do, be prepared that he might take you to small claims court (assuming that he's the kind of person that handles things in a civil manner and doesn't get nasty. If you feel he could get physical or destructive over it, then let him have it). Otherwise, be prepared to get your ducks in a row.

    If you have your agreement in writing (which includes saved emails, texts, or even voice mails) that's ideal. Small claims court is usually more lax and even those forms of communication can act as proof of a contract (which is what this is). Also check out the state laws regarding abandoned property and see what the statute of limitations are. I don't know if there any stipulations where you have to be his landlord (where you sublet to him and he paid you rent as opposed to joint-tenancy where you were both on the lease) or if that even matters. If it doesn't matter and the time you're legally obligated to hold onto said abandoned property is under three months, then you probably have the law on your side.

    And as people have already stated, you cannot ask for storage fees when there was nothing in your original contract stating so. And as also pointed out, the bills/rent are separate issues and if you choose to counter sue over those, again, have all your bills and receipts of payment to said companies (which includes cc statements, bank statements or canceled checks) with you when you go to court. If you each paid rent separately to the landlord and there were months you paid more to cover his shortfall, have proof of that too. It's a lot of work but if you feel it's worth it, be ready. Personally if it were me, I'd give up the futon and let it go but everyone's gotta pick their own battles.

    PS--don't try to pad your counter suit with extra 'fluff' (ie. cost of gas, parking, lost wages for coming into court...). Those kinds of expenses are not recompensable.

    Posted by kdub October 8, 09 01:48 PM
  1. Oh and also, you might want to send him an email or text reminding him of your "if it doesn't sell after 12 days on craigslist it's yours" agreement and he in any way confirms that but says "yeah well I changed my mind" or "well it didn't sell and now I want it back" hold on to those. Those can also be your proof that you two did have an agreement (that's assuming that he doesn't deny making that agreement).

    Posted by kdub October 8, 09 01:53 PM
  1. Move it to the sidewalk. Text him "Your futon is outside, please pick it up". A nice rainy or snowy day will do.

    Posted by cthey October 8, 09 02:24 PM
  1. Yikes! Don't do what cthey said. By doing that you are agreeing the futon is his while at the same time destroying it (by leaving it out where you know it is likely to be wrecked by weather or stolen)! That could land you in trouble, actually. You would be responsible for the destruction of his property. I totally understand cthey's point and motivation -- the ex-roomie is being a jerk, and you should not go to any trouble over this thing -- but I just wanted to put that out there. Don't risk getting yourself in legal trouble.

    Posted by jlen October 8, 09 02:43 PM
  1. There really is a take-away here. Be clear about what you want and expect - if you want help with costs of the apartment, then talk about it. If you think the futon is yours because the roommate clearly said that if it didn't sell within 12 days, then say that. You keep mixing apples 'the futon could be considered payment in lieu of the upkeep costs' with oranges of 'former roomie said it was mine under these conditions'. You did this in your reply to the roomie asking for the futon back. Instead of addressing that issue and saying 'that's not what we agreed' you made it about something else 'I'm not a storage facility'.

    Posted by AntoniaB October 8, 09 02:48 PM
  1. People - don't be passive-agressive by leaving it on the sidewalk in inclement weather. That's just poor behavior and is never worthy of you. You can give parameters to pickup that suit you - monday and five and wednesday at seven are times you can collect the futon. Stick to that, calmly - but don't play games (and ruin a good futon)

    Posted by AntoniaB October 8, 09 02:52 PM
  1. If this really went down the way you've said it did, then you are clearly in the right - and you know that already. What I think you are really asking us is how do assert that I am right against a user like your roommate.

    I think it's simple. Just in case there was a misunderstanding, you should reiterate your understanding of what was said. Tell him that he is wrong to consider the futon and that the futon is yours, BUT then tell him that it is not worth fighting over and that you are willing to give it to him. He just has to come at an appointed time with enough people to move it and something to move it in.

    Next time, don't allow yourself to be a doormat for a roommate (or anyone else, for that matter). Deal with the household issues as they arise, and don't store up these offenses until they become a big one that leaves you feeling used and resentful.

    Posted by Nancy G October 8, 09 04:45 PM
  1. Tell him you've sold it, then do so.

    Posted by Molly October 9, 09 04:20 AM
  1. The way I see it, you have 2 options.

    1. Give the futon back to him. If you want to keep the peace (which I don't think you do) or just don't care about the futon (which I think you do), give it to him. Storage fee? Good luck getting him to pay it. I think you should let that go because you didn't bring it up when he left the thing. The situation is annoying, but it's not a hugely aggregious thing he's done to you.

    2. Don't give the futon back to him. If you want to keep the PIECE (sorry, couldn't resist), I agree with JoGeek. Either tell him you sold it, sorry, or ignore his emails. Do make sure he doesn't have a key to your apt.

    Posted by heatherv1211 October 9, 09 11:42 AM
  1. Meg - I like your comment, "Don't assume malice when you can assume misunderstanding." There are certain people in my life with whom I always assume the former, and often it puts me in a more difficult situation. I'll have to remember this!

    Posted by heatherv1211 October 9, 09 12:02 PM
  1. It's yours. If he wanted it, he would not have left it with you for three months. Unless you're good friends and he left other things, with the specific intention of getting them later (I've had roommates do this before- they asked if they could leave a few items because they were unable to move them into the new place immediately), he should have taken it within a reasonable time period (less than a month) after moving out.

    Posted by meggg October 10, 09 07:30 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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