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Is it a Guest or Unauthorized Tenant? – What Landlords Need to Know!

difference between unauthorized tenant and a guest

Every landlord knows a thorough screening process is key for success in the rental industry. As important as that is, it does not always protect you from unauthorized occupants. These unwelcome residents threaten the wellbeing of your investment property and create a huge issue for landlords. So, how do landlords determine who is a guest and who is an unauthorized tenant? What recourse do you have when someone not on the lease takes up residence? Join us below as we answer these questions and outline steps to take when unauthorized guests are discovered.

What is the Difference Between a Guest, Tenant, and Unauthorized Tenant?

The main difference between guests and unauthorized tenants comes down to the length of stay. Tenants in a rental property are authorized occupants listed on a legally binding rental agreement. They pay rent and are bound by the lease terms with a responsibility to protect your rental property. The authorized tenants also have the right to have guests come to visit.

Guests are invited to the property by the tenant and stay for only a limited time. In some states, local law dictates the length of stay limit for guests, but it is typically covered in the lease. If a guest overstays these limits, landlords may consider this guest a tenant. When that occurs, the landlord may choose to evict the guest or take steps to increase rent and add them to the lease.

What is the Difference Between a Guest, Tenant, and Unauthorized Tenant?

As opposed to tenants, unauthorized occupants are not listed on the lease and do not have a legal right to the property. That said, there are a few types of unauthorized tenants to look out for:

Examples of Unauthorized Tenants

  • Subletter – This happens when an existing tenant sublets their rental home to another party without the landlord’s approval.
  • Extended-stay family or friend – If tenants have a long-term visitor over the age of 18 who contributes to rent, that is an unauthorized occupant. When out of state friends or family members visit for an extended time, they do not pay rent, but the tenants should still inform the landlord.
  • Squatter – A squatter is an unauthorized individual who refuses to leave the unit. Sometimes it is the result of a break-in and an individual taking up residence. However, more commonly, it is a tenant not moving out at the end of the lease or after an eviction order.

Why Are Extended Guests and Unauthorized Occupants A Problem?

The discovery of unauthorized occupants is frustrating for landlords. If this is a situation you have never had on your property, you might not see the severity of the issue.  So, let’s take a look at a few reasons why knowing who is living in your rental property is important for owners.

  • Potential Property Damage – The terms of the lease do not bound an unauthorized occupant. Tenants are responsible for their guests’ actions, and therefore damages may be covered by the tenant’s renter’s insurance policy. However, this is not a guarantee, and holding a guest accountable individually for damage can prove difficult for landlords.
  • Unenforceable Lease – Visitors or unauthorized occupants do not know and do not have to follow the rules laid out for your property. The potential violations of a lease also stretch beyond the property. Noise complaints, parking violations, or HOA issues can cause added problems for the landlord with little recourse.
  • Nonpayment of Rent – Unauthorized occupants not on the lease, are not legally responsible for rent payments. So, if the current tenant moves out and leaves them behind, landlords have a big problem. Getting an unauthorized tenant out will likely take a court eviction, which is time-consuming and expensive. Meanwhile, the occupant is not paying rent and could be damaging the property while you go through the eviction proceedings.

When Does a Guest Become a Tenant?

Courts recognize a variety of contracts to determine who is a tenant. Contracts can include a conversation, a written document, or a series of acts to be considered part of a lease. Different states will have different thresholds for the evidence needed to show a mutual arrangement for the rental. Take a look at a few scenarios below that distinguish guests from tenants.

When Does a Guest Become a Tenant?

  • Change of Address Equals Tenancy – Guests may be considered a tenant if they change their permanent address to the rental unit.
  • Overnight Visits on a Consistent Basis – When guests frequently or consistently stay overnight, they no longer qualify as temporary visitors. Tracking the frequency is difficult without security footage but do what you can to monitor the premises for unauthorized vehicles. Be sure to document any findings in case of a dispute or claim down the road.
  • Contributing Financially to the Household – Guests do not pay rent or share utility costs since their visit is temporary. When individuals not on the lease do contribute to rent, maintenance, or utilities, courts may find they are, in fact, a tenant.

How to Deal with Unauthorized Occupants?

Unauthorized residents, unfortunately, do happen sometimes. The key is to avoid this whenever possible by having a well-written lease and thorough tenant screening. When problems do arise, landlords need to take quick action. Follow these steps below:

  1. Reach Out to The Tenant – The first step is to talk with the tenant and remind them of their lease terms regarding long term guests. Use this opportunity to gather information such as relevant names and how long the occupant intends to stay. Addressing this with the tenants lets them know you are involved and willing to enforce the rental agreement’s policies. Ideally, after bringing this to the tenant’s attention, the unauthorized guest will vacate the property.
  2. Send a Notice to Fix or Quit – If talking with the tenant does not remedy the situation, landlords can send a 3-Day notice to fix or quit. After the notice period has expired, landlords must move towards a formal eviction if the occupant remains in the home. Before filing with the courts, ensure their actions clearly violate your rental agreement terms. Gather documentation and evidence to present to the court, and the judge will determine the next steps towards eviction.
  3. Adjust Your Lease – If your rental agreement does not clearly state a guest policy, change that! Clarifying the expectations for long-term guests and the consequences of unauthorized occupants will help prevent future disputes. Additionally, familiarize yourself with any relevant local or state laws governing the length of time guests are allowed before being considered a tenant. Make the rules in your lease clear, complete, and concise, so your tenants understand what is expected.

How to Write an Unauthorized Tenant and Guest Policy for Your Lease


How to Write an Unauthorized Tenant and Guest Policy for Your Lease

A documented and clear guest policy can go a long way to avoid potential problems and unauthorized occupants. Without it, you open yourself and property up to a variety of liabilities. Every good guest policy needs to address the following:

  1. What is the Occupancy Limit? – Check with your local laws to determine any limits on occupancy standards, for example, 2 persons per bedroom. Additionally, occupancy standards take into account square footage and floorplan when evaluating maximums.
  2. Create a House Guest Time Limit – Tenants can have guests in the rental property; the key is to distinguish the timeframe. In your guest policy, address the permitted length of time a guest can stay without informing the landlord. Choose an amount of time you are comfortable with, which adheres to any local or state laws.
  3. Define Criteria for Authorized Guests – Typical guests consist of friends, family members, coworkers, and those staying for a limited time. In your guest policy, distinguish between criteria for who does and does not need prior approval. For example, elderly parents looking to stay for an extended period would require prior permission from the landlord.


Preparation and a well-written lease are essential to protecting your investment property in many ways. Do you find yourself handling an unauthorized tenant? Turn to the experts at Bay Property Management Group Lancaster! Our experience in both dispute resolution and local eviction laws will help you regain control of your rental unit. Contact us today to learn the many benefits of professional property management services throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, DC, and Virginia.