When two or more people buy a house together, issues arise as to who owns what and who gets the property if one of them dies. "Tenants in common" is a type of ownership that defines these factors and others. Both pros and cons accompany holding title to property this way.
Tenants in common each own a distinct percentage of the property, usually based on how much each contributed to its purchase. For example, if the down payment was $20,000 and you contributed $15,000 of that, you would have a 75-percent ownership interest while your co-owner would have only 25 percent. This isn't typically mentioned in the deed itself, however – separate agreements or contracts usually exist, delineating ownership and responsibilities. Even if your co-owner has only a 25-percent interest, he's entitled to the use of the entire property. He doesn't have to confine himself to a room that represents 25 percent of the house's square footage.
Transfer of Interest
Tenants in common don't need the consent or approval of their co-owners to transfer or sell their percentage interest in the property to someone else. If you're a tenant in common and you find that the arrangement is no longer satisfactory and you want to live elsewhere, you can sell your share to a third party. You might have a hard time finding a buyer, however, because the person who purchases your interest receives only your interest – he'd then become a tenant in common with your co-owner. You can also take a second mortgage or home equity loan against your share of the home without your co-owner's consent or cooperation, but you'd have to find a willing lender.
If you can't find someone to buy out your interest and you want to end your ownership, you can sue and ask a judge to partition the property. If your real estate is a home or a building, the judge will typically order the property's sale. Then each of you could take your percentage of any proceeds and go your separate ways. In the case of vacant land, a court can literally partition it, giving you a parcel equal to your share of ownership – you'd hold title to it in your sole name, without a co-owner.
A significant difference between holding property as tenants in common and other forms of ownership involves rights of survivorship. These rights transfer one co-owner's interest to the other if he should die, and a will leaving his interest to someone else can't override this provision. Tenancies in common don't offer this feature. Just as you can sell your ownership interest to someone else when you're a tenant in common, you can also bequeath your share to whomever you like. If you don't leave a will stating that you want your co-owner to have your share of ownership, he probably won't get it. It will pass to your heirs instead according to your state's laws.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.