Living with roommates means sharing more than just space.
It’s common to have a roommate when you’re starting out. In addition to the company the person provides, having someone else to share rent and other expenses can make it a lot easier to stay on top of housing costs. But having a roommate comes with potential financial and legal issues. And since there’s always the chance that you and your roommate might end up having some personal problems as well, you should know where you stand legally before you sign a joint lease.
ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR ONE
In most cases, your lease will state that you and your roommates are all “jointly and severally liable” for the rent, security deposit, and any other costs that come up as a result of renting the property. This means that you’re all lessees— that’s the legal term for the people who sign the lease—and you’re all responsible for each others’ actions. So if one of you isn’t able to pay the rent, causes serious damage to the place, or violates the lease in any other way, the landlord can legally evict all of you, not just the guilty party. That can mean a black mark on your reputation, as well as the cost and difficulty of having to find a new place to live.
Of course, what actually happens in a situation like that is another story. For example, if your roommate loses a job and can’t pay, you could always choose to cover his or her share of the rent rather than leaving yourself at the mercy of your landlord. Or, your landlord might cut those of you that aren’t at fault a little slack, deciding that it’s better to keep you than look for a new tenant. But the offending roommate may still have to go.
If your landlord allows it, you—or one of your roommates—can sign the lease and be the official renter, with everybody else subletting, or renting a portion of the place, from the single lessee.
Most sublets happen when one person rents part of a residence from somebody who’s already living there, but there’s no reason why you can’t set up a sublet relationship with everyone moving in at the same time.
The advantage of subletting is that it lets you set up an official chain of financial responsibility. Say that you’re the sublessor, the one with your name on the lease, and your sublessee, the roommate who’s renting from you, can’t pay the rent or does something else that breaks your lease. You’re legally entitled to evict him or her, or to use part of his or her security deposit to pay the rent or other resulting expenses until the situation changes. This way, you can’t legally be evicted because of something that your sublessee does.
While subletting sounds great in theory, there can be problems. The key is often the relationship you have with the other people involved. For example, you might find it hard to take action against a sublessee who’s a friend. And of course, it can be even worse if you’re the sublessee when a sublessor runs into financial trouble.
If your landlord doesn’t allow subletting, you can always write a roommate contract that spells out everyone’s obligations to each other as cotenants. Make sure you specify how much rent each person will pay and when it will be paid. Then get it notarized so that it’s a legal document. Many lawyers and real estate brokers, as well as banks and public libraries, provide notary services for free or at low costs. If you have a dispute with a roommate over something that’s outlined in your contract, you can take that person to court if you need to.
Make sure any contract with your roommates is written and signed if you’re serious about keeping it in force. Having an actual copy of your agreement will make everyone involved a lot more likely to take it seriously. And if somebody reneges, a written document may hold up in court, while an oral agreement may not.
SKIPPING OUT EARLY
If one of your roommates wants to leave before the lease is up, you’re technically required to notify your landlord and either cover the rent yourself or find a new tenant to be responsible under the terms of the lease.
But unless your building is pretty strict, you can probably just line up another tenant without having to notify your landlord at all—most landlords won’t worry too much as long as the rent keeps coming in. Of course, until you find another roommate, you’ll be responsible for your ex-roommate’s share (unless he or she is very generous and helpful). And if anything goes wrong with the apartment and your new roommate isn’t on the lease, chances are you’ll have to take full responsibility.
My new landlord made one emphatic request when my roommate and I moved in—he wanted only one check for the full amount of our rent each month. At first, it was difficult for my roommate and me to trust each other—neither of us could afford to pay the full rent and not get reimbursed for half. So far, we’ve been alternating month by month who writes the full check to the landlord and who reimburses the check-writer, and we haven’t run into problems.
—Starr M., 23
If you can’t afford to keep your place until you find a new roommate, or if you just want to get out of a bad situation, you might want to move out as well. In that case, let your landlord know in writing and be as flexible as you can in helping to find new tenants. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll stop being liable for the rent, and the less likely your landlord will be to take money out of your security deposit or threaten you with eviction for nonpayment.