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Landlord/Tenant Law 101: Roommates

Posted by attorney Brandy Peeples

A great bulk of the questions on Avvo concern landlord/tenant relationships. Lately, it seems that there’s been a recurring string of questions on roommate situations along the lines of this:

"Help! My roommate decided to move out even though our lease is not expired. We are both on the lease, but I can’t afford the apartment on my own. What will happen to me? Will I be evicted? Can I sue my roommate?"

A lease is, for the most part, just like any other contract. When one or more tenants sign a lease with a landlord, one or all of those tenants is liable to the landlord for the payment of rent for the term of the lease. That is, the tenants are “jointly and severally liable" under the lease agreement.

“Joint and Several Liability" is defined by The Free Dictionary as “A designation of liability by which members of a group are either individually or mutually responsible to a party in whose favor a judgment has been awarded."

In layman’s terms, this means that if a landlord signs a lease with two tenants desiring to be roommates, that lease is NOT a separate agreement with each roommate. Instead, under the lease, both tenants are responsible for: (1) the full payment of rent, (2) the full payment of the security deposit; (3) adhering to the terms of the lease agreement and any rules/regulations concerning the leased premises; and (4) damages to the rental unit.

In other words, under a “joint and several liability" theory, each roommate isn’t just responsible for payment of his or her portion of rent, damages, and the security deposit; each roommate is also responsible for the full amount of rent (or security deposit or damages) owed to the landlord. Additionally, if one roommate does something that violates the rental agreement, it negatively affects the other roommate(s) as well.

When dealing with roommate situations, most landlords only care about receiving the full amount of rent owed by the tenant(s) each month. Thus, if you’re in a roommate situation, your landlord probably doesn’t care how you split expenses between your other roommate(s).

So, going back to the original question: What happens to a roommate if one or more of his/her other roommates decide to breach a lease agreement by moving out before the lease has terminated? Well, the remaining roommate(s) is/are responsible for all obligations under the lease, including the payment of the full amount of rent. Your landlord will not accept your payment of whatever portion you were paying and allow you to continue to live at the leased premises. As a result, you could face eviction.

It sounds rather unfair, doesn’t it? As a roommate, you have to understand that unless you have a written roommate agreement between you and the other roommate(s), then there’s not really much you can do to force your roommate to live up to his/her obligations under the lease agreement. Thus, prior to signing a lease, it’s not only a good idea to know whether your roommate is a good, responsible person, but it’s also a good idea to enter into a written roommate agreement.

A well-drafted roommate agreement is a contract, and should address issues such as:

  • Division of rent;
  • Utilities — who pays for utilities and how they are divided in terms of cost;
  • Food — whether food cost is to be shared;
  • Schedule and responsibilities related to cleaning (dishes, vacuuming, pets, etc.);
  • Rules for overnight guests;
  • Ground rules for parties or gatherings;
  • Designated quiet times;
  • Noise issues generally;
  • Allotment and/or schedule for use of parking space; and
  • The process for withdrawing from the lease

Keep in mind that some clauses in a roommate agreement may not be enforceable by a court of law. However, if each roommate’s monetary obligations are clearly spelled out in a roommate agreement, then a roommate has a better chance of maintaining a breach of contract action against any roommate who breaches the lease agreement with the landlord.

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