The Legalities of Living with a Roommate

Living with a roommate can make good financial sense and be a lot of fun. However, like all relationships, there are times when having a roommate does not work out as it was planned. A roommate might stop paying his or her part of the rent or the utility bills or the roommate may damage the dwelling or create problems with the neighbors. What do you do then?

Before you decide how to proceed when your roommate defaults on a responsibility, it is important to think about the financial consequences the default could have for you. If your name is on the lease or utility bill that is not being paid then it can negatively affect your credit score which could have a significant impact on your future ability to borrow money at reasonable interest rates.

When a Roommate Leaves

If you and a roommate enter a lease and you both sign it the presumption is that you are going to each pay a portion of the rent. However, if one roommate leaves the lease early the other roommate is still responsible for paying the rent to the landlord on time and in full. That said, the roommate who leaves still has contractual obligations pursuant to the lease. The landlord could pursue the leaving roommate if the roommate who stays does not pay the rent in full. 

Further, the roommate who stays can pursue the roommate who leaves for his or her portion of the rent in small claims court or another venue. If the roommate who remains decides to try and recover rent payments from the roommate who leaves then the roommate who stays is under an obligation to try and find another roommate and to mitigate her damages. Likewise, unless the lease expressly prohibits subletting, the roommate who leaves could find a replacement roommate to live in the dwelling. The roommate who remains would not have the right to choose this roommate and could end up living with someone whom he or she does not like.

Adding a Roommate to your Lease

Often, tenants sign a lease for a one year period. Personal circumstances can change during that time and for financial or personal reasons a tenant may wish to live with a roommate. 

If you anticipate that you might wish to add a roommate in the future then it is important to make sure that your lease does not prohibit that at the time that you sign it. Assuming that your lease allows you to take in a roommate, it will be important for you to make sure that the roommate’s name is added to the lease so that the roommate is legally responsible for the rent, along with you, and so that if the roommate defaults on his or her rent you can try to recover the money.

In order to minimize your financial exposure and legal liability, it might make sense to limit the number of bills that are shared by you and your roommate. For example, you might wish to forgo a traditional phone line and only use your individual cell phones. However, some things such as heat, water and electricity will need to be shared responsibilities.
When things go right, living with a roommate can be financially prudent and a lot of fun. However, it is important to recognize that circumstances might change and leave you with or without a roommate during your lease period. Therefore, it is important to protect yourself to the greatest extent possible.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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