People often choose to share a home with roommates to help reduce the cost of rent and housing-related expenses. Over time, roommates may come and go, which can create complexities for their fellow roommates. You should understand your rights and obligations in each of the situations that may arise.
When two or more tenants sign a lease or rental agreement, each of them is a cotenant with identical rights and obligations. All of the tenants do not need to sign the lease at the same time. Sometimes a new tenant will move in when one of the original tenants leaves, and they can become a cotenant if the landlord agrees or if they sign the existing lease.
Conflicts Among Roommates
Sometimes one cotenant will fail to pay their share of the rent. Even if you have a specific agreement about who pays how much rent, each of you is still independently liable to the landlord for all of the rent (or “jointly and severally liable” in formal legal terms). A breach of an agreement among the cotenants does not affect the agreement between the cotenants and the landlord. In some cases, a landlord may ask to receive the rent as a single check rather than a handful of smaller checks for each tenant. They can do this if the lease permits it.
In other situations, one cotenant may breach the lease, such as by damaging the apartment, violating occupancy limits, or bringing in a pet. When this happens, the landlord has the right to terminate the lease with respect to all of the tenants, rather than just the tenant who violated the lease. Not every landlord will exercise this right, however, and you may be able to stay as long as you can pay the increased rent that results from losing the cotenant’s contribution.
If you have a serious disagreement with a roommate, either or both of you may want the other to move out. You should be aware that you cannot “evict” your cotenant or change the locks, since eviction is a process reserved for landlords. Often, roommates can prevent serious conflicts from arising by addressing major aspects of the tenancy in advance and putting the resolution in an agreement. However, these agreements probably cannot be enforced in court, except with respect to provisions for paying the rent.
In extreme situations that escalate to violence, you should not hesitate to call the police if your roommate is threatening your safety or otherwise breaking the law. The landlord likely will start eviction proceedings against the roommate, in part to avoid liability if the roommate does eventually harm you. If you are a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by a cotenant, you may be able to terminate the lease in advance without paying the rest of the rent, or the landlord may be able to evict only the perpetrator and change the locks. However, landlords are usually not allowed to discriminate against tenants or prospective tenants who have restraining orders against them, such as by refusing to rent to them.
Handling the Departure of a Roommate
If a cotenant wants to leave before the end of the lease period, they should notify the landlord and get their permission. Otherwise, the other cotenants can try to replace them with a new tenant who meets the landlord’s standards. Failing to get the landlord’s permission or find a new tenant to replace the departing tenant is a major violation of the lease, which can result in the eviction of all of the remaining cotenants. This is true whether or not the remaining tenants can keep up with the rent, although many landlords will choose not to start an eviction if they still can receive the rent.
You may want to make an agreement with a departing roommate about what they will need to do before they leave. You may be able to sue them in small claims court if they breach the agreement, although this may not be easy if they move far away.
Perhaps you will decide to move out when your cotenant does, especially if you cannot pay the rent on your own. If you have a rental agreement, you should give your landlord the required 30-day notice immediately. If you have a lease, you should tell the landlord in writing that you cannot afford to pay the rent and will need to move. You may need to help the landlord find a new tenant so that you do not need to pay the rest of the rent due under the lease.
Adding a Roommate to a Lease or Rental Agreement
If you need to add a roommate to an existing lease or rental agreement, you should get the landlord’s approval. This is true even if you plan to add the roommate in a subleasing arrangement, such that you would essentially be their “landlord.” If the tenant is new rather than a replacement tenant for someone who is leaving, you will want to make sure that you will not be violating any occupancy limits for the unit.
Assuming that the landlord approves your new roommate, both of you probably will need to sign a new lease or rental agreement unless the roommate is a subtenant. The landlord may ask for a rent increase because of the new roommate, and they have the right to do this immediately because the new agreement creates a new tenancy. (Rent control may have an impact on how much they can increase the rent in areas where rent control applies.) The landlord may increase the security deposit as well, within any limits that are provided by state law.
Guests in Your Unit
If your roommate or you want to have overnight guests on a regular basis, you should check your lease or rental agreement to see whether your landlord imposes any restrictions on them. Some landlords will provide time limits on how long guests can stay. This issue also can cause disputes among cotenants, so you should try to reach an agreement about it in advance.