Roommates aren’t just for college students. When I was single in my 20s and 30s, I always lived with roommates.
Housemates help lower your rent or mortgage, utility bills, furnishing costs, and maybe even your food costs. They can help you boost your savings rate, and possibly even cover your entire mortgage payment in a form of house hacking. Often they can become lifelong friends — several of my old housemates remain among my closest friends to this day.
But watch out: While many roommate arrangements typically start off with a cordial handshake, once a roommate moves in, the arrangement takes on legal authority under state and local landlord and tenant laws. That makes getting rid of a troublesome roommate difficult.
Beware of these common dangers of joining your household with another adult, and follow specific steps to avoid or minimize problems.
Risks of Living with a Roommate
Some of the risks of living with another adult are obvious, such as noise or conflicts over bathroom time. But make sure you fully understand all the risks of living with a housemate, not just the most obvious.
1. New Lease Terms
If you currently rent a home and invite a roommate to move into it with you, it usually requires permission from your landlord. Most landlords include an occupancy clause in their lease agreements, restricting the occupancy to those explicitly listed in the original lease.
When you tell your landlord you’d like to bring in a roommate, they often require that you and the new tenant sign a new lease agreement with both of your names on it. That may push back your lease end date, as new leases typically come with a one-year term.
Worse, it may also mean a new, higher rent payment. More people living in a home means more wear and tear on the unit, after all.
2. Financial Risk: Full Lease Liability
Most lease agreements worth the paper they’re printed on include a joint and several liability clause. In plain language, it means each adult tenant assumes full liability for the entire rent payment — not just their potion — and full liability for any damage caused to the unit.
If your roommate decides to stop paying their share of the rent, you’re liable for the whole rent payment. If they punch holes in the walls, you’re liable. And if they run off to Mexico never to be seen again, you still owe the full rent through the end of the lease term.
Should you fail to pay as well, you can be evicted and sued for unpaid rent. An eviction can make it difficult for you to rent a new place to live, and a court judgment hurts your credit score for years to come. Your only recourse in such a situation is to sue your roommate for back rent in small claims court, and even if you win, you are on your own for collecting your judgment.
3. Evicting a Roommate Isn’t Easy …
Everyone loves to oppose evictions — until they’re stuck with a non-paying roommate or tenant of their own.
But the eviction process is a slow one in most states, allowing the offending renter months to correct their violations. It takes time, money, the approval of a judge, and the cooperation of your local sheriff.
If you own your place or you are subleasing to your roommate, you can file the eviction papers yourself if you have grounds. Bear in mind that not getting along isn’t grounds for eviction. You’ll have to prove that your roommate did something wrong, like they failed to pay the rent or committed a crime on the property.
If your roommate has a lease directly with your landlord, only your landlord can evict your roommate. If you can’t persuade your landlord to evict your roommate — which most landlords are reluctant to do, given the time, money, and stress involved — you may be stuck with your roommate until your lease ends.
4. … But Moving Out Isn’t Easy Either
Just because you don’t get along with your roommate doesn’t mean you get a pass on your legal obligations under the lease contract you signed.
If your situation is truly dangerous, you may be able to persuade your landlord, or even a judge, to let you move without any financial obligation. Read up on legal ways to break your lease, if you get truly desperate.
Without such an exception, you remain legally responsible for paying the rent through the end of your lease term.
5. Property Damage and Theft
Housemates can steal your belongings, and it isn’t always obvious. We all misplace personal belongings, and it’s hard to prove that your roommate took something rather than you simply losing it or forgetting where you put it.
But thieving roommates tend to be rare. More common problems occur when your roommate breaks something of yours by accident, or spills red wine all over it, or borrows it and you both forget about it.
When you share personal space with someone else, casualties are inevitable.
6. Personal Safety
You could move in with an ax murderer. Or with someone with anger management problems, who might fly off the proverbial handle and punch you in the literal face.
Uncommon as those situations are, housemates can still pose safety threats even unintentionally. I once woke up an hour late, feeling incredibly groggy. I had a hard time getting out of bed. When I made it downstairs to the kitchen, I discovered the gas from the stove on full blast, unlit.
My housemate had drunk too much the night before, lit a cigarette on the stove, then walked outside to smoke it. Without remembering to turn off the stove gas.
My lost brain cells aside, if anyone had lit a match in our house, the entire block would have gone up.
And the safety risk doesn’t just come from your roommates either. They often come with dates, friends, and other guests, all of whom end up in your personal living space.
7. Unwanted Guests, Dates, and De Facto Roommates
Dating couples tend to spend a lot of time at each other’s homes, including overnight stays. Sometimes, what starts as one or two nights per week turns into three or four, which later becomes five or six, and suddenly you have a new roommate you never agreed to live with.
These people could be dangerous, or dirty, or just downright annoying. I once came home to find my housemate’s date sitting on our front stoop. Wild-eyed, she demanded to know where my housemate was, claiming he was hiding in the house from her. She insisted I let her in, physically pressing in on me as I tried to move around her to unlock the door.
It left me in a terrible position of telling her, “No I won’t let you in, you have to stay out on the doorstep,” all without knowing anything about the situation. After calling my housemate, he affirmed I’d made the right decision. He had pulled back from their relationship, after discovering how volatile and irrational she was. She could have easily stormed through our house, breaking everything of value she could lay her hands on.
8. Criminal Liability
If your roommate leaves an eight ball of cocaine lying on the coffee table when a cop stops by, you’re going to have your own explaining to do.
Your roommate’s illegal activities leave you with several problems. First, you may have to prove that you did not participate, or that you don’t own any of the illegal contraband. Which in turn means pointing the finger at your roommate — a surefire way to implode your roommate relationship.
Even if you prove you weren’t involved, you may also run into the problem of knowing about criminal activity and not reporting it. That risk depends on the extent of your roommate’s infractions; their smoking the occasional joint doesn’t pose much risk to you legally, but them running a significant drug dealing operation out of your shared home might.
9. Mess, Stress, Noise, and Just Not Getting Along
Most common roommate problems don’t include safety concerns or criminal liability. Instead, roommate issues usually just come down to two adults struggling to get along. Even former best friends can butt heads when having to share living space.
Roommates fight over cleanliness all the time. One person wants the dishes cleaned immediately, the other doesn’t mind leaving them overnight. Or bathroom cleanliness, or clothes left lying on the couch, or old food in the fridge. The list goes on.
Or they fight over money — the first of the month comes, and one housemate “needs a few more days.”
Sometimes the money fight takes a more subtle form. One housemate wants to crank the air conditioning on full blast all summer, while another wants to save on energy costs.
Housemates fight over noise and the hours they keep. One gets up early, the other goes to bed late, and both end up waking the other up when they turn on the TV.
For most roommates, the greatest risk is simply stress and tension — the risk of living with a “roomie” you aren’t compatible with or just don’t like. It sounds mundane, but it’s a terrible feeling when you don’t feel comfortable in your own home.
I had a friend who hated his housemate so much that he spent every night of the week out at local bars to avoid spending time with her. He knew every nightly special ($2 Taco Tuesday), every local happy hour deal (half-price burgers until 6pm), and every local bartender. Aside from the unnecessary spending, he had a terrible diet of bar food and drank more than he should have.
If your home isn’t a place of relaxation and refuge, it quickly turns your life upside down.
Prevention: Ways to Protect Against Roommate Risk
Life is full of risk. Trying to avoid risk is not only impossible but leads to a loss of opportunities.
Instead, aim to manage risk. Whether you’re starting over financially after a breakup or simply aiming to make your rent more affordable and boost your savings rate, follow these steps to manage the risks of sharing your home with a roommate.
Screen Roommates Financially
Before signing a shared legal contract with another adult, you need to know they can and will adhere to it.
Screen your roommate’s finances as if you were the landlord. Verify their income and employment. Ask to see their rental application before they submit it to the landlord. Ask about their credit history and whether they’ve ever been evicted. Make sure they have enough cash to cover the first month’s rent and security deposit, with plenty left over to cover their other bills.
Screen Roommates for Personal Compatibility
The ability to pay the rent on time marks just the first step in qualifying your potential roommate. You need to also make sure that you will cohabitate well together.
Start by asking basic screening questions of potential roommates. Ask about their working hours, whether they ever work from home, how often they like to clean, what they do for fun on weekends, and whether they drink or smoke or do drugs. Do they like to host guests or throw parties? How often?
Are they dating anyone? How serious is it? How often does their date spend the night? How many nights per week do you both feel comfortable with guests staying over?
Ask whether they have a pet and whether they want one. Ask about cooking habits, and kitchen cleanup habits.
Leave no stone unturned as you get to know the person that could share a home with you.
Run a Background Check
Admittedly, I’ve never actually run a criminal background check on any prospective roommates. But if you worry about the person’s criminal background, then go ahead and run a background check on them to help you sleep better.
Sign Separate Lease Agreements
Everything in life is negotiable, including your lease. Aside from negotiating lower rent, you can also try to negotiate for separate lease contracts.
Savvy landlords won’t allow it, because they want the ability to collect from the most responsible party if the other party skips town. But many landlords aren’t particularly savvy or experienced, or they may be so anxious to fill a vacant unit that they accept separate leases from each housemate.
This way, you aren’t on the hook if a deadbeat roommate stops paying the rent or moves out before the lease term ends.
Draw Up a Written Roommate Agreement
Sit down with your prospective roommate and work out a roommate agreement.
Iron out the details like how you’ll cover shared expenses, who will supply which furnishings, house cleaning schedule, and move-out notice. Get extremely intentional about shared finances, and follow good-sense roommate money management rules. Establish ground rules about cleaning, noise and quiet hours, whether significant others can stay over on a regular basis, and other overnight guest frequency. Then put the agreement in writing, and sign and date it.
Not only can having the agreement in writing prevent misunderstandings, but it can also help you in court if you need to sue your roommate for back rent or damages.
Don’t Get Romantically Involved With a Roommate
Not getting romantically involved with your roommate sounds so obvious — and yet…
I’ve seen roommates start dating, and it never ends well. It’s too convenient, and too much shared intimacy too early.
Avoid the situation entirely by discounting prospective roommates that you find yourself even the slightest bit attracted to. Feel free to live with members of the opposite sex — some of my best roommates have been women — but avoid people you would ever consider dating in a million years.
If you do find yourself in a living situation where you and your roommate start feeling romantic chemistry, one of you should move out before you go on a first date.
Read Up on Local Landlord-Tenant Laws
Landlord and tenant laws are different in each state, and some cities and counties have ordinances that give tenants and landlords additional rights and responsibilities. Before you take on a roommate, read up on these laws.
Good places to find up-to-date information about landlord-tenant issues include websites sponsored by your state attorney general or local Legal Aid Society. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website offers a list of state housing resources, which includes links to landlord-tenant information.
It doesn’t hurt to know this information regardless, but if you own the home or are subleasing the unit, you especially need to know your rights and responsibilities.
Make Sure Your Room Locks
If you worry about keeping valuables safe, get a lock (with your landlord’s permission) for your bedroom door that can be locked from the outside. Unless your roommate is skilled with lock-picking tools, breaking the lock or removing the door takes work and leaves signs.
But really, if you have to lock your door out of fear of your roommate stealing your belongings, you did a bad job screening them in the first place.
Most roommate situations don’t turn sour and can save you a massive amount of money on rent or your mortgage. I never once lived alone as a single person, and I don’t regret living with any of my former housemates. Well, most of them anyway.
But it takes foresight, honesty, and prevention on your part when you screen prospective roommates. Do your due diligence, take your time, and find the perfect person to share housing expenses with, and you can make a lifelong friend. Rush into living with someone, even an existing friend, and you can find yourself in a nightmare that you can’t easily escape.