When money gets tight, taking on a roommate becomes a temptation. Roommates can help pay your rent or mortgage, utility bills, and maybe even your food costs.
But watch out: While many roommate arrangements typically start off with a cordial handshake, once a roommate moves into your home, the arrangement takes on legal significance under state and local landlord and tenant laws. This can make getting rid of a troublesome roommate difficult.
Here are a few of the common dangers of taking in a boarder, and ways to avoid or minimize problems.
Risks of Finding a Roommate
1. Eviction Isn’t Easy
Forcing a roommate out requires that you have him or her evicted, which 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 (i.e. not getting along isn’t grounds for eviction). You’ll have to prove that your roommate did something wrong, like 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 have your roommate evicted. If you can’t persuade your landlord to evict your roommate (and landlords hate evictions), you may be stuck with your roommate until your lease ends.
2. Lease Terms Change
If you allow a roommate to move into your rental home or apartment, the terms of your lease may be subject to change. For example, your landlord may be able to raise the rent because another person is creating more wear and tear on the property.
Furthermore, if you sign a lease along with a roommate, and he or she moves out suddenly, your right to stay in your rental home may be in jeopardy, because an early move out, even on the part of just one tenant, may break the terms of the lease.
3. Your Money and Credit Is at Risk
If you and a roommate agree to share the rent and he flakes, you may be liable for paying his share. This is because many landlords issue one lease to everyone living in a rental unit. Each person is responsible for paying the entire rent and neither your landlord nor the courts care about your roommate’s promise to “pay half.”
If you can’t pay the entire rent, and your roommate moves out or simply refuses to pony up, you can be evicted and sued for unpaid rent. (Not-so-incidentally, an eviction can make it near impossible for you to rent a new place and a court judgment will hurt your credit score for years). 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.
Check out these money management tips for living with friends to help avoid this situation altogether.
4. You and Your Stuff Are at Risk
When you live with someone, they have access to your personal belongings. While most people aren’t thieves or vandals, if you end up living with someone who is, you’re going to sustain financial losses, even if he does pay his rent on time.
Similarly, while most people aren’t violent, some are, and if you live with someone with “anger management” issues, you could end up losing a lot more than your money or possessions. Even worse, if your roommate damages a rental home or apartment, or raises a ruckus and upsets the neighbors, your landlord can sue or evict you, even though you didn’t cause the damage or disturbance.
5. Moving Out Isn’t Easy Either
Having problems with your roommate won’t get you out of your lease. 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. But without such an exception, you will remain legally responsible for paying the rent through the end of your lease term.
How to Protect Yourself When Taking On a Roommate
While those risks can certainly be frightening, there are a few simple ways you can protect yourself and help ensure a positive roommate situation.
1. Do a Background Check
Your landlord or property management company may require any potential roommates to pass its background screening process before moving in. If you don’t know your potential roommate, you should certainly ask for consent to review his background screening report. If you own the rental unit or are renting out a room in your house, you can request a tenant screening report from one of the many companies that offer this service (e.g. Equifax Identity Report).
2. Get a Separate Lease
Ask your landlord or property management company for separate leases for you and your roommate. Some will do this, some won’t, but you can really reduce your risk if you and your roommate are only legally bound to pay your agreed-upon share of the rent. This way, you are less likely to be scammed by a deadbeat roommate who just stops paying the rent or moves out before the lease is up.
3. Use a Written Roommate Agreement
Sit down with your prospective roommate and work out a roommate agreement. Once you agree upon things like finances, house cleaning schedule, and move-out notice, put the agreement in writing, and sign and date it . Not only can having the agreement in writing prevent misunderstandings, it can also help you in court if you need to sue your roommate for back rent or damages.
4. Check Out the Landlord-Tenant Laws in Your Area
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. You should also check out the chapter on roommate issues in the book Renters Rights, by Marcia Stewart.
5. Get a Lock
If you have roommates and are concerned about keeping your property safe, get a lock (with your landlord’s permission) for your bedroom door that can be locked from the outside. A lock will provide some protection for you and your belongings. Unless your roommate is skilled with lock-picking tools, breaking the lock or removing the door is going to take some work. And should this happen, you will be left with a few hints that you’ve been the victim of mischief.
While most roommate situations don’t turn sour, it’s good to be prepared in the event that yours does. Taking the above precautions and knowing the risks involved is a great way to help prevent future co-habitation problems and foster a happy living environment.
Have you ever lived with a roommate? What are some of the issues and problems that you’ve encountered? Share your story in the comments below.