Sharing a house or apartment with a roommate is not always an easy proposition. Even when roommates are friends, there are bound to be differences in lifestyles, likes and dislikes, and personalities. When people live together and share rent-paying responsibilities, these differences can get worse if one of the roommates is consistently late in paying their share of the rent. Although it may be uncomfortable, there are certain steps you can take when dealing with a roommate who refuses to pay rent on time.
Before Moving In Together, Put Everything in Writing
When you decide to rent a home with a roommate, remember that you are making two separate agreements. One will be between you and your roommate, and the other is between the landlord and the tenants.
The agreement you make with your roommate is usually an informal verbal promise that each person will pay a certain share of the rent. The problem with informal agreements, however, is that they are easily broken when one person does not live up to its conditions. For example, a problem can arise if you and your roommate have an agreement to give you their share of the rent the day before it’s due, yet your roommate denies any agreement with you when they are running late with their half of the payment.
The second agreement is between the landlord, you and your roommate. It can be a month-to-month rental agreement or a fixed-term lease, but it is most likely a written, formal contract with set rent payment amounts and due dates you have agreed to, with specified late fees when rent isn’t paid on time. In most cases, landlords will include the names of every roommate on the rental agreement if they sign the lease and become legal tenants The Nolo article Legal Issues with Roommates explains why landlords want everyone who lives in a rental unit to sign a rental agreement. However, landlords do not decide how much of the rent each person will pay. All they want is to get the monthly rent on time, no matter how the payments are divided among roommates.
Even if you are living with friends, it’s a good idea to have a written agreement based on the arrangements you agreed to when you moved in together. This allows you and your roommate to clearly set down each person’s rent-paying responsibilities. A formal document will also come in handy as proof of your agreement in case your roommate fails to pay a share of the rent on time and you need to pursue legal action. A written agreement should typically include:
- the date rent must be paid each month
- late fees associated with rent that’s paid after the due date (late fees are usually spelled out in the lease or rental agreement), and
- consequences of a roommate’s failure to pay rent on time (in which case you have to cover the entire month)
- a clearly defined, traceable method of payment, such as a checks or money orders
Your rental agreement should also cover other non-rent issues, such as overnight guests and noise. See Nolo’ssample roommate agreement for a model in preparing your own.
If Your Roommate Is Always Late With Rent
If your roommate is late with the rent payment, make an effort to communicate openly but without confrontation. In some cases, it is just a matter of forgetting that the rent was due and a gentle reminder is all that’s needed to solve the problem. Unfortunately, it’s not always as easy as simply giving your roommate a polite reminder about rent.
Talk With Your Roommate
If a roommate is always late paying rent, you need to have a more serious conversation about the financial responsibilities that were mutually agreed to. Remind your roommate that a written and signed agreement between you two exists, if one was already prepared. If not, now is a good time to create a written agreement that holds your roommate responsible for their share on a set day each month.
When you discuss the issue of consistent late or nonexistent payments with your roommate, you should:
- mention the financial stresses you have when the rent is late since you have to pay the entire rent yourself on time
- tell your roommate that not paying the rent on time may result in late fees and eviction for everyone on the lease
- remind your roommate that evictions will permanently be on your credit records, even if you paid your share of the rent on time, thus affecting your ability to rent in the future
Send a Written Letter
Although it may seem a bit formal, sending your roommate a written letter will establish proof that you’ve given notice regarding late rent payments. The letter should state how much back rent and/or late fees are due, if applicable, as well as mention of the day that rent is due each month. Always send the letter by certified mail. This may seem counterproductive since you live in the same home, but again, this will establish proof should you need to sue your roommate.
Suing Your Roommate for Late Fees and Back Rent
If all else fails and you’re still unable to collect rent and/or late fees, even after sending your roommate a certified written request, you have the option to file a small claims lawsuit against your roommate. You’ll need to prove that your roommate indeed owes back rent and fees. In other words, you can’t just file a lawsuit and hope to win just because you tell the judge that your roommate didn’t pay their share. There is always a chance that your roommate will deny your accusations, so it’s best to gather as much evidence as possible before going to court. Common forms of evidence can include:
- a statement from your landlord, if available
- a letter clearly stating the dates your roommate was late and the amount due
- any bank statements that show proof of the rent you paid
- any prior written agreement between you and your roommate, and
- a copy of the lease, clearly showing you and your roommate’s signatures
Once your court date approaches, be prepared to show all of your evidence to the judge. These proceedings usually don’t take too long, but it’s important to have everything ready beforehand. If the judge sides with you, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll receive all monies owed to you by your roommate. The judge will typically enter a judgment against your roommate, but it will be up to you to follow through with the collection process in most instances.
See the Nolo articles on Suing a Roommate in Small Claims Court for Unpaid Rent for your state law on the subject.
More Information on Roommates and Tenants
For additional resources on roommates and tenant laws, For additional resources on roommates and tenant laws, see the Nolo books, Every Tenant’s Legal Guide (or California Tenant’s Rights if you live in California), which go over the legal issues with roommates, as well as other pertinent information for tenants.