When two or more people sign the same rental agreement or lease -- or enter into the same oral rental agreement -- they are cotenants and share the same legal rights and responsibilities. However, there's a special twist. One cotenant's negative behavior -- not paying the rent, for example -- can affect everyone's tenancy.
When One Roommate Doesn't Pay Rent
Cotenants may decide to split the rent equally or unequally, depending on their personal wishes. However, such agreements don't affect the landlord. Each cotenant is independently liable to the landlord for all of the rent. Landlords often remind cotenants of this obligation by inserting into the lease a chunk of legalese that says that the tenants are "jointly and severally" liable for paying rent and adhering to terms of the agreement. If one tenant can't pay a share of the rent in a particular month, or simply moves out, the other tenant(s) must still pay the full rent.
Landlords often insist on receiving one rent check for the entire rent -- they don't want to be bothered with multiple checks from contenants, even if each contenant pays on time and the checks add up to the full rent. As long as you have been advised of this policy in the rental agreement or lease, it's legal for your landlord to impose it.
When One Roommate Violates the Lease or Rental Agreement
A landlord can legally hold all cotenants responsible for the negative actions of just one, and terminate everyone's tenancy with the appropriate notice. For example, two cotenants can be evicted even if only one of them seriously damaged the property or otherwise violated the lease or rental agreement.
In practice, however, landlords sometimes ignore the legal rule that all tenants are equally liable for lease violations, and don't penalize a blameless one. If the non-offending roommates pay the rent on time, do not damage the landlord's property, and can differentiate themselves from the bad apple in the landlord's eyes, the landlord may want to keep them.
Disagreements Among Roommates
For all sorts of reasons, roommate arrangements regularly go awry. If you have shared an apartment or house, you know about roommates who play the stereo too loud, never wash a dish, pay their share of the rent late, have too many overnight guests, leave their gym clothes on the kitchen table, or otherwise drive you nuts. If the situation gets bad enough, you'll likely end up arguing with your roommates about who should leave.
However, as a general rule, you can't terminate your roommate's tenancy by filing an eviction action. Only if you have sublet a portion of your rental -- so that you become your roommate's (sublessee's) landlord -- can you control that roommate's tenancy.
Another exception involves rentals governed by rent control laws that allow a landlord to designate a "master tenant" -- usually a long-term tenant who was there first -- to perform many of the functions of a landlord (this is the rule in San Francisco). Master tenants have the right to choose -- as well as to evict -- tenants. If your municipality is subject to rent control, find out whether the scheme includes a provision for a master tenant.
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