Renting a House or Apartment With Roommates

Learn to avoid disputes among roommates or with the landlord.

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 cotenants, even if each cotenant 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, you can't (with few exceptions) terminate your roommate's tenancy by filing an eviction action. One exception is if you have sublet a portion of your rental, making you your roommate's (sublessee's) landlord.

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 (as 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.

Roommates can make informal agreements about splitting rent, occupying bedrooms, and sharing chores. Your landlord isn't bound by these agreements and has no power to enforce them, but making an agreement can force you and your housemates to take your cotenancy responsibilities seriously.

Before you move in, sit down with your roommates and discuss major issues, such as:

  1. Rent. What is everyone's share? Who will write the rent check if the landlord will accept only one check?
  2. Space. Who will occupy which bedrooms?
  3. Household chores. Who's responsible for cleaning, and on what schedule?
  4. Food sharing. Will food, shopping, and cooking responsibilities be shared? How will you split the costs and work?
  5. Noise. When should stereos or TVs be turned off or down low?
  6. Overnight guests. Is it okay for boyfriends/girlfriends to stay over every night?
  7. Moving out. If one of you decides to move, how much notice must be given? Must the departing tenant find an acceptable substitute?

The more you can anticipate possible problems from the start, the better prepared you'll be to handle disputes that do arise. Be as specific as possible, especially on issues that are important to you. If dirty dishes in the sink drive you up the wall, write it down. If occasional guests are no problem, but you can't stand the thought of your roommate's non-rent-paying boyfriend hogging the bathroom every morning, make sure your agreement is clear on guests.

It's best to put your understandings in writing. (See the sample roommate agreement below.) Oral agreements are easily forgotten or misinterpreted. Most of the agreement won't be legally binding—that is, a judge won't order a tenant to clean the bathroom. Judges will, however, enforce financial agreements, such as how you've agreed to share rent.

To underline the roommates' commitment, it's wise to include a clause requiring cotenants to participate in mediation before one of you breaks the agreement by moving out or running off to court. Our sample roommate agreement, below, includes such a clause. (For more on mediation, read the Mediation, Arbitration & Collaborative Law section of Nolo's website.)

For more legal and practical tips on dealing with your landlord and other tenants, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).

Sample Roommate Agreement

Here is language you can adapt to your own agreement:

Alex Andrews, Brian Bates, and Charles Chew are cotenants at Apartment, 360 Capitol Avenue, Oakdale, Kentucky, under a year-long lease that expires on February 1, 20XX. They have all signed a lease with the landlord, Reuben Shaw, and have each paid $300 towards the security deposit of $900. Alex, Brian, and Charles all agree as follows:

  1. Rent. The rent of $900 per month will be shared equally, at $300 per person. Alex will write a check for the total month's rent and take it to the manager's office on the first of each month (or the next day if the 1st falls on a holiday). Brian and Charles will pay their share to Alex on or before the due date.
  2. Bedrooms. Alex and Brian will share the large bedroom with the adjacent deck; Charles will have the small bedroom.
  3. Food. Each cotenant is responsible for his own food purchases.
  4. Cleaning. Charles will clean his own room; Alex and Brian will clean theirs weekly. The household chores for the rest of the apartment—living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom—will rotate, with each cotenant responsible for vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and bathroom maintenance on a weekly basis.
    Each cotenant will promptly clean up after himself in the kitchen. No one will leave dishes in the sink for more than 24 hours, and everyone will promptly clean up when asked.
  5. Utilities. Everyone will pay an equal share of the electricity and gas bills. Alex will arrange for service and will pay the bill. Within three days of receiving the bill, Charles and Brian will each pay Alex one-third of the total.
  6. Cable. Alex will arrange for cable service and will pay the monthly bill. All roommates will share the cable bill equally.
  7. Guests. Because of the apartment's small size, each tenant agrees to have no more than one overnight guest at a time and to inform the others in advance, if possible. Each cotenant agrees to no more than four guests overnight in a month.
  8. Exam Periods. During mid-term and final exam periods, no cotenant will have overnight guests or parties.
  9. Violations of the Agreement. The cotenants agree that repeated and serious violations of one or more of these understandings will be grounds for any two cotenants to ask the other to leave. If a cotenant is asked to leave, he will do so within two weeks, and will forfeit any outstanding pre-paid rent.
  10. Leaving Before the Lease Ends. If a cotenant wants to leave before the lease expires on February 1, 20XX, he will give as much notice as possible (and not less than one month) and diligently try to find a replacement tenant who is acceptable to the remaining cotenants and the landlord.
  11. Security Deposits. The cotenant who leaves early (voluntarily or involuntarily) will get his share of the security deposit returned, minus costs of unpaid rent, repairs, replacement, and cleaning attributable to the departing tenant, when and if an acceptable cotenant signs the lease and contributes his share to the security deposit. If an acceptable cotenant cannot be found, the departing tenant will not receive any portion of his share of the security deposit until the tenancy of the remaining cotenants is over and the security deposit is refunded, in whole or in part, by the landlord.
  12. Dispute Resolution. If a dispute arises concerning this agreement or any aspect of the shared living situation, the cotenants will ask the University Housing Office Mediation Service for assistance before they terminate the cotenancy or initiate a lawsuit. This will involve all three tenants sitting down with a mediator in good faith to try to resolve the problems.

_______________________________
Alex Andrews

___________________
Date

_______________________________
Brian Bates

___________________
Date

_______________________________
Charles Chew

___________________
Date

See a real estate attorney if you need assistance in preparing an agreement like this one.

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