Owning & Renting Property

3 Ways to Protect Yourself Legally When You Have a Roommate

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Having a roommate is a great way to lower your living expenses — and maybe even solidify a friendship in the process.

Before you move in, though, there are steps you should take to protect yourself legally. Putting in some time upfront can help you avoid problems down the road. (Because when roommate situations start to go downhill, they can go downhill fast.) Follow these steps to set you and your roommate up for success.

1. Research any potential roommate.

You may know your new roommate very well. Or maybe you found each other online and have only met a few times. Either way, it’s smart to do some background research before you move in together.

  • Confirm employment. Unless your potential roomie is independently wealthy or getting money from her parents, you’ll want to make sure she’s gainfully employed. Ask for contact information for her current employer and request recent pay stubs.
  • Ask for and check references. Talking with your potential roomie’s former roommates will give you valuable insight into what living with this person is like. And checking with his former landlord will help you determine if he paid his rent on time and abided by the terms of their agreement.
  • Do an online and social media search. You may be able to find out more than you think from online research. Many states have online databases of court records where you can look someone up to find if she’s had any run-ins with the law. Doing a search on social media may also uncover compatibility red flags. For example, if you live a quiet lifestyle and she appears to be a party animal, that could cause problems.
  • Request a credit report. Running a credit report on a potential roommate can be a really smart move. It will show you how much debt this person has, if she pays her bills on time and if she’s ever had a judgment filed against her by a former roommate or landlord. There are online services, such as SmartMove®, that will help you run a credit check and more.

If you’re not comfortable asking your roommate directly for this information, consider creating a roommate questionnaire. That way you can send the questions to him in an email — without having to broach the subjects face-to-face.

2. Consider signing a roommate agreement.

It’s easy to agree on rent, bills, chores and more in a casual conversation over a cup of coffee. But a verbal agreement won’t help you out if problems arise. That’s why it’s best to get things in writing with a roommate contract.

A roommate agreement (also known as a roommate contract) isn’t the same as a lease. But it is a legal document. When putting together a roommate agreement, make it as specific as possible, covering:

  • Who pays what (and when) for rent, security deposits, utilities and any other mutual costs of the residence.
  • Sleeping arrangements (who gets which bedroom, for instance).
  • Rules about alcohol and drug use, guests, pets, smoking, noise, etc.
  • Details on household tasks like cleaning and cooking.
  • Guidelines on handling disputes.
  • Other issues that are important to you and/or your roommate.

If you’re not sure how to create a roommate agreement form, check with a local attorney who can put together a legally valid document for you.

3. Look into your lease options.

The most important part of any roommate arrangement is the lease or rental agreement. The first consideration is who should sign it.

If two or more people sign a joint lease or rental agreement, they’re considered cotenants. That means they share the same legal rights and responsibilities.

A landlord can legally hold all cotenants responsible for the actions of one, including terminating everyone’s tenancy. So that means if your roommate (a cotenant) violates your lease, both of you can be evicted.

On the other hand, if your roommate hasn’t signed the lease, she’s generally considered a “subtenant.” As a result, she pays rent to you as the tenant and won’t have the same legal rights and responsibilities — meaning you’re the only one on the hook for any damages, late rent payments or other violations.

Your best bet in most situations is to have all roommates sign the lease. This ensures that everyone is legally accountable for the rental.

Follow these steps to help make your roommate experience a good one. Keep in mind things still might not work out even after you’ve done your due diligence. If that happens, know your options and talk to an attorney familiar with your local landlord and tenant laws.


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