Roommates are great if you need someone to help split the bills or just want the company. But sometimes they can throw you a curveball with consequences much worse than a sink full of dirty dishes. So what happens when someone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain? If a roommate leaves without paying rent and your lease isn’t up, your first thought may be to panic. But before you get out the paper bag, let’s take a look at your options.
If Your Roommate is on the Lease
A lease is a binding legal contract. So the good news is, according to most state laws, your absent roommate will be obligated to continue paying rent for the remainder of the lease, or in some cases, pay until another tenant can be found. While it offers you some protection and leverage to force your roommate to pay, it can get tricky if you co-signed the lease. Ultimately, the landlord expects rent, and it’s up to the tenants to secure that, regardless of who pays how much.
“Ordinarily, it would be the landlord’s right to sue a defaulting tenant for failing to pay rent,” says attorney Brian C. Caffrey. “However, if the roommates are jointly liable for the rent, it would be up to the co-tenant to sue the defaulting tenant for his/her portion of the rent.”
A situation in which a tenant wants to sue another tenant would be handled in small claims court, Caffrey says, but many won’t go that far because they’re afraid of the cost. Alternatively, you can file a claim and represent yourself in court. If your roommate doesn’t show up in court, you’ll get an automatic judgement in your favor (though collecting payment might still be difficult). If nothing else, you can tell your landlord the truth and see if he/she is willing to work with you while you find a new tenant.
“Having been a co-tenant in college and law school, I can attest that is common for roommates to come and go. Often, the remaining tenant(s) are left holding the bag,” Caffrey says. “I think it would be helpful, if possible, to anticipate a roommate’s departure, so as to be able to a seek suitable replacement roommate who would be satisfactory to the landlord.”
If Your Roommate is Not on the Lease
Here’s where it gets sticky: If your roommate leaves without paying rent and they were not on the lease, legal action can be difficult, as there is no binding contract saying they’re responsible for payment. In such a case, your best bet is to find a replacement quickly and inform your landlord of the situation. And for the future, always sign a roommate agreement when someone isn’t on the lease. While it’s not the same as a lease, it might help the judge rule in your favor if you do go to court. In the least, signing a roommate contract will encourage honesty and communication up front and let your roommate know you expect the same in return.
“An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure in this area,” Caffrey advises. “Tenants must choose roommates as carefully as landlords select tenants.”
We couldn’t agree more. So, do your homework, and make sure you and your roommate are on the same page before you move in. If your roommate leaves without paying rent, you can find a solution, but it’s better to research your future roommate for trustworthiness and dependability.