Many of us, especially earlier in life, will have to share a rental house or apartment with a roommate. Perhaps you’ve found the perfect rental and want to share it with your best friend from college; it’s both fun and saves money, a rare win-win situation. Or, maybe you find yourself with a complete stranger whom you met through a dedicated Facebook group or on Craigslist.
No matter whom you’re living with, having a roommate is more than simply sharing a bathroom, claiming your shelf in the fridge, and saying hi in the hallway. You also share common responsibilities, such as taking care of your rental and complying with your lease agreement. That’s why we can’t stress enough the importance of running a tenant screening on your potential roommate before moving in with a stranger!
But what do you do if your co-living takes a turn for the worse and you find yourself in a situation where your roommate can’t pay their rent? What can you do to fix this problem if it does happen to you, and how can you avoid it, to begin with?
1. Start With a Conversation
For starters, you should make sure you have the full picture of the situation, as it might have a direct impact on you as well. If your roommate announces, they can’t pay rent this month, talk to them before jumping into action!
First, find out what the issue is. Have they lost their job? Is there some unforeseen expense which has come up? Are they not paying as a way to protest the landlord’s delay in fixing a leaky water faucet?
Whatever the case may be, it’s likely time for a difficult conversation. Explain that you understand their situation while still stressing that this is putting quite a burden on you. Maybe it’s just a temporary hiccup, and you can cover their share this month with them agreeing to pay you back the following month. Or see if they can reach out to a relative for financial support.
Hopefully, you can nip the problem in the bud from the very beginning. If not, however, you’ll have to continue reading below.
2. Understand Your Rental Agreement
As a renter, you should be aware of the tenant-landlord law even if you never had any problems in the past (or don’t think it’ll come up). This way, if something happens, you don’t have to start from square one and will be aware of the options that lie in front of you. This saves you time and, honestly, takes some stress and anxiety off your chest.
When renting an apartment with another person (or even as a solo renter), you have to understand what kind of rental agreement you have. The lease dictates whether both of you are two independent entities and aren’t responsible for each other’s shortcomings or if you’re in this together.
Let’s look at the most common scenarios you might find in your lease agreement on the subject of roommates and co-renting:
Both of your names are on the lease.
Most likely, you both will be listed on the rental agreement if you rented a place together. Read your lease carefully, and most probably, you’ll see the mention of “joint and several liability.” This legal concept might be a bit confusing to renters, which is why many struggle to delegate the duties of a shared space equally.
Basically, “joint and several liability” means that every signer of the agreement is equally responsible for any lease violations. What’s more, the roommates can be held accountable for wrongdoings either together or individually, regardless of which one of them is the guilty party.
Let me give you a simple example. Imagine your roommate fails to pay their part of the rent for the last two months, and then they disappear. In this case, the landlord can take legal action and sue both of you. Or, maybe, even just you, because you are the one within their reach. Or you’d have to agree to pay the debt. While it might sound unfair to renters, it is beneficial for the landlord, as they don’t have to supervise every single co-tenant.
Only your name is on the lease.
If this is the case, you should be extremely careful with every action and step you’re about to take. As you know, if a tenant is not paying the rent and they are not able to work things out with the landlord, they might face eviction. And, if the rental agreement is signed under your name, you alone will be held accountable for any delinquencies of your roommate.
On the brighter side, in this situation, you are considered to be your roommate’s landlord, so technically, you can ask them to leave and search for another, more reliable person. Make sure to take any necessary steps to avoid getting in trouble with your landlord and also try to resolve the issue with your roommate amicably.
The lease is under your roommate’s name.
As you can understand, in this case, you do not have any legal responsibilities towards the landlord or property manager. If your roommate cannot pay rent, it will be solely their responsibility. However, if they will be evicted, you would have to search for a new place to live as well. So, even in this scenario, you have to keep your eyes peeled to ensure you won’t end up without a palace to live overnight.
3. Start Documenting Everything
Since a non-paying roommate situation has the potential to evolve (or devolve, as the case may be) into a matter with legal implications, it’s important to have your affairs in order from the start. Start a journal with fresh notes on every conversation you have with the landlord and roommate about the payment matter. Keep email records, receipts, and other physical and digital documents in a safe place for easy retrieval should you need it. Don’t delete any Facebook or text messages between you and your roommate, as well, if that’s how you communicate.
Hopefully, your journal doesn’t require a long log, but having it keeps you in the loop and shows both your property manager and your not-so-great-anymore co-tenant that you are taking this matter seriously.
4. Talk To Your Landlord
When you first hear about your roommate missing a payment, you don’t have to go straight to your landlord and ask them about which steps you should take. First of all, allow your roommate the courtesy of trying to come up with a solution on their own. Then, let them talk to the landlord should it come to that.
But, after a while, or if you think the situation will require a significant amount of time and might become more problematic, it is wise to reach out to the property manager. Let them know the situation and see what they’re willing to offer. They can be lenient and allow a later payment, perhaps. Also, by speaking with your landlord and discussing a problem, you demonstrate that you want to solve this problem as smoothly as possible, and you do take it seriously.
5. Replace Your Roommate (or Residence)
As we get further away from quick and easy solutions, it’s time to start thinking about more drastic measures. Though unfortunate, it may come down to kicking your roommate out (if your roommate and lease agreement allow that). If the above actions fail to help the situation, perhaps ask your roommate to move back home with their parents or in with a relative or significant other. This way, you can rent out their room to a new roommate. If all works out perfectly, you can use the new roommate’s security deposit to cover the missing funds from your former roommate, and the former roommate’s security deposit will in the future go to the new roommate. This time, you can learn from your past mistake and draft a roommate agreement that will better protect you from a similar situation again.
If that doesn’t work, it may be time to set out in search of new accommodations for yourself. While you (and your roommate) will still be on the hook for the missing rent money, you can at least stop the situation from getting any worse while also moving in with (hopefully) more responsible co-tenants.
Hopefully, you will never find yourself living with a roommate who does not pay rent. But if it does happen, keep track of every single document, receipt, and email and try to think one step ahead to avoid the worst-case scenario. In the future, you should also remember to check carefully each person you’re going to live with, and never underestimate the importance of roommate agreement!