Helpful hints for signing a lease with roommates
Research shows one out of every three U.S. adults lives with at least one roommate—and that statistic doesn’t even include students or those living with significant others.
But living with roommates comes with its own complications. After you find people to live with that you can trust to do their own dishes and pick a place that’s just right for everyone’s commute to work, you still need to figure out how to handle leasing together. If you’re going to be signing a lease with roommates while dreaming about a place of your own, here are some helpful roommate tips for navigating the process.
Make your own roommate rental agreements.
Whether you’re living with one other person or many others, you’re all on the hook for every provision in the lease. Plus, you and your roommates have some responsibilities to each other, too. Roommate rental agreements help you make your expectations of each other clear from day one, and hopefully keep your home happy and harmonious.
What goes into your roommate rental agreement is between you and your roommates, but it’s smart to cover the main areas of potential conflict, like noise, guests, cleaning, and shared items.
Figure out what everyone is comfortable with: Should there be quiet after a certain hour? How do you want to manage chores? Should everyone get a say in how long overnight guests crash, and how many you host? What items do you prefer to keep to yourself, and what are you up for sharing or taking turns buying?
These are great questions to ask if you’re still looking for a roommate and going through the process of roommate screening. And if you’ve chosen your roommates already, getting this down in writing might help you sidestep some arguments later. Any written roommate rental agreements should also specify how you and your roommates want to handle shared expenses.
Obviously, chief among these expenses is how you want to split rent. If you want to split your rent unevenly because someone has a smaller or larger room, for example, that’s probably not something your landlord will put into your lease.
Decide with your roommates how much each person owes for rent each month, how you’ll pay the landlord, and when rent should be paid, and then put that into the roommate rental agreement.
Make sure you also discuss how you plan to split other expenses, like utilities and other incidentals, who is responsible for which bills, how you’ll reimburse each other, and when you’ll reimburse each other. If only one of you owns an A/C unit or needs to run an electric heater in the winter, discuss how you want to handle the extra expense now instead of battling it out when a big electricity bill comes in a few months.
Figure out the lease details.
Some landlords may treat your lease differently than a standard one-person lease if you’re going to be living with roommates. If your landlord asks you to sign a standard lease in which you and your roommates will be “co-tenants,” you’ll both be on the paperwork, and therefore the lease will likely contain language that holds you “joint and severally liable” for the lease terms.
This means that you can technically be held individually responsible for any violation of your rental agreement, even if you did nothing wrong. So, if your roommate skips out on paying their share of the rent, you’re legally responsible for the whole amount.
Rather than dealing with roommates lease agreements, however, your landlord could instead ask you to sign individual agreements versus signing a lease with roommates. In this case, you’ll sign a lease that dictates what you are individually responsible for, including only your share of the rent and other building fees.
This roommate lease agreement saves you some trouble if any of your roommates violates the terms of the lease or wants to move out sooner than expected, but may give your landlord more control over who fills empty spots in your apartment.
Finally, read through any restrictions around subleasing that are in your lease. This could come in handy if you or your roommate need to be out of town for a full month or more, if someone wants to leave the apartment entirely, or if you want to be the sole person on the lease but cut your rent burden by subletting to others.
Your landlord may be wary of allowing subleases when signing a lease with roommates or by yourself, because anyone who sublets wouldn’t be on the official lease and doesn’t necessarily go through the same vetting process as a regular tenant.
If they do allow subleases, they may have an explicit set of procedures for those scenarios. For you, subletting also means that you’re still legally on the hook if the subletter violates any lease terms, including failing to pay rent.
Make a plan B.
Ultimately, people are still people, and screening roommates ahead of time or reading up on helpful roommate tips will only save you so much trouble. Especially in cases where you’re jointly and severally liable for every part of your lease, it’s important to know what your options are if your roommate situation doesn’t go as expected.
Maybe you create a roommate rental agreement, but you or your roommates fail to honor it, either by not paying bills on time or by making your apartment an unpleasant place to live.
Maybe one of you gets an unexpected job offer 3,000 miles away and needs to move out seven months before your lease expires. Prepare ahead of time, so that you know what you can do if one of you wants or needs to leave the apartment before the end of your lease term.
Start with the worst case scenario: What if your roommate ends up being so awful that you want to kick them out? Unfortunately, this can be tough if you’ve signed the lease with your roommate, because your landlord has no legal obligation to remove another person’s name from the apartment paperwork.
The most low-friction option here might be to move out early yourself. If you do need to move out early—or one of your roommates wants to leave early for any reason—ask your landlord how they want this situation handled.
The person moving out will need to get an official OK from the landlord regardless. Assuming you’re all on one lease together, your landlord will probably want to either find a replacement tenant themselves, or ask you and you roommates to fill the empty room.
In any case, if this new person is going on the lease, the landlord may want to run any replacements through the same approval process that you originally went through. (Though, if you were all bad tenants, your landlord also may have the right to evict all of you.
Choosing the people you share your home with is a big deal. No set of advice will guarantee you a worry-free cohabitation scenario, but clarify anything that might be important up front through a roommate lease or rental agreement, whether it’s lease restrictions or how you split the heating bill. By making sure you and your roommates are on the same page and as informed as possible, you’ll give yourself the best chance of smooth sailing in the future.