How to get out of a lease with a bad roommate

Roommates can be great, whether you’re living with your lifelong bestie, or a former stranger whose portion of the rent helps you afford a place in the city or town of your dreams.

But not every roommate relationship is smooth sailing. When your party-hard roomie lives that bottomless brunch life 24/7, your happy cohabitation with your significant other turns sour, or your roommate goes from charmingly messy to straight-up slob, you may be wondering how you can get yourself out of a bad situation and back to some semblance of domestic bliss.

To help you out, we spoke to Hal Coopersmith, an attorney from Coopersmith and Coopersmith in Manhattan who specializes in real estate. He offered up advice on how to get out of a lease with a roommate, regardless of your rooming arrangement. Here are a variety of scenarios you might be in, along with the steps you can take to get out of your lease.

When you’re the only one on the lease and you want your roommate to leave

If you’re on the lease and your roommate isn’t, you have the power to remove them, so it’s a good idea to understand how to evict your roommate. They’re there with your permission, especially if all you have is an informal, verbal agreement. In that scenario, “they have a month-to-month tenancy,” Hal explains, so you can ask them to leave by providing 30 days written notice.

Of course, if they don’t cooperate, you may need to resort to legal action. You can hire a lawyer, get an eviction notice, and if necessary, take that soon-to-be-ex-roommate to court. But keep in mind—in this scenario, and many of the scenarios below regarding legal ways to get out of a lease—litigation can be costly and time-consuming. “Any time there’s litigation with a residential rental, by the time the case is resolved, the lease is probably over or close to being over….it’s usually easier and less costly to resolve a dispute outside of a courtroom.”

If you’re the only one on the lease, but you and your roommate have a written roommate agreement in place, your options for breaking a lease with roommates depend on the terms of your agreement. Ideally, your agreement will map out exactly what happens in the event that you and your roomie can’t live together, how much notice you need to give when asking them to move out, who is responsible for finding a replacement roommate, and more.

If the agreement doesn’t include those provisions, things get trickier when it comes down to how to evict your roommate, but as the person on the lease you still have the upper hand.

When you’re the only one on the lease and you want to leave

Let’s say you’re the one on the lease and you want out, but your roommate loves your apartment and wants to stay. The question then becomes how to take your name off of a lease.

Hal says, “You can ask the landlord if they would be willing to change the lease, and it is at their discretion.” You can also stay on the lease and sublet your share of the apartment, but it’s risky—you’re still responsible for the rental unit and the people living in it, because you’re on the lease.

In that situation, you’ll want to protect yourself with an indemnity, which is something that says that if anything happens to the apartment, the remaining roommate is responsible for associated expenses.

Still, Hal warns, “that’s only as good as the roommate’s financial strength.” A promise to cover expenses when breaking a lease with roommates doesn’t mean much if the person making the promise doesn’t actually have the funds—or can’t be found.

When you’re both on the lease

Talk to your landlord. If you’re planning to leave and your roommate intends to stay, your landlord may be willing to work with you in determining how to take your name off of a lease, especially if you find someone to replace you in the apartment.

This strategy for breaking a lease with roommates can happen in two ways:

  1. Your replacement can sign on as a sublease and rent your share of the apartment or house from you.
  2. You can assign your portion of the lease to them.

Both options require the landlord’s consent. As a rule, a sublease happens when you intend to return to the apartment, while a lease assignment occurs when you don’t intend to come back.

Either way, you’re responsible for the people who replace you in the apartment, unless you sign an agreement with your landlord that says otherwise.

“If they don’t pay their rent, you are ultimately responsible for paying their rent,” Hal said. “If they harass people in the building, you’re the one who’s ultimately liable.”

One thing to note: If you live in a certain kind of apartment—one that’s rent stabilized, or one in a co-op building—subleasing or assigning your lease as a legal way to get out of a lease may be especially tricky, as these apartments tend to have stricter rules.

And what happens if you and your roommate are both on the lease, and both want to move on? You can still discuss a sublease or lease assignment with your landlord, but you can also discuss breaking a lease with your roommates entirely.

A landlord’s willingness to take your name off of a lease may depend on market conditions.

“If it’s a period where rents are softer, the landlord is less likely to be willing to let you leave,” Hal said. “It also depends on the time of year. If you’re looking to break a lease during peak leasing season (June, July, or August), then it’s more likely that a landlord will let you go.”

If you can find a qualified person to move into the apartment and sign a new lease, that may also help when considering how to get out of a lease with a roommate. (Here are some questions to ask potential roommates before renting.)

When you have multiple roommates on the lease, and only one is an issue

This is similar to the scenario above. A sublease or lease assignment requires the landlord’s consent, but you should also get consent from every roommate. And, of course, the more people involved when breaking a lease with roommates, the trickier things can get. “When you’re dealing with multiple people, you certainly want some form of roommate agreement so you’re covered in the event it doesn’t work out.”

When you’re not on the lease, and you’re subletting from your roommate

In the absence of a roommate agreement that says otherwise, you’re a month-to-month tenant, and your roommate can ask you to leave with appropriate notice.

What if your roommate’s up to something illegal?

In any lease or sublet arrangement, if things are really serious (e.g., your roommate is engaging in domestic violence, sexual assault, or other illegal behavior), your first step should be to go to the police. But whether or not it’ll be easy to pursue legal ways to get out of a lease with your roommate and remove them from the apartment or house still depends on where they stand on the lease overall.

Now that you’re out of a bad situation—how can you protect yourself in the future?

Though it’s not always a guarantee that things will go well, and it’s not always possible (especially if you’re in a new city), get to know your roommates before you move in. If possible, be on the official lease, and verify your new roommate’s financials—their credit, income, assets, and debts.

And whether you’re on the lease or not, make sure you have a written—and signed—roommate agreement that outlines a clear exit strategy. Even if you think you’ve found the perfect roommate, things happen. Make sure there’s a plan in place for how to get out of a lease with a roommate in case things go south.