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Roommates and Rent: How To Protect Yourself
by Courtney Ronan

It sometimes happens that someone will rent an apartment and later take in a roommate who promises to share the monthly rent.

In this situation the original tenant has a lease with the apartment owner while the second tenant does not. What the original tenant often fails to recognize is that he's actually subletting the apartment to his fellow roommate. If his "tenant" fails to make the rent for any reason, the roommate who signed the lease is solely responsible for making the monthly payment.

The alternative is a situation where both roommates sign the lease. Depending on the lease terms, each roommate -- not one or the other -- can be fully liable for the entire monthly rent and for all property damage. Also, two tenants on the lease resolves other problems: It may be that a rental contract forbids sub-leasing and it will be easier to qualify for the property.

Before renting together, it's wise for would-be roommates to sit down and draw up a written agreement that covers a number of issues:

To draw up a proper agreement, write out what you want to do and then have the paperwork reviewed by an attorney or legal clinic. Does this seem extreme? Hardly -- just remember if you have a two-year lease at $1,200 a month you're looking at a total liability of $28,800 -- not small change for most people.

In the event that one roommate innocently forgets to pay his share of the rent, that's probably not grounds for instant eviction -- though it may result in a late fee. In the usual case, a landlord will issue a reminder or friendly warning before taking more drastic measures.

"The landlord's next step should be to request payment," says My Counsel. "Most states require that the landlord do so in writing or by using a specific form, called a 'notice to pay rent or quit.' Once the landlord makes the request and the tenant still doesn't pay, the landlord can then proceed to court, where the landlord can have the tenant evicted."

Landlords, however, logically don't want to evict tenants -- that's just a way to create vacancies. A better approach for everyone is to try and work out the problem -- keeping up the rent and perhaps finding a replacement roommate.