Roommate Agreements, and Breaking Up When Things Go Badly

Susan had no idea what she was in for when her roommate Lisa moved in. During the waking hours Lisa was very shy and quiet, and seemed like she'd make an OK roommate. However, when the lights went out Lisa suffered from vivid nightmares and would bang her head against the headboard throughout the night. Susan was afraid to wake her roommate because Lisa would be saying "I'm going to kill you" in her sleep. At the end of the lease, Susan was more than happy to part company with Lisa and find a new roommate.

Finding a roommate is kind of like finding a spouse. You never really know them until you live with them. It's important to establish what you're looking for in a roommate, but even more important to be clear on what you don't want. Even the most diligent person can run into problems.

Sylvia Bergthold, author of "Sorry, But the Boa Has Got to Go," is an expert on platonic roommate relations. "Breaking up with a roommate is a business arrangement," she says, "unless the 'roommate' is more than a roommate."

As the saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," so the best advice would be to perform due diligence before entering into a roommate relationship. Before a single box is packed, sit down with your potential roommate or roommates and establish the guidelines for cohabitation before conflicts arise. Determine such things as:

  • How much rent each person can afford and will be responsible for and when will it be paid?
  • How many days notice are needed before moving out or breaking the lease.
  • Will you share grocery expenses or keep all food separate?
  • How messy or clean is each person? Can the level of messiness/cleanliness be tolerated?
  • What items will each person furnish for the apartment? Will you share?
  • How much quiet time/party time does each person expect?
  • Are overnight guests OK and, if so, how often before it becomes an issue?
  • Is anyone a smoker, and if so, will that be a problem?
  • Are there non-drinkers, social drinkers or party animals?
  • Does anyone use recreational drugs and, if so, is that a problem?
  • Does anyone have or plan to get a pet and, if so, is that a problem?

Ideally, all these questions will be answered and answers documented before moving in together. Sylvia Bergthold's "A Roommate Survival Guide" says that roommates need to sign contracts, preferably month-to-month roommate agreements. It spells out in writing everything they have discussed, and states that a written, 30-day notice is needed to sever the contract.

Sometimes with even the best preparations, there are problems. In this case, roommates need to have a civil discussion about what's occurring. Be very clear on stating the particular activity that is troubling to you, and not make it a personal attack.

"Communicate early and often," recommends Bergthold. Don't let the animosity fester to a point of no return.

If the problems persist, here are your options for how to break up with a roommate:
  • Move out at the end of the lease
    This is the easiest way to settle the problem without causing financial hardship to any of the roommates. This will help maintain a good relationship with your roommates if you desire.

  • Move out, but find a roommate to take your place
    This method allows you to get out of the situation before the lease is up. However, it is important to get the consent of the landlord so that he can do the required background and credit checks on the new person. If he doesn't, he can sue to have all the roommates evicted, since one person moving out is technically a breach of the lease agreement.

  • Move out, but offer to pay your portion of expenses until the end of the lease
    This is the most generous of scenarios, as the remaining roommates have the benefit of more space to themselves without losing any money. This allows you to move out when you want, without alienating the old roommates.

  • Break up, move out, and don't look back
    This is the least favorable of options, and really burns bridges. According to Jim Surane, attorney in Cornelius, N.C., a lease agreement provides "joint and several liability," which in human-speak means that if all roommates are on the lease and one person on the lease moves out, the remaining person or people on the lease are responsible for paying the entire amount. It's important to know that if you choose to go this route your roommates have the legal right to sue you for your part of the lease. If they do and they win, not only will you have to pay the back rent, you may also have to pay the legal fees.

No relationships are perfect, but hopefully with these tips you can be best prepared to handle whatever comes your way. Bergthold adds, "I am a firm believer in not burning your bridges with roommates.... You never know when you might have to contact them ... attempt to remain friends if possible."

Barbara Green is The Design Diva and owner of Sensibly Chic Interior Design. Follow her on Twitter.

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