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Advice for renters: What happens when my roommate moves out (and I’m not on the lease)?

Dahna Chandler
The Mortgage Reports contributor

In this article:

If your roommate is the only person listed on your lease and your roommate decides to move, there are several steps you’ll need to take:

  • Research the landlord-tenant laws in your city and state. You may be considered a subtenant and allowed to stay in the rental. If you’re unsure what the laws are, consult a local tenant’s advocacy agency or a lawyer for advice.
  • If your landlord doesn’t know (or forgot) that you live in the unit, you can avoid future conflict with a written notification letter. In some states, this may preserve any rights you do have.
  • If you are able to continue to stay in the rental, you’ll need to negotiate a lease with the landlord. Be prepared to take on the full rent and any utilities which previously may have been covered by your roommate.

Get advice for renters on local subtenant’s rights

Your roommate had the worst news ever for you — he is in love, moving 100 miles away….and he’s the only one on your lease. You need advice for renters fast. What can / should you do?

If you’re not on the lease, you’re considered a subtenant, not co-tenant in most states. That means you have fewer rights in many cases.

Depending on where you live, you may have “succession rights” or the ability to take over the lease. Here’s what you need to know and do before you move or negotiate a new lease.

Verify your new rate (Dec 9th, 2019)

Sublets and the law

You’ll first want to learn if the landlord-tenant laws where you live allow subtenants to stay if a primary tenant moves. These laws can be complicated, and vary widely by location. They often depend on what rental type you have.

In New York, for instance, primary tenants do have a legal right to add roommates. But within states, laws can vary by county or city, so don’t count on state law alone to help you.

Should I buy a house or rent?

Subtenants may have a harder time staying on in rent-controlled or rent-stabilized unit leases. In New York, you may not have a right to that low rent even if you can prove that you have succession rights.

Landlords often want rent-stabilized tenants out to hike the rent up to market rate. So expect a serious, long, legal battle to remain in rent-stabilized apartments. New York City law requires you to establish a specific family-like relationship with the previous tenant to keep a rent-stabilized rental.

In San Francisco, you’ll need to prove you were a co-tenant by documenting direct interaction with your landlord. That might be correspondence, rent receipts or canceled checks to the landlord (not your roomie).

Roommate: You got nothin’

Otherwise, you’re just a roommate, an especially insecure position if the landlord didn’t authorize you to live there. In that case, in many locations, landlords can force you out.

To be certain of your rights (or lack of), contact local tenant’s advocacy agencies or lawyers for advice in this situation.

advice for renters

Learn the lease terms

Even if your name is not on the lease, you should learn what’s on that document. Your position depends on what the primary tenant and landlord agreed to — not what you personally want. Was your roommate contractually allowed to rent your room to you?

If you can’t get a copy of the actual lease, check out a standard lease agreement for your area. You can probably get one from a property management company or office supply store. That will tell you if it’s typical to allow tenants to rent a room to you outside the lease. If that’s likely, you might be able to negotiate a new lease with the landlord.

Renting today is even less affordable

However, that depends on multiple factors, including if the primary tenant left on good terms. It may also matter if the landlord allowed this practice on a previous lease.

If you learn that local lease or laws permit renting to roommates, you have a chance to negotiate a new lease. Otherwise, you could be evicted. If you’re unsure, contact a lawyer or tenant advocacy program in your area. You’ll learn what’s required of you and the best way to meet those demands without hurting your tenant record.

Notify the landlord that you’re an occupant

If your landlord doesn’t know (or forgot) that you live in the unit, you can avoid future conflict with a written notification letter.

In some states, this may preserve any rights you do have. It also may keep you safe from being identified as a trespasser and having the police alerted.

By then, you should know whether or not you can remain in the unit and negotiate a lease. Let the landlord know your plans whether you decide to leave, or to try and stay on.

Be ready to cover rent and utilities

Because you’re remaining after your roommate leaves, you have to keep the rent paid in full, on time. Since you’ve notified the landlord you’re living there, they’ll expect the whole rent from you. Even if the property manager or owner tells you to move, it’s crucial you keep rent paid while you’re there.

If they haven’t demanded that you move, you won’t help your cause by being late with the rent. You won’t be able to negotiate a lease in your name. Also, expect to get evicted.

Live in your own rental building and call it a primary residence

If you can’t pay the whole rent, reach out to the landlord to negotiate partial payments. If they allow them, tell the owners what process you’re using to find a new roommate to help you cover rent.

Also, contact utility companies and get them put into your name, even if it’s temporary. Otherwise, if the prior primary tenant takes their name off the bills, services may be interrupted. Then, pay those bills promptly to prevent utility service shutoff.

Negotiate a strong lease

Once you’ve figured out that you can and want to stay, it’s time to put a lease in place with the terms you want. Expect the landlord to raise the rent, which you’ll have to prove you can pay on your own if you don’t have a roommate.

If you’re not able to, many landlords will require a guarantor or co-signer or a qualified roommate to share rent payments.

Tired of the low housing supply? Consider these strategies

Put the new roommate on the lease as your co-tenant so they’re equally responsible for making sure rent gets paid. Draft a roommate agreement that includes who pays what, and other terms  (overnight guests, noise, etc.) that prevent conflict.

If you can get separate leases, do that instead to protect your deposit. Also, it guarantees that you’re not responsible for their portion of rent if they don’t pay.

Work with legal counsel to ensure all the terms you want in the documents are there and enforceable in your area.

Or, stop renting: What are today’s mortgage rates?

One way to get landlords off your back and protect yourself from rent increases is to own your place. In many locations, and especially at today’s low mortgage rates, it’s actually cheaper to own than rent. So perhaps the best advice for renters is to stop being one.

Verify your new rate (Dec 9th, 2019)