How to get out of a lease with a roommate

April 2, 2018 - 5 min read

In this article:

Even the best plans can fail, and you may have to get out of a lease with a roommate, despite your best intentions. Here’s how to minimize the fallout:

  • Give as much notice to your landlord as you can
  • Show prospective tenants around while you’re still there — and sell the place hard
  • Try to find replacement tenants yourself

Sneaking off in the dead of night is not nice, and it might put you on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

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Roommates in real life

When Americans think about home-sharing, they often imagine idealized situations. And never believe that they might have to get out of a lease with a roommate. TV shows like “Friends” or “The Golden Girls” or “The Big Bang Theory” depict fun times with like-minded people who fulfill your social and emotional needs and care for you deeply.

All too often, the reality is very different. At best, it’s “The Odd Couple,” possibly with added personal hygiene issues. At worst, it’s closer to “Single White Female.”

About roommates — in numbers

Although some may look forward to sharing accommodation because they think they’ll have Chandler and Monica or Penny and Sheldon as roommates, most are driven by economic necessity. A 2017 study by Trulia found millennials particularly unable to afford their own places.

That’s because they often have low salaries and high debts. In San Francisco, it costs 37 percent of a millennial’s median salary to rent an average one-bedroom apartment. In Miami, it’s 54 percent. Small wonder relatively few manage to set up homes on their own.

Sharing statistics

Of course, quite a few young adults end up moving back in with their parents. Some never move out.

Pew Research Center recently took a look at “doubling up.” That can be defined as sharing accommodation with an adult with whom you’re not romantically involved. In 2017, 78.6 million American adults were living in such a shared home. That’s 31.9 percent of the adult population. And those numbers exclude adult students living at home.

Of those doubling up, 18 percent described themselves as roommates, lodgers, other non-relatives or similar. So more than 14 million Americans are living in homes they share with friends or strangers.

What is it about roommates?

A running gag in “The Big Bang Theory” used to concern Sheldon’s roommate agreement. Whenever Leonard was uncooperative, Sheldon would pull out this hefty tome to remind his friend of the obligations he’d signed up to.

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

This may have made roommate agreements into a joke. But legal website suggests they’re an excellent idea. “Most roommate disputes can be avoided by laying out simple guidelines and expectations at the beginning of the living arrangement in a written roommate agreement,” it says. Of course, you may prefer to make yours more concise and less prescriptive than Sheldon.

Common issues

Roommates commonly fall out over issues that are mostly predictable:

  • Who pays what and when
  • Who does which chores and how frequently
  • How tidy people should be
  • “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine”
  • When an occasional ... ahem, overnight guest effectively becomes an additional resident
  • General behavior, including appropriate hours for partying, loud music, and smoking, drinking or drugs

Don’t vaguely hope your roommates will act in a fair and civilized way over these. Instead, turn reasonable expectations into obligations by having people sign up to a written agreement.

When it all gets too much

Of course, some people will act selfishly, no matter what they sign. So what can you do when your relationship with a roommate breaks down completely?

You have joint and individual obligations

When you and your roommate(s) sign a lease or enter a month-to-month tenancy, you’ll do so “jointly and severally.” That legal term means each of you individually takes full responsibility for paying the rent and making sure all the landlord’s conditions are met.

Exceptions are very rare. So when one of you leaves and stops paying the rent, the other or others must cover the shortfall. And if one of you creates a nuisance or otherwise breaches the tenancy, you can all be evicted.

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You may be able to replace the tenant who’s quitting quickly with someone else. And that should limit the time you have to pay more rent yourself. Discover the differences between leases and month-to-month tenancies in the paragraphs below. However, don’t forget landlords generally have a right to approve new occupants. So make sure yours is on-board with your choice.

At worst, the early quitting of a co-tenant (someone who signed a lease) generally provides the landlord with a legal basis for evicting you all. However, that’s likely to happen only if you and your roommates have bad records as tenants. If you can show you can pay the rent on time and do not cause damage or nuisance, most landlords will want you to stay.

Who moves out?

In most circumstances, there’s no clear rule about what happens when roommates fall out. Don’t expect to be the one who stays just because you’re not the one at fault.

In other words, the fact you’re not the one who plays music too loudly or never washes up or, in a romantic relationship, ran off with someone else doesn’t give you additional tenancy rights. You’ll have to negotiate between yourselves who goes and who stays.

There are exceptions. Rent-controlled leases sometimes specify a “master tenant,” who acts as a quasi-landlord. If you are designated as such in the lease, you may have a right to get rid of lesser tenants and recruit new ones.

When you’re the one leaving — month-to-month tenancy

There’s no upside to walking out and leaving rent unpaid, no matter how much you’ve come to hate your roommates. You risk action in a small claims court and could see your credit score take a serious hit.

What credit score do you need to rent an apartment?

To leave with your head held high, give the required notice (usually 30 days) or even longer. And pay up your rent and share of utilities for that time whether you’re still in residence or not — unless in the meantime a new, approved tenant moves in. If you personally have been responsible for damage to the property, you’ll be liable for that, too.

When you’re the one leaving — lease

If you signed a longer lease with your landlord, you will have legally contracted to pay your rent for a longer period. You may have many months to go before you’re free and clear.

What you can normally do is give 30-days’ notice you’ll be quitting. At the same time, ask the landlord and your roommates to find a new tenant. Indeed, you may be able to find an acceptable one yourself. Once one’s moved in, your obligations should end. But you’ll likely be on the hook for your rent until a new tenant replaces you or the lease ends, whichever happens, sooner.

If everyone’s leaving early

If you’re month-to-month tenants and all want to move out, you just have to provide the notice required, usually 30 days.

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It’s different with a lease. The contract you signed obliges you to pay rent for as long as that lease lasts. Your only way out is to find replacement tenants the landlord deems acceptable.

So it’s in everyone’s interest to give as much notice to your landlord as possible, show prospective tenants around, and try to find replacement tenants yourself.

Keep in mind the fact that future landlords are likely to contact your current one before deciding to take you on as a tenant.

Talk about roommates

Roommates fall out all the time. But you can often avoid conflict by talking things through before minor irritations turn into rabid rage.

That doesn’t always work. But you’ll likely find it horribly complicated and painful to get rid of roommates or disrupt leases. So it’s often easier just to grit your teeth until you can move on more easily.

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Peter Warden
Authored By: Peter Warden
The Mortgage Reports Editor
Peter Warden has been writing for a decade about mortgages, personal finance, credit cards, and insurance. His work has appeared across a wide range of media. He lives in a small town with his partner of 25 years.