Transcript: Monday, October 23 at noon ET

Settling Roommate Disputes

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Robert Griswold and Janet Portman
Housing Expert and Author
Monday, October 23, 2006; 12:00 PM

Some have to learn the hard way about what happens when you're careless during a search for housemates. Our special feature, Lessons Learned: How to Survive Living With Roommates , has tales from the roommate horror files, advice from industry experts, and Live Online chats designed to ensure you don't get duped.

Janet Portman, author of "Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants" (NOLO Press, 2006), and Robert Griswold, who co-writes Renters' Forum , a column that tackles issues affecting renters, join forces to answer your questions about legal recourse when group housing results in dueling roommates.

The transcript follows below.

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Washington, D.C.: We want to evict our roommate (who's EXTREMELY inconsiderate, comes and goes as he pleases, has 24/7 guests, and blasts music at all hours of the night). Myself and two of the other roommates have expressed these concerns to our landlord to no avail. What are some next steps to help us get this chump out? Seriously!

Robert Griswold: Selecting roommates needs to be done with care. When you find that you are incompatible with your roommate(s) then it is really an internal matter that your landlord may be unwilling to resolve. It also may not be in your best interests to ask the landlord to step in either. A landlord's worst nightmare is trying to play referee when they receive different stories from each roommate. Of course, a good landlord isn't and shouldn't be that involved with your day-to-day living.

The other concern is that getting your landlord involved in the internal complaints between roommates can lead them to get so frustrated that they propose a solution of evicting everyone. While there are times where that may be the best for everyone, I suggest that you do your best to encourage this roommate to find a more suitable living arrangement. However, I have often seen situations where an irresponsible roommate actually prefers having the responsible roommate because the landlord is willing to put up with more of their antics and is less likely to evict them. The concern for "responsible" roommates is that they will be held accountable for the misdeeds of their irresponsible roommate! My suggestion is that you and your roommates attempt to work this out on your own before pushing you landlord to intervene.

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Northeast Washington, D.C.: OK, I have a house that I haven't slept in for several months but which I am not interested in officially vacating. I am considering a roommate, and think it would be a great situation for them -- the use of a whole house without the mortgage payment -- but then I get worried I'll have someone in there stealing my identity and generally destroying my property. Outside of college, I've only lived with a stranger once and that worked out but I can't believe I could be that lucky twice, especially after listening to my friends discuss their jacked up roommate situations. Any advice for how I would go about finding a compatible (e.g., on-time rent-paying, respectful to others' belongings/property) roommate?

Robert Griswold: You are very wise to be cautious! You should carefully screen your potential roommates just as a landlord would but even more so as these are people who will be sharing your personal space. It may seem over the top at first but I have seen many individuals in your situation actually have a written application form with a questionnaire for each potential applicant. Ask for plenty of references and actually take the time to check them. Consider these prospective roommates with the same scrutiny that you would a business partner. You are essentially trusting this individual with access to your most personal possessions and information. So your concerns are well founded but I think it is possible to find great roommates. You just need to be patient and willing to make the necessary efforts to properly review and screen potential applicants.

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Washington, D.C.: I have two roommates who also happen to be tenants -- I own the house. I'm in the process of evicting one of them for non-payment of rent, unsanitary conditions (hoarding disease) and he has locked me out of the rooms -- I can't get in or see in. He's a non-working lawyer, who is always threatening to sue me. Anyway, I just found out that in D.C., if you want to evict someone it may take as long as three years. Unknown to me, my former friend/tenant/roommate was evicted twice in the '90s and it took that long both times. If people want to stay they can stay. They can use endless appeals, reconsiderations, clarifications, more appeals. Another thing I learned is that people can do anything they want, steal, steal mail, vandalize the house and furniture, leave the doors unlocked all night, leave all the light on when they leave the house, set the thermostat at 75 degrees in winter while wearing only underwear around the house, cook (with horrible smells) at 1 a.m., and on and on and on.

Janet Portman: Your tenant certainly sounds like a good candidate for eviction. Since he appears to be a professional hold-over type, I suggest you hire a good lawyer to handle the case. In the future, be very careful how you choose your tenants! Thorough screening would have revealed this fellow for who he is. For a practical and legal guide to finding the right tenants (and avoiding types like this guy), see Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants, from NOLO (www.nolo.com).

Robert Griswold: Having roommates can certainly be an eye-opening experience and not one that is for everyone. While some may find the variety interesting, most people would prefer to only live with people with a similar lifestyle and personal habits but that isn't easy to find even in relationships. So you really need to screen potential roommates carefully and be willing to ask the difficult questions up front. Most roommate relationships are created on a first-come first-selected basis or total random luck. Don't be on a short time line when selecting roommates as patience and diligent background checks will pay off. The NOLO books are excellent resources and a nominal investment can save you from the nightmare situations you describe above. I also suggest that anyone considering becoming a landlord (which is essentially what you are doing when you bring a roommate into your home) should be required to rent the infamous "Pacific Heights" movie and watch it at least three times!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm extremely messy in my own personal space (messy, not dirty). However, I'm quite tidy in the common areas of our house. Sometimes because my room is always a mess I lack the moral authority to ask my roommates to keep the kitchen/living room clean. Any tips for me? Thanks.

Janet Portman: Ah, a question about a moral quandary! But really, you're on solid ground -- since your common area habits are considerate, you do have standing to ask your roommates to follow suit. If questioned, politely point out that since they don't live in your room, your habits there are not their concern.

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Gainsville, Va.: My sister has been living with horrible roommates the past six months. One took money for bills and never paid them. Power and electricity has been turned off and he is still asking for money! Another had a dog that went to the bathroom in the house -- there was up to 17 piles of poop in the downstairs room at one time! They are all moving out now but the landlord wants to take the girl who had the dog to court for $3,000 for the rugs, but said if he takes her, he has to take everyone on the lease. Will my sister be responsible for part of the $3,000? Note that the landlord really likes my sister and said she will get excellent referrals because she is the one that told him about what was going on.

Robert Griswold: This unfortunate situation is a reminder that in most circumstances roommates are joint and severally liable for the property. In plain English that means that the landlord can seek recovery of their damages from any one individual tenant even if she was not the one that created or allowed the damage to occur. In this instance your sister brought the damage caused by the dog to the landlord's attention. However, in many roommate situations, one roommate may not have even known about the damage done by the other roommate yet could be held financially responsible. Sadly, it is often the "responsible" roommate that ends up holding the bag so to speak as the "irresponsible" roommate cannot be found or has no assets.

Janet Portman: While it's certainly correct that landlords can (and almost always do)hold co-tenants "jointly and severally" responsible for damage and unpaid rent, it's not legally required that they do so. The landlord's claim that he "has to take everyone on the lease to court" simply isn't true -- he could choose to sue just the offending tenant. Doubtless he is including your sister simply so that he has a broader "pocket" from which to draw his damages. This is a sad lesson for your sis -- as with most of the questions we've been answering today, it's a reminder of the need for everyone (landlords and tenants looking for roommates) to learn as much as possible about their counterparts before entering into a rental situation.

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D.C.: My roommate and I get along fine and rent our rooms separately from our landlord. The problem is this: We live in a three-bedroom house, and our landlord is preparing to rent out the third room, and we are worried he'll pick someone awful. We've offered to help pick the next tenant, but the decision is ultimately up to him. If the new roommate turns out fine, well then, no problem, obviously. But if there are problems. Do we have any options, other than complaining to our apathetic landlord?

Janet Portman: This sounds like an odd situation -- unless the landlord also lives in the house, it's unusual for an owner to actively pick his tenants' roommates. However, I've seen stranger stuff, and I do have some advice for you: Appeal to your landlord's bottom line, which ought to sway the day. Here's your pitch: Point out to your landlord that the current situation is working well (and the two of you are happily planning on staying) because everyone gets along. If your happy house is disrupted by someone who isn't sympathetic, the result will be two new vacancies -- yours and the other current roommate. For the landlord, that means a period of no rent for those rooms while he looks for new tenants. No landlord wants that. To avoid this result, offer to help the landlord choose the third tenant. Only a fool will turn you down.

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Washington, D.C.: If one roommate is the only leaseholder (and was in the residence previously), is the other considered a "sublettor," if the agreement to be roommates is only verbal?

Janet Portman: Your question illustrates a common and vexing situation that roommates (and their landlords) get themselves into when they haven't clarified the role of a late-arriving resident. Here's the deal: In most states, the fact that the original tenant is the only one on the lease will not control whether the newcomer is a full-fledged cotenant or a subtenant (of the tenant). The essential inquiry is how that second person has been treated and considered by the landlord. If the landlord accepts rent directly from the second tenant, and in all other respects treats that person as an equal compared to the first tenant (responding to his requests for repairs, for example), then the second resident can attain the status of a full-fledged cotenant. If you don't wish to "share the stage" with your new roommate, however, you'll need to make it very clear that he is renting from you, as a subtenant.

First, you'll need the consent of your landlord, and then you'll need to make sure that his rent is paid to you, and that any problems or requests of the landlord go through you. Put the whole thing in writing -- in short, write a lease between you and the second resident. Be advised, however, that many landlords will not agree to a subtenant situation, because they prefer to have a direct relationship with all residents in their property.

Robert Griswold: Janet has covered the legal aspects of your question. I think there are other concerns when you add a new roommate or have roommate turnover. One is the condition of the property and the handling of the security deposit. Most landlords follow the advice given in my book "Property Management for Dummies" and carefully document the condition of the rental property when the tenant-landlord relationship is first established. So when there is a change in roommates it is extremely important for the new roommate coming in to make sure that they haven't unknowingly just entered into a legal contract with the landlord in which they have agreed to be financially responsible for any and all damage that may have occurred during the lease even if it happened before they moved in.

So I would suggest that the new roommate carefully inspect the property with the original move-in/move-out checklist signed when the lease was originally signed and note any deviations and make an agreement with the current tenants that they are fully responsible for any damage noted. This also is good advice when there is a change in roommates. The departing tenant should document the condition of the property when they leave and have the landlord formally remove them from the lease so they can avoid being contacted sometime in the future by the landlord looking for them to pay for damage that occurred after they left. Likewise, the incoming tenant wants to make sure they are not held accountable for damage (or unpaid rent, late charges, etc.) that were incurred before they arrived. Remember that the security deposit generally runs with the lease and a savvy landlord will not account for and return any portion of the security deposit until all roommates have terminated the lease and left the property. This may require the tenants to make their own internal financial arrangements including providing the landlord with written documentation that the departing tenant is relinquishing their interest in the security deposit to the incoming roommate.

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Arlington, Va.: To Washington, D.C. with the non-working lawyer for a tenant: Offer the tenant money to move. Maybe the cost of moving and deposit on another apartment. You could also negotiate to hold him harmless for any damage and return of his deposit, if any. Use the above in any combination you feel comfortable with. Just be sure to get in writing, for example a pre-determine move date, etc. Believe me this solution is much cheaper. A Working Lawyer.

Janet Portman: Bravo to my colleague in Arlington. A buyout is almost always cheaper and faster. You never want to march into court until you have exhausted all other solutions -- for one thing, no matter how righteous you think your case is, you never know what's going to happen (beware the lawyer who promises a win).

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Washington, D.C.: I have a comment about roommates and disputes. I strongly feel that everything needs to be in writing and that every individual living in a house or apartment needs to be on the lease. My terrible experience was with an old roommate who accused me of breaking her things, etc. In the end I had to wait a very long time to receive my security deposit back from her and she promptly deducted money that never should have been deducted. I was not on the lease (it was only her name and I paid her my share of rent and the security deposit so it was like I was renting from her). As a homeowner now, I am happy to be free from roommates, but want to send out a clear message that one should get things in writing (and make sure everyone is paying their fair share of rent). Thanks.

Robert Griswold: A voice of experience! Your advice is well-founded. I agree that roommates should all be on the lease. But I also believe that roommates should create their own internal agreements in writing. For example, a written set of "House Rules" could be established to set out certain expectations. My 18-year old daughter is a Freshman at a major university and is having "roommate" problems. While her roommates were assigned and she couldn't take advantage of my sage advice, I have to admit that I am getting a chuckle or two when I hear some of their internal squabbles about who drank too much of the "community" bottled water or other day-to-day issues. It sounds like you are content to no longer be in a roommate environment but I think that there are many life lessons to be learned and we all survive somehow.

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Maryland: So what happens when you've decided that you just don't like living with your roommate anymore? We just have two totally different lifestyles and the lease isn't up yet (got five months to go, and I honestly can't take it that long). What can I do?

Janet Portman: Oh dear, more roommate woes! You have a choice: Leave or get your roommate to leave. Let's see what happens if you take one or the other course. First, if you leave, you're breaking the lease, leaving your roommate with all of the rent. He'll have to hustle up a replacement (who is acceptable to the landlord) or leave. If he doesn't pay the rent, technically the landlord can look to both of you to pay it, but since you're gone, the landlord will have to sue you in small claims court (and file an eviction suit against the remaining tenant). Since filing two lawsuits is a lot of work, and the landlord really just wants the remaining tenant to get out, the person who leaves is almost always out from under the rent, but of course you won't get a good referral from this fellow when your next landlord checks references. Now, suppose you convince the other guy to leave? If you can present your landlord with an equally acceptable substitute (with good credit, references and all the other good-tenant criteria the landlord applied to you), the landlord will have no reason not to accept him and you should be all set. It might take some cajoling to get your current roommate out -- if you're desperate, consider a buyout, which may sound outrageous (especially if you feel the fellow has wronged you), but it often does the trick.

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RE: Evicting roommates: Since the poster wanting to get rid of the lawyer roommate is an owner, start by sending the roommate a certified letter, with a 30 notice to vacate and request all back rent. This is your official notice for the court and one month is the only warning period required. After 30 days, break the lock to his room and charge him for damages if he hasn't vacated.

Janet Portman: Whoa! First, in every state you can terminate a tenancy for rent nonpayment with much less than 30 days -- three to five is common. Second, breaking a tenant's lock is strictly illegal in most states. Known as a "self help" eviction, it makes the landlord liable for damages that can run to the thousands of dollars. No matter how obnoxious the tenant or how just the position of the owner, there is no substitute for following legal procedures to evict.

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Janet Portman: Thanks, everyone, for joining our conversation. Today's theme was certainly consistent: Unpleasant roommate situations, landlords stuck with bad tenants. Here's the take-away for all: Be very careful with whom you live (tenants) and do business with (landlords). Take your time -- landlords, this means leaving the place vacant for as long as it takes to get the right tenants in there. Tenants, this means doing some homework on that gal you got through Craigslist. Call her former roommates, ask to see the place she's living in now, ask her to show you her credit report (and be prepared to show her yours, too). After all, if she messes up, you'll be responsible (never forget the leveling effect of "joint and several liability"). For good solid advice, forms, and information on your state's landlord-tenant laws, check out www.nolo.com.

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Thanks!: I just wanted to say thanks for doing this chat. Sometimes reading what other people have to deal with makes my roommates and their stays-over-too-long boyfriends a bit more tolerable.

Robert Griswold: You are welcome. I hope that we have prompted some good discussion and communicated that roommate situations are like most aspects of life - if you put the proper time and energy into them they can work out just fine and even be a very positive experience. While not fail-safe, the majority of the roommate challenges that I hear about in Rental Forum are the result of the random selection of roommates more than the "excellent roommate suddenly gone bad" syndrome! I would highly advise looking for additional resources like the excellent publications from NOLO.com and I think that even roommates would benefit from some of the screening concepts and handling of the security deposit and other practical advice I offer for landlords in "Property Management for Dummies." A tenant looking to add a roommate is essentially concerned with the same issues as would a landlord and thus could use the same techniques in many instances.

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