It’s a month before graduation and you have just found out that both you and your college BF/GF have landed jobs in the same city. Now the big question is, should you look for an apartment together? And if you do, what are the relationship and legal issue to consider before you take this big step? Cohabiting (the formal term) is more common than ever. According to research by the CDC, close 75% of women under 30 say they have lived with a partner outside of marriage, so you certainly are not alone dealing with the question.
We were recently interviewed by US News and World Report about the topic and we’ve covered it before, but the issue is timely enough to merit a fresh post. To review the related legal issues we brought in Donna Petrucelli (firstname.lastname@example.org), an attorney and broker with Douglas Elliman in NYC, while our blogger Alex Starace will talk about the relationship aspects.
What should you watch for when signing a lease?
Alex: If the two of you are in a studio or one-bedroom and end up breaking up, it’s not as simple as just swapping in a new roommate. So, be prepared. Before you sign the lease, see what the terms are for breaking it. Some management companies will allow it if you pay a penalty and/or find a new renter. Also, make sure both of your names are on the lease.
Donna: Yes, usually your legal rights are very limited if your name is not on the lease. If, for example, the person whose name is on the lease moves out, or the lease terminates, the landlord does not have to allow the roommate whose name was not on the lease to remain in the residence.
However, in some situations, you could also use this to your advantage: if your name is not on the lease, you can move out and the landlord cannot go after you for your share of the rent.
Alex: If you live together in a bigger apartment, where each resident could plausibly have his or her own room, make sure there’s language that allows you to swap roommates. Some management companies will want to personally vet the new roommate, but that’s a good thing – you’ll know you’re getting someone who can pay. And most companies will allow you to make such a switch.
Donna: Leases usually have a clause in them that makes each tenant/roommate “jointly and severally” liable for the rent. That means that each tenant named on the lease is responsible for paying not only his/her share of the rent but the entire rent if the other roommate fails to pays his/her share. To minimize your liability, you would want to have a clause that states you are liable for only your share of the rent – this is referred to as “several liability” or “individual liability.”
What happens, then, if you actually break up?
Alex: It’s emotionally difficult. I think that’s the hardest part – you’ve shared a space together, and now what should be your home feels poisonous and tainted.
Donna: You need to read the lease to see what it says about early termination of the lease. However, in most cases the tenants will probably by “jointly and severally liable” for the lease payments and, therefore, each party would still be liable for the full amount of the lease payments until the lease term expires. In this case, the landlord can sue one or both of the tenants for the full amount remaining on the lease.
Alex: I would say, though, that getting sued is unlikely if you’re at all conscious of your legal responsibilities. The mechanics of what you do in the event of a break-up depend a lot on the specifics of each case – it’s a headache, and it’s difficult to deal with, but the actual break-up is (I would hope) the real heartache.
There are tons of practical options, and what you can do depends on what your lease says and how forgiving your landlord is. I’ve known couples where one of them finds an incredibly small studio, and then they add the price of the studio and the shared apartment and divide by two, and each pay that much per month. It’s a good way for both of you to get your separate space until the lease expires. Or, you could see about subletting your place. Or, if you have a big enough space, you can find a new roommate and one of you move out. It just depends on the case.