How to Secure Your Rights as a Roommate

These tips were contributed by Kelly M.

Living with roommates can create a lot of complications, but most of us have to do it at some point. Laying down ground rules is important—and if you’re moving in with someone you don’t know very well, it can also be awkward. Unfortunately, one of the most crucial things to discuss is the one that carries all the light-hearted joie-de-vivre of a prenuptial agreement. Your legal rights in relation to each other can be tricky, and it’s better to sit down at the beginning, crack open a bottle of wine, and make sure everyone’s on the same page than it is to find yourself six months down the line with a disgruntled roommate and two weeks to locate a couch to sleep on.

1) TRY TO GET ON THE LEASE. This may seem obvious, but the only person with a legal right to live in the apartment is the person who signed the lease. If you both signed the lease, you both have an equal right to live in the apartment. Many times, people who find roommates online or through friends set up a casual agreement where the new roommate replaces a departing roommate and no one signs anything. That’s fine, and everyone’s done it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask your roommate if you can get on the lease. If you feel awkward about it, tell the roommate that your dad is making it a condition of him gifting you the security deposit.

2) FIND OUT WHAT YOU CAN ABOUT THE ROOMMATE’S PLANS. If you can’t get on the lease for whatever reason, at least try to figure out what your roommate has in mind for the next few months/year. If he’s an actor, and he gets cast in a touring show, is he going to sublet his room to his most obnoxious friend? He has the right to pack up and bring in a new temporary roommate for you whenever he wants, if you’re not on the lease. If his brother is graduating from college in a few months and they want to live together, he could even kick you out permanently. (Another reason to try to sign that paper.)

3) BE CAREFUL WITH PERMANENT GUESTS. Whether you’re on the lease or not, try to figure out how serious your landlord is about long-term or frequent guests. For instance, if your roommate’s boyfriend is essentially living in your apartment with the two of you, you may be violating the lease. If you’re the one with the permanent friend, your roommate could kick you out (or your friend). If your roommate is the one with the friend, and she’s the only one on the lease, she could technically get evicted and leave you with no rights to the apartment.

4) DON’T OVERCHARGE YOUR ROOMMATE. If you’re the one on the lease, and you find roommates to share your apartment, don’t think you can be greedy and charge them more than their fair share of the rent. If they find out and complain, even if they’re not on the lease, your landlord can evict you. Note: It’s fine to split the rent up along unequal lines and let the person with the better bedroom pay more—just be upfront about it, and have the potential roommate sign something that lays out the total rent as well as everyone’s share of it.

The rules of tenancy in New York City are complicated (you can get a full rundown here). But don’t let the intricacies discourage you—most people have roommates at some point, a lot of those roommates start out as strangers, and most of the “horror stories” aren’t that bad. Just keep in mind that it’s better to be safe than sorry when you’re handing over 30-50% of your monthly income. And after all, once you get the silly legalities out of the way, sharing a bottle of wine with your new roommate is just a good idea.

Ed. note. Also check out our advice on what to include in a Roommate Agreement.

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