How many times have you heard that proposal being made among friends? It is a living arrangement that once was mostly reserved for college students, graduates and other young adults who wanted to save on rent until they moved into more permanent lodgings. Now, it’s an increasingly popular option for 30-something singles and older adults who want to cut living expenses.
The financial advantages seem obvious; yet, are today’s roommates completely thinking things through before co-signing a lease? Do they recognize the challenges that come with sharing a living space long-term, with fairly splitting utility bills, and with dealing with someone else’s leftovers stinking up the refrigerator on a regular basis?
Landlords confront their own issues when multiple tenants share one rented space. For instance:
- Should there be one lease or two?
- Should there be one rent check or two?
- Should background checks be performed on one or all tenants?
And the one, loaded question that worries landlords who seek stability for their rental properties: What happens if one roommate decides to move out?
How common is the roommate situation?
Today’s relationships are fluid, with adults doubling up now more than ever. Numbers from U.S. Census Bureau reports show a dramatic decrease in the number of traditional, married couple households and an increase in unrelated, or non-family, households.
In Chicago, according to a report in the Illinois-based publication, My Suburban Life, 36 percent of working adults now share a rental unit with roommates. The report noted that 32 percent of 23-to-65-year-olds share a household with other adults, compared to 25 percent in 2000.
The shrinking of the nation’s middle class and dips in household income since 1999 – along with the return of multi-generational families and social acceptance of unmarried couples living together – has meant that household configurations are less predictable.
In areas where rents are high or there is a housing shortage, living with a roommate is a common solution. As a result, landlords today commonly receive rental applications from such groups as a married couple and the wife’s brother, or three adults who are friends or work colleagues.
What do roommates need to consider?
Sharing is the key concept here. Yes, having a roommate means only owing half the rent bill, but it also means having access to the oven or laundry facilities only half the time, too. Choosing a roommate is like choosing a family member, and we all know that families come with friction. The most important means for minimizing household strife is communication.
Roommates must discuss, in advance of moving in, how costs will be split, how furniture will be arranged, and how cleaning, parking and use of common areas – including that major trigger point the ‘fridge – will be handled. This often is an ongoing conversation as the relationship evolves; the best roommate relationships rely on regularly discussing living arrangements.
Online tools for tackling shared space abound. Roomsketcher.com, for example, offers an interactive furniture arranger to test whether it really is possible for both roommates to have their sofas in the rental unit living room. Then, there’s Thekitchn.com, which lays out easy rules for divvying up shelves in a refrigerator so roommates can store food and leftovers in their own space as well as easily identify if the gross smell is coming from their shelf or their roommate’s.
What should the landlord keep in mind?
When two or more adults propose living together as roommates, the landlord has several issues to consider:
- Should each roommate be screened?
- Will the roommates be equally responsible for the rent?
- Will any of the roommates be allowed to move out, leaving the remaining tenants on the hook for the remainder of a lease?
Every adult who will be a tenant should be listed on one, shared lease, whether it is a married couple or two or more unrelated individuals. And a background check should be performed on every adult, including adult children living in the unit. (In the case of adult children, the parents may opt to be listed as the tenants who are responsible for rent, but everyone 18 and older should be screened so that troublesome records are revealed before a lease is signed.)
Landlords can make sure that each roommate understands he or she is equally responsible for rent and other costs by attaching a roommate addendum to the lease. Each tenant should sign the lease and addenda, and then the landlord may make several copies of the single lease with addenda to share with each roommate.
The roommate addendum also sets the tone for a good roommate relationship. In listing how common areas are to be shared, the landlord eliminates some potential conflict between the roommates. The addendum can be as brief or as comprehensive as the landlord wants and as the situation seems to require. Too much detail may interfere with a healthy relationship between roommates; on the other hand, a lack of guidance can put the landlord in the uncomfortable position of having to referee roommate differences.
While an addendum can explain that all tenants are responsible for rent, utilities and fees, the landlord can also help by sharing online tools that roommates can use as a guide as they figure out, among themselves, their exact share of those costs.
Finally, in spite of landlords’ worries about one roommate moving out and leaving rent unpaid, all roommates are equally responsible for honoring the lease and paying rent on time. One roommate can’t just decide to move out and expect to be off the hook for rent. Naturally, relationships change over time. Just as some marriages end in divorce, roommates sometimes do “break up.” If that happens, and a tenant wishes to move out, it is up to all roommates to propose an amendment to the lease. The landlord has the right to accept or reject such an amendment; after all, the lease is a legal contract between the landlord and all of the original roommates.
Overall, leasing to roommates can be successful, provided the roommates have given plenty of thought to equal responsibility for their living arrangement, and the landlord creates a lease that spells out all those responsibilities.