One of the best ways for renters to find a good deal in San Diego is to share an apartment or house with roommates instead of living alone. Where a typical one-bedroom apartment may cost $1,050, splitting the cost of a two-bedroom unit can bring each roommate’s share of the bill closer to $850. For many people, that $200 savings is worth the inconvenience of having to share a kitchen and a living room.
Choosing to live with a roommate, however, may be a greater financial risk, especially if you have not carefully vetted your roommate. When you sign a lease with another person, you are entering into a binding financial agreement with both that person and the landlord. It’s a decision that should be taken carefully, especially when you consider that most leases assign “joint and several liability” to the tenants. That’s a legal term that essentially means everyone and anyone on the lease can be held liable for any and all money owed.
In practice, this means that if you’ve been paying your rent on time every month but your roommate hasn’t, the landlord has the right to collect the entire amount of the unpaid rent from you. It also means that if your roommate throws a party while you’re away and the partygoers damage a wall, both you and your roommate can be held responsible for the cost of repairs. If your roommate moves out and doesn’t find a suitable replacement, you could be on the hook for the entire rent amount.
The shared liability built into leases with multiple tenants can also complicate things when it comes time to return the deposit. Landlords typically prefer to return the deposit in one payment to one tenant after the home has been vacated. Few landlords are willing to cut separate checks or mediate disagreements between tenants over who paid what when they moved in. You should be able to trust that your chosen roommate will return your fair share of the deposit when you move out.
Speaking of security deposits, keep in mind that a renter’s insurance policy may cover unintentional damage. If you choose to live with a roommate, talk to your insurance agent about whether to list your roommate as an “additional insured” on your renter’s policy or whether it’s better for each roommate to get their own insurance policy.
Many renters are naturally inclined to choose a roommate they already know and trust, such as a friend, family member or coworker. This is often a better idea than picking a stranger from Craigslist, but be careful about assuming someone will be a good roommate just because they’re a good friend. Aside from questions about how well a friend maintains their home, you should also have a good understanding of how well they manage their money. Whether you’re considering living with a stranger or someone you know, indicators like credit history, rent-to-income ratio and positive references are all worth considering.
This column is intended to illustrate situations renters may face when choosing to live with roommates. It is not intended to serve as legal advice. If you are in a dispute or need legal counsel, please contact a lawyer.
— Alan Pentico is executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association.