Should You Make a Roommate Contract?

by | Feb 12, 2018 | CONTRACTS | 3 comments

Los Angeles’ persistent population growth has led to an increased need for housing and high real estate prices.  Per the LA Housing and Community Investment Department, nearly 60% of all Angelinos are renters.[1] With Los Angeles rents consistently higher than the rest of the county, many are choosing to take on roommates to cut their monthly expenses.  In a renter’s market, cohabitation and roommate agreements set forth the rights and obligations of co-tenants to save time and money should a future event end the relationship or co-tenancy.

After scouring craigslist ads for roommates and surrendering the annual fees for an apartment search, many LA renters view signing a lease in LA as the finish line. Whether living with a partner or just a group of friends, a cohabitation/roommate agreement can help establish the terms of your relationship to avoid future conflict and allow for a peaceful living environment.  Conflicts are avoided from the start since each party’s role has been clearly defined.

Many people might be apprehensive of outlining a relationship in writing because they don’t want to think about the end of a special relationship or don’t want to risk damaging a new friendship.  To the contrary, cohabitation or roommate agreements are more likely to help relationships by setting forth the terms of splitting finances, space and even household chores.

I. Isn’t A Lease Enough?

I’ve had many people seek my counsel for damages related to a broken relationship/friendship and household finances.  Most incorrectly believe that a lease agreement is sufficient to hold a partner/friend responsible for obligations after moving out. A cohabitation or roommate agreement, on the other hand, if established prior to the partner/roommate moving out, would allow for the recovery of rent owed, rather than being stuck with a now very expensive one-tenant apartment.

Most people believe a lease is enough to hold other parties responsible for their fair share of the rent.  This is a mistaken belief easily dispelled of with basic contract law.  The parties to the contract are you, your roommate(s) if they sign, and the landlord.  The lease is a contract only between a landlord and tenants, not an agreement between tenants themselves.

Due to a legal concept called joint and several liability, which allows a plaintiff to sue for and recover the full amount of recoverable damages from any defendant, regardless of a particular defendant’s percentage share of fault, a landlord can seek FULL rent from any one of you individually.  This means if you end a relationship, if your roommate gets a great job in Australia or if your roommate has a hard time getting a job in LA and decides to move home, you exclusively can be liable for their rental payment.

Although you and your roommates are working together to establish a stable and comfortable living environment, you need to be protected individually.  A roommate agreement drafted by an attorney can limit the potential liability of each party for any acts or omissions of the other.

II. What Does the Agreement Cover?

The agreement contains terms to protect you if your roommate screws-up, i.e., not paying rent, throwing a huge party, causing damage to the apartment, making enough noise to get you evicted, or causing harm to another arising to a level of tort liability (lawsuit).

Your agreement with your roommate can cover the following items:

  • What does everyone pay, when, and who writes the check to the landlord?
  • What room/space everyone will occupy.
  • Household chores. You can create a schedule for joint-cleaning tasks such as dishes or taking out the garbage.
  • Food sharing. Will you separate your groceries or combine funding for a free-for-all fridge?
  • Parties? Loud music/TV? During which times?  Vital term for students.
  • Overnight guests. Is it okay for boyfriends/girlfriends to stay over? How often?
  • Moving out. Should you give each other notice before your move? Will the departing roommate have to find a substitute roommate?  What approval process for future roommates will be used? Partial rent payment owed if they move in the middle of the month?
  • How will you handle fights among yourselves about your living arrangement? (Be realistic, it is going to happen.) What if one of you wants the other to leave? Can you come up with a resolution both of you think is fair?
  • Tort liability. Terms to hold each party responsible for their own acts and omissions.  Who is responsible for damages?  What if you can’t determine which roommate caused the damages?  Do all share the expense?

One point to note is that you cannot evict a roommate, this can only be done by a landlord. Co-tenants cannot force one another out of the apartment unless they violate a term of the physical lease.  Remember that a lease violation will mean ALL roommates may be subject to eviction.  Do not assume the landlord will pity you and let you stay.

Having an agreement in place will help you settle disputes with your roommate by having a clear plan for resolution, saving you time and money in the future.

III. Special Relationship Cohabitation Agreements

People in a special, loving relationship with one another may lawfully contract regarding their rights and duties during cohabitation.  The parties cannot contract for sexual services.  This makes the contract void as against public policy and has been the law in CA since the late 1800s.[2]  Since the parties are not married, they do not have the same community property rights as married couples under California Family Law [3], but they have the option to contract and give each other those rights through a cohabitation agreement.

Cohabitation agreements between those in a special relationship differ from simple roommate agreements.[4]

The terms may include real property purchased during the relationship, household expenses, and ownership of big ticket items purchased during the relationship such as cars, 4K televisions, iPads, and jewelry.  The parties may also contract for palimony (think “pal-money”) for support after the relationship terminates or if one of the parties pass away.

If you are unsure of your future but intend to cohabitate with a partner, establishing a cohabitation agreement together can assist in preserving your rights and giving you a base to pursue litigation if you suffer damages from the sudden end of your relationship.

IV. Can I Just Print an Agreement Online?

Well, anyone can print an agreement online if they have a printer.  The problem with online templates from free websites is that they often leave out key legal provisions necessary to make the agreement valid and enforceable.  Just imagine printing a contract online, signing it with your partner/friend, a dispute occurs months or years later, you pay the $400+ filing fee, attorney costs and head to court, only for the judge to dismiss your case due to an invalid contract.  You get what you pay for, and often, nothing turns out to be nothing.

Hiring an attorney to assist in drafting a simple cohabitation/roommate agreement won’t break the bank or drain your wallet.  Depending on the assets and complexity of the relationship, most agreements can be drafted in just a few hours. For a minimal fee, you can protect yourself against future misfortune with an agreement that clearly sets forth the terms of your relationship and limits your liability while stabilizing your future and affording peace of mind.

[1] http://hcidla.lacity.org/renters

[2] Owens v. McNally (1896) 113 Cal. 444, 45 P. 710

[3] http://bit.ly/2iv5dNx

[4] Marvin v. Marvin (1976) 18 Cal.3d 660, 134 Cal.Rptr. 815, 557 P.2d 106