Virtually every business has seasons of peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows. If you are an attorney with a landlord/tenant practice, October is roommate remorse season, especially in the Philadelphia area.
The Philadelphia area is home to a number of colleges and universities within a reasonable driving distance, and many (most?) of the students at these institutions choose to live in off-campus housing, generally renting an apartment or a house.
Many of these students, in order to save money and/or to enjoy the college experience with others, have roommates with which to share the costs of rent and other living expenses. Unfortunately, many of these students either have an unexpected crisis, have second thoughts on the college experience (or at the very least, have second thoughts on living away from home), and/or did not vet their potential roommates very well.
When the above-issues arise, it seems most often in October, which is about 6 to 8 weeks into the college/university academic year, which causes at least one of the roommates in a living situation to reevaluate his decision to live with his roommates and/or in this particular property and/or away from home at all.
The legal issue at play here is the effect that all of this roommate drama has on leases. Most of the time, the roommates all execute the same lease to become co-lessees of the same property, commonly called a leasehold. Leases for college students generally last a year in order to allow the tenants time to complete their studies.
Here is a common scenario: let us say three Drexel co-eds elect to room together in an apartment off campus. They all move in together sometime in August in time for the academic year to begin. Around October something happens; for example: one of the girls clearly is not getting along with the other two; or one of the girls realizes college (or perhaps Drexel) is not for her; or one of the girls loses her job; or one of the girls must return home because of a family crisis; or the roommate that was her friend takes on a whole new and unexpected dimension now that they live together; or really any number of unexpected things like this. When something like this happens, one of the roommates will very often simply bail out of the leasehold. So, in the scenario above, let us say that one of the three Drexel co-eds realizes that college is just not for her. What does she do then? Well, very often she will simply apologize to her roommates, pack up her stuff, load up a U-Haul, and head back home. As a result, the lease for the leasehold, which had three tenants sign, is now being paid for and fulfilled by only two. An important thing to remember is this: the roommate who left is as equally responsible for the lease as the two remaining roommates regardless of her leaving. Very often, the rent intended to be shared by three roommates now cannot be afforded by only two roommates.
What remedies do the two remaining roommates have? Initially, they could ask their landlord to allow them to break their lease early and without penalty. Many landlords, especially those near college and universities, have seen sets of roommates implode before and just consider it as a cost-of-doing-business as a landlord of college students. If the landlord refuses to allow the lease to be broken, the remaining roommates will be left in a much more difficult situation. If the remaining roommates can ensure the rent and expenses are paid in full and on time, then they have won at least half the battle as they will not have conflict with the landlord (or at least not regarding these issues). The remaining roommates are free to sue the roommate who left for breaching the lease and request her share of the rent that she would have paid had she remained. If the remaining roommates cannot afford the rent and expenses, they will likely be sued by the landlord for the unpaid sums as well as for their eviction. If this happens, the landlord will, in all likelihood, sue all three roommates regardless of whether one left. The remaining roommates have the right to file cross claims against the roommate who left in an attempt to deflect at least part of their liability to the landlord to the roommate who left. This does not mean that the remaining roommates will not be liable to the landlord, it merely means they can pursue the landlord who leaves to try and recoup their losses to the landlord.
Now, it is worth pointing out that the above example is what happens when someone bails on a lease. Sometimes one roommate makes living with the other roommate so miserable for the other roommate that he is forced to leave. Unfortunately, the roommate who is the “victim” in this scenario is still a party to a lease regardless of whether his roommate made things unbearable. Therefore, if the “victim” leaves, he will still be liable for his share of the rent and expenses both to the landlord and his former roommate. Indeed, if roommates do not get along, that is no reason why an innocent landlord ought not receive the rent he contracted to receive. The “victim” roommate’s remedy is to try and prove in landlord/tenant court that his roommate made the leasehold unreasonably uninhabitable, but even this is generally frowned upon and a difficult basis on which to win, especially as it is often devolves into a “he said / she said” situation.
Naturally, all of this is unwelcome stress and hassle and should serve as a cautionary tale. When someone chooses roommates, it is wise for the students to fully evaluate and vet them as much as possible in order to do their best to avoid unfortunately situations as described above. It is also important to go into these situations with eyes wide open to the distinct possibility that one roommate may be left holding the bag (i.e.: the responsibilities under the lease) after his roommate(s) bails on him. Finally, when entering into a lease with roommates, it may be worth attempting, along with the landlord, to draft/couch the lease in terms which specifically lay out the responsibilities of each tenant. For example, if rent is $1000 for four roommates, it would be helpful, if the landlord allows it, to specifically indicate each roommate is liable for $250 per month in order to limit potential liability in the future.