Q: Until recently, my daughter was in a rental situation that was downright dangerous. Her roommates turned out to be inconsiderate and mean, and when they drank, they were violent. My daughter was afraid for her safety and moved out, after explaining the situation to the landlord and giving him the keys. The roommates are demanding that she pay her share of the rent, and the landlord doesn’t want to get involved. What should we do? –Eric S.
A: Let’s start with the basics. Assuming all roommates are on the lease, each one is "jointly and severally" responsible for the rent. If a roommate leaves, this means that the landlord can demand the rent from those who remain. As far as the landlord is concerned, if the remaining residents can cover the rent, what does he care if one has left? If the remaining roommates are managing to pay the rent, that’s probably why the landlord is unconcerned.
Now, suppose the remaining residents can’t come up with the whole rent, and haven’t proposed a new roommate to take your daughter’s place: The landlord will give them a pay-or-quit notice, and evict them if they do neither. He can’t name your daughter in an eviction lawsuit, because she is already gone. Practically speaking, if the roommates stay and go through an eviction lawsuit, it’s their names on the pleadings, not your daughter’s. Your daughter remains just as responsible as any of the tenants for the rent, but in order to get it from her, the landlord would have to go after her in small claims court. Why bother, when there is a quicker method at hand — the eviction process — which will accomplish the landlord’s twin goals: to quickly get non-rent-paying tenants out of the property, and a judgment for past rent, if there is any.
Leaving under these circumstances does have a downside, however. Your daughter may get a negative review from this landlord when she goes to get another rental. That’s why it’s a good idea to approach the landlord and explain that it isn’t safe for her to remain. At this point, you have put the landlord on notice that there’s a dangerous situation on his property, and under the laws of most states, he now has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the tenant at risk. In this situation, the reasonable response is to let your daughter leave legally by formally terminating her rental agreement. This situation is akin to the relatively new domestic violence laws, which some 20 states now have on the books. Landlords in these states are obliged to let the victim move (among other things) when there’s a bona fide (and reported) situation of domestic violence.
Keep in mind that the landlord, if he’s handling his own evictions, might name your daughter in an eviction proceeding, not realizing that he shouldn’t. She can get out of the lawsuit, but it will require a lawyer. And there will be a record of her having been named in the suit. This notation in her rental history could be a problem down the line, because no law forbids a landlord from automatically rejecting an applicant who has an eviction in her past, even one that was dismissed by the court or that she righteously won.
Finally, it’s possible (though unlikely) that your daughter’s ex-roommates would take her to small claims court for her share of the rent. Her defense could be that their actions effectively shut her out of the rental, making it impossible for her to live there. In other words, such outrageous behavior should destroy the roommates’ right to insist on your daughter’s rent contribution. Of course, a dispute like this will be a matter of what they say against what she says. If you find yourselves in this situation, marshal as much evidence of the roommates’ rowdy and violent behavior as you can find (such as reports from disturbed neighbors). …CONTINUED
Q: I have a rental agreement in which the tenants are co-tenants. One of the co-tenants has lived in the house for two-plus years and the other for one month. They have given their 30 days’ notice, although one tenant has already left the property. She claims she left the property sparkling clean and is not responsible for what the other tenant does in the meantime. How will I handle the damages and cleaning at the end of our contract? –Marco S.
A: Stop worrying. If both tenants were on the rental agreement, both are responsible for leaving the place clean and undamaged.
Best of all, it is not up to you to attempt to divine who did what when. That is courtesy of a legal principle known as joint and several liability. It simply means that any one of your two co-tenants may be required — by you or a judge — to pay for all the damage and even all the rent. How the two co-tenants split up the responsibility and the attendant bill is between them.
When the second tenant moves out, conduct your inspection and deduct from the deposit only those sums necessary to cover unpaid rent and damage and cleaning beyond normal wear and tear. You can safely split the balance and send half to each. Or if you cannot locate the one, you can give the entire sum to the other whose whereabouts you know.
This ought to teach your tenants, especially the newcomer, a valuable lesson. When joining an existing tenancy, it behooves the new tenant to ask the landlord to conduct an inspection when he or she moves in, to avoid being charged for pre-existing damage. Or, at least have a candid discussion with the pre-existing tenants about damage that the newbie sees at move-in. A written agreement among all tenants, in which the existing tenants agree to cover the damage, will be invaluable evidence for any tenant who ends up paying the landlord and wants to go after former co-tenants in court.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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