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Legal VIEW

Lease Goes On When Roommates Split

May 09, 1985|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

A Los Angeles woman, who is living in a rented apartment with a girlfriend, wants to know about the rights and obligations she and her friend have to their landlord--and to each other.

Both women signed the lease. Now, one of them wants to move out before the lease expires in September. If the woman who is left can't find someone to move in to replace her friend, will she be on the hook for the full amount of the rent, or can she continue to pay her one-half share and stay in the apartment?

Since both tenants signed the lease, they are each liable for the rent. In other words, the landlord can collect the full rent from either one. And you can be sure that once one of the tenants moves out, the landlord will expect and demand the other one to continue paying the full rent or face eviction.

The woman who is left holding the bag--that is, the apartment--would, once she paid the landlord, probably be able to collect half of the rent from her departed friend--if she could find her. And if she had the time to take her to small claims court.

Once the woman who is staying explains to her friend that each of them is equally responsible for the rent, perhaps the friend will agree to stay put until the lease expires.

Another option would be for both roommates to move out. But first, the tenants will have to find someone else to move in. You can usually get out of a lease if you can find someone to move in to take your place. You can sublease the premises through the end of your lease, but even then, you will still be technically responsible for the rent if the subleasee walks.

Better yet, this tenant may be able to persuade the landlord to terminate the lease and enter into a new lease with a suggested replacement. (The landlord may be more likely to do that if he can raise the rent a bit for the new tenant.)

If these women can't stand to be in the same place anymore and both simply walk out, they will be jointly responsible for the remainder of the rent on the lease, and the landlord can sue either or both of them. However, the landlord has a legal duty to "mitigate" his damages, so the former tenants will only be obligated to pay for rent until he finds a new tenant to move in. (And he has to try to find one.)

It doesn't look as if it's going to be much fun for our friendly roommates, does it?

There are lots of other problems that can arise when two or more people decide to rent a place together. What if only one of them signed the lease? What if they hate each other, but both love the apartment? How much notice should a roommate give when he or she intends to move?

Most of these questions do not have strictly legal answers. They depend on the roommates' original intentions. That's why when two friends or acquaintances decide to share a house or apartment, they should give serious thought to the legal relationship they are creating.

The "California Tenants Handbook," a self-help law book published by Nolo Press, has a worthwhile discussion of this touchy subject and even includes a sample agreement form--in simple, understandable English--for roommates to sign. You may not agree with all of the suggestions--such as a coin toss to determine who, after a dispute, gets to stay in the apartment you both adore.

But the point is: It is extremely useful to consider potential disputes long in advance--before emotions run high and before you sign the lease.

Once potential problems are discussed and ironed out, you will probably have a much more stable household.

Or you may even decide that it's safer to live alone.

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