All 50 states have very specific landlord-tenant laws that cover every aspect of renting, assigning specific rights and responsibilities to both the landlord and the tenant. When a person rents a house or an apartment, the terms of the agreement are fairly clear, even if verbal because of strict statutes. But when roommates move into the mix, that clarity can soon become clouded and the roommate can end of in court, or worse—homeless.
Landlord-tenant laws date back to England in the Middle Ages and were written to control land conveyance rather than housing rental. The landlord-tenant laws we know today began in the 1960s, sparked over concerns with appalling housing conditions, particularly when poor tenants lived in substandard housing; however, these early laws focused on protecting the landlords. It was not until the 1980s that tenants' rights were made stronger by legislation.
Many states' landlord-tenant laws allow a tenant to have one roommate without obtaining permission from the landlord and without the tenant having to pay an increase in rent for having a roommate. But when a roommate is accepted by the tenant, that roommate’s name is not on the lease signed with the owner of the home; therefore, he has no legal standing if his residency is challenged.
Let’s say you rent a room in a luxury home from a person who rents the house from the absent owner. All goes well for a few months, but then the tenant, who is named on the lease with the owner, loses his job and stops making rent payments but continues to collect rent from the roommate. The homeowner, the true landlord, files in court to evict the tenant and wins. The roommate who has dutifully paid his room rent every month is evicted because he never had a contract with the homeowner. But what can a roommate do to ensure he does have rights the same as a contractually bound tenant? If you become a roommate, do so only after reading the following:
Meet with the landlord and ask your name be included on the lease.
Establish written house rules, including pets and use of common areas.
Always pay rent by check, but if you must pay in cash, get receipts.
Rights in General
There are two types of rental agreements roommates can enter into, a verbal, which is a month to month, and a written lease with a start and ending date, usually six months or a year. Whichever applies, a roommate’s rights remain the same. In a roommate situation, the tenant is renting a designated bedroom, and unless otherwise stated in a written contract, that tenant also has the right to other common areas of the house or apartment. Do the right thing and have every roommate named on the lease with the landlord. But if one or more or the roommates stops paying their share, the remaining roommates are individually and collectively responsible for paying the full amount or face eviction.
Assuming the roommate is paying on time and not breaking any of the rules, that tenant has the right to peacefully enjoy the property. Other tenant rights include:
Privacy: Landlords cannot enter a tenant’s house or apartment for routine inspections unless they give written notification. This law also applies to a roommate's room but in some states to a lessor degree.
Unlawful Eviction: Just like a tenant who rents a house from a landlord, a roommate tenant has the right not to be thrown out of his residence without a court order. This is the situation that every landlord dreads: an unruly roommate who ignores the rules and has stopped paying rent. Even that roommate cannot be evicted without first filing with the court.
Constructive Eviction: Even though roommates must also follow the law by giving the landlord adequate notice prior to leaving (usually 30 days), that can be circumvented if the landlord fails to provide basic services that render the property uninhabitable. Water, heat and sanitary conditions are all examples of such conditions.
Get it in Writing
Regardless of the type of rental agreement you have, it is always best to have the terms of the lease in writing. Written leases serve as direct and indisputable evidence in court. Even if a landlord places certain conditions in the agreement that may seem too restrictive, if they violate state law, they are not enforceable.