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Protecting Yourself Financially When Sharing an Apartment

By Rylie O’Brien

Zach Stouffer, like many renters, knows how misunderstood leases can be.

 Stouffer, a Kennesaw State University senior, said he has been involved with roommates through multiple rentals who have been frustrating and expensive. 

Stouffer dealt with one roommate who brought a dog into the apartment which caused numerous problems, he said.

“The dog just tore up everything and pretty much all the door frames,” Stouffer said, adding they were not allowed to have a dog in the apartment. 

But according to the lease, all roommates were jointly accountable for the damages and payments. When Stouffer asked the roommate for help for repairs, the roommate at fault took no responsibility. 

“My other roommates and I had to physically go in and fix the door frames, when it should have been the roommate with the dog fixing them,” Stouffer said.

A signed roommate agreement between renters sharing an apartment, detailing responsibilities and financial obligations can prevent such problems, according to Sherle Brown, a financial planning, housing and consumer economics instructor at the University of Georgia.

Brown said such an agreement is between those sharing the rent and does not involve the landlord. “It has to be started before you get into the roommate situation and must meet the definition of a contract to be legally binding,” she said. 

Such an agreement can be downloaded for free, but Brown advised to be careful of the source and the wording.

“A roommate agreement would be pretty nice, and I wish I had done that in the past,” Stouffer said. “I think that should be a priority for people that are just getting into renting.”

Brown said there are typically three types of leases, but the one used has to do with the particular laws where the property is located and the preferences of the landlord.

Brown explained that one type of lease typically is used by professional management companies for college students in which each roommate is responsible for only their portion of the rent as defined in the lease. In effect, there are separate leases for each roommate. 

In a joint lease, roommates share the total expenses equally and all are accountable. The most common lease is a type which states the landlord can collect money from one roommate alone or from all, Brown said.

Roommates can run into trouble if they don’t understand the type of lease that was signed, Brown said.

 “If one roommate skips out on the rent, utilities, or causes damage, the landlord can go after the ‘good’ roommate and fully collect everything due,” she said, if that is allowed in the lease.

Kimberly Skobba, a financial planning, housing and consumer economics assistant professor at the University of Georgia, warned if utilities are not included in the rent, the power company does not care who in the household has not paid their portion of the bill. 

“Whoever’s name the account is under is ultimately responsible even if the others don’t pay,” Skobba said. The roommate who signed up for a utility often does not realize the financial responsibility shifts to them and that their credit can be impacted if the bill is not paid, Skobba said. 

Bills, documents and signed roommate agreements can be used to resolve monetary disputes between roommates in small claims court, Brown said. Although it can be time consuming, Brown said, small claims court can be an inexpensive way to recover money a roommate owes. 

“You don’t even need an attorney,” Brown said.

 

Rylie O’Brien is a journalism student at the University of Georgia

 

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