Joint and Several Liability in Leases: Protecting Yourself in a Shared Rental

Joint and Several Liability in Leases: Protecting Yourself in a Shared Rental

Renting a property with roommates is a cost-effective way to have your own private space but still avoid shouldering the costs of housing on your own. Still, it is a major commitment—the terms of your lease spell out your exact rights and obligations, but many tenants simply give their lease a quick look before they sign it and move on. One question that you should ask before signing is if you and your roommates have joint and several liability for the lease. We’ll explain what this means, the risks of it, and how you can protect yourself as a renter.

What is Joint and Several Liability?

Joint and several liability is the legal idea that multiple parties are held responsible for the terms of a contract—in this case, a lease. It means that each roommate in a rental is individually responsible for the rent, utilities, and damages caused to the unit. It also means that the tenants as a group are responsible for fulfilling the terms of the contract.

When you have roommates, you generally think of yourself as responsible for just your share of the rent. But if your roommates do not pay their share, the landlord can hold any and all of you responsible for it. If you get stuck with a bunch of irresponsible roommates, you could be held liable for the entirety of the rent.

The Risks of Joint and Several Liability

One of the main risks of joint and several liability is the chance of being held liable for your roommates’ actions or financial failures. When you don’t uphold your end of a rental contract, you aren’t just risking being kicked out of your rental. You can also be taken to court, legally evicted, and forced to pay back rent, fees, penalties, and your landlord’s attorney fees.

It’s not just an issue of unpaid rent, either. If your roommate kicks a hole in the wall in a drunken rage, that can come out of your security deposit. If they bring in a pet in violation of the no-pet policy and that pet causes thousands of dollars in urine damages, you could be sued for that damage.

This often comes down to who has the most to lose. When one roommate doesn’t care if their credit takes a hit or they have no chance of finding another place to rent in the future, they have no incentive to pay what they owe or avoid causing damage. If you—the person who did not cause the damage or rack up the debt—want to protect your credit and avoid an eviction on your record, the landlord knows they have a good chance of recovering their losses from you.

Protecting Your Best Interests in a Shared Rental

Despite the fact that joint and several liability has its risks, the vast majority of shared housing agreements do make all tenants jointly and severally liable. You can take some precautions to protect your financial and legal interests:

  • Choose your roommates carefully: Not only will you be living with this person for at least a year, but their choices during that year could have legal and financial consequences for you. Don’t just pick whoever’s available or whoever is fun to hang out with. Pick someone who is reliable and trustworthy.
  • Discuss what type of living arrangement you want before signing a lease: Talk about pets, chores, rent payment arrangements, how closely they generally follow the limitations of a lease, and their move-out procedures. The good news is that people who are careless with their rentals or don’t take that responsibility seriously are often loud about it, talking about it in a joking manner. This allows you to stay far, far away.
  • Draft a written agreement: Create a written contract covering rent payments, the division of the security deposit, all parties’ rights and responsibilities, dispute resolution mechanisms, and ways to recover lost funds. This way, if you end up paying out-of-pocket for your roommate’s rent, you can at least hold them accountable in court.
  • Consider separate leases: Landlords aren’t always open to separate leases; it’s more work for them and they have to vet their applicants more carefully. But if they are, definitely look into that option. Separate leases are often more common in areas with lots of college students.

There are risks that come with joint and several liability. With a little planning, and potentially the help of an Annapolis real estate attorney, you can protect your best interests and credit.