How to Avoid Roommate Regret (NYT)

This really isn't just for recent college graduates in New York City -- it applies equally well to young people who come to Vermont for college and decide to stay after graduation. Many of them become ski bums, ski patrollers, and general outdoor enthusiasts. But, no matter where you live, if having a roommate makes it possible for you to afford a nicer, larger, and more expensive place, this article offers good advice. FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES | GETTING STARTED

By SUSAN STELLIN Published: May 19, 2011

How to Avoid Roommate Regret

IF you are a recent college graduate, you may think your roommate days are behind you. But in New York, where real estate is expensive and in short supply, there’s a very good chance you will be sharing an apartment well into your professional years.

As many sharers can attest, living with someone can lead to stony standoffs over air-conditioner settings, music volume and dirty dishes, ultimately ending in a messy split. So before you rent a U-Haul and start packing up boxes, here are some things you should know about your rights and responsibilities in a roommate situation.

Whether you will be living with your best friend, a stranger you met through Craigslist or the person you hope to marry, it is wise to consider taking a formal approach to a relationship that you might be tempted to treat casually.

Most apartments come with a lease, and the person with his or her name on it is the primary tenant. Whether the roommate’s name should also be on the lease is an interesting question. “From the tenant’s point of view,” said David Ratner, a real estate lawyer with Hartman, Ule, Rose & Ratner in Manhattan, “you want to keep as little in writing as you possibly can, in case it doesn’t work out. Once you put somebody on the lease, they’re not a roommate anymore, they’re a co-tenant.”

But if you are the roommate and want the stability of knowing you can stay in the apartment if the other person leaves, you should ask to be added to the lease, though you may have to wait until it comes up for renewal.

If the primary tenant balks at that request, or the landlord does not want to add a tenant, you should at least sign a roommate agreement that outlines the terms of your arrangement with the primary tenant, Mr. Ratner said.

Even if you are not going to be added to the lease, you should ask for a copy. That way you will know what the total rent is, when the lease expires and what the rules are regarding things like painting or pets.

Janet Portman, an author of “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” (Nolo, 2009), says a roommate agreement should cover how much rent each person will pay, who’s responsible for the security deposit and for paying the landlord, how utilities will be handled and whether the arrangement is for a specific period of time or month to month. Ms. Portman, a managing editor of Nolo, said it was also a good idea to address — in a conversation if not in writing — topics like overnight guests, household chores, food sharing, noise and how much notice must be given if one roommate decides to move out. (Nolo has a sample roommate agreement on its Web site.)

“These agreements about things like housekeeping are not legally enforceable,” Ms. Portman said. But the terms pertaining to rent are. “You could take that signed, written agreement to small claims court and say, ‘Look, this is our contract.’ ”

It is possible that as a roommate you will never meet or talk to your landlord. In New York State a tenant is allowed to have a roommate without the landlord’s consent. The lessee is required to notify the landlord of a new occupant within 30 days of that person’s arrival, but the landlord doesn’t get to veto a roommate for reasons of joblessness, lousy credit or other criteria that might be considered when vetting a tenant.

Still, there are rules governing how many people are allowed to occupy an apartment, primarily based on the size of the space, and some places advertised for rent may not be legal for residential use.

“A lot of cheap housing, especially in the outer boroughs, is in buildings that are not zoned for residential use or don’t have a proper certificate of occupancy,” Mr. Ratner said. “At the very least, it’s a good idea to check and see if the prime tenant has a residential lease. But if they don’t, if it’s a commercial lease, that’s certainly a red flag.”

In most places the market dictates what rent you will pay, but that is not always the case in New York. In what is known as a market-rate apartment, you are free to split the rent however you would like — at the risk of engendering bad blood if you are not upfront and the higher-paying roommate finds out about the imbalance. But in New York about 900,000 apartments fall under rent regulation and can be described as either “rent stabilized” or “rent controlled,” meaning the rent by law can rise by only a small percentage each year.

In a rent-regulated apartment, a roommate can be charged only a “proportionate share” of the total rent, which means an even split between the leaseholder and the roommate. “Both parties have to be paying half of the rent,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the executive director of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. “Otherwise, they could be subject to eviction if the owner found out that wasn’t the case.”

Once your name is on the lease, the landlord can hold you responsible for paying the entire rent, regardless of the agreement you have with a roommate or a co-tenant.

“If the roommate doesn’t chip in and you’re going to be late with the rent,” Ms. Portman said, “you’re going to have to cover for your roommate.”

Should the relationship deteriorate, it is more difficult to get rid of a co-tenant whose name is on the lease than someone who has signed only a roommate agreement. But even that process can be messy.

“After the person has been there 30 days, you have to go to court to evict them,” Mr. Ratner said. “Breaking off the relationship is going to be a very difficult and painful thing to do.”

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 22, 2011, on page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Avoid Roommate Regret.]