As a New York City renter, it’s highly likely that at some point, you’ll end up sharing an apartment with a roommate or roommates. In a perfect world, you will all get along swimmingly, like on “The Big Bang Theory,” but, unfortunately, things can change and relationships can sour.
Maybe it’s because you’re past the party-every-night-until-dawn phase of your life and they’re not, or they’re not keeping up on their portion of the rent or the apartment’s upkeep, or maybe they’re just plain awful. Whatever the reason, you’ll know when it is time to cut ties, which could be a relief to both (or all) of you.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2016. We have updated it with new information for April 2019.]
Fortunately, this scenario is the exception, not the norm.
“Real nightmare roommates do exist,” says Matt Hutchinson of roommate search site SpareRoom, “but for the most part, the other person is an OK person you just don’t happen to be able to live with.”
Here’s an example of what not to do when you need to part ways: When one Brick Underground staffer and her roommates decided to give the boot to an unwanted cohabitant, they did so with little planning, and in the end, it cost them. The problem roommate had been a source of frustration for months, neglecting cleaning responsibilities, arguing about minor design choices, and once, leaving the apartment with an egg cooking on the stove, so that when the others returned home, the living room was filled with smoke.
The final straw was when she gave her boyfriend a copy of the keys to the apartment without consulting the roommates, who came home to find him there by himself.
Unfortunately, this roommate’s name was also on the lease, so the others had no legal recourse to throw her out. What ensued was a heated, supremely awkward house meeting; the problem roommate knew she had the upper hand, and negotiated for not only the return of her security deposit, but also additional funds to cover the move and ensure her cooperation. The Brick staffer and her friends had to pay handsomely—no easy task at the time, as they were all fresh out of college and working entry-level jobs.
So how can you avoid such an uncomfortable—and expensive—scenario?
1. Have an honest, sober, face-to-face conversation
“The healthiest way is to just tell the truth,” says Rory Bolger, a Citi Habitats broker. “Don’t make it personal. Just tell them that it seems clear that you’re not a healthy match and you think they should find another place.”
Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist who is a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate, says it’s key to make a thorough plan ahead of time for how you want to address your roommate issues.
"One of the things I see a lot with people is they wait to address things until they're considering moving out,” she says. “When that happens, their roommate might not see it coming and things are harder to repair."
If you’ve moved in with a friend only to discover that the carefree personality you so enjoyed when bar-hopping together is completely irresponsible about sharing space, the situation can be more fraught because of your close ties.
"If it doesn’t work out, it can ruin not just your friendship, but your entire social network," says Sarah Beth Hill, founder of roommate-matching service Perfect Strangers of NYC.
With that in mind, you should limit discussing your roommate-related gripes at length with your circle of friends before addressing it with your roommate, says Saladino. “It may make the situation worse.”
She also cautions that you should not assume that because you’re friends with your roommate, living together will be a breeze. "Even with a friend you know well, it's a good idea to go over a list of lifestyle necessities and deal breakers before signing a lease,” she says. “There may be more to consider than you think since you likely know your friend in a different context."
Instead of waiting to address issues until you feel resentful, Saladino suggests having regularly scheduled “check-in” meetings with your roommate(s) to see how things are going, which could correct those issues early—and “set a precedent of communicating on things rather than pushing them down.” Plus, such chats could reduce any fear you may have about bringing problems up, “and ensures you’re catching each other at a time you’re both ready to listen,” she adds.
While some folks find it impossible to remain friends following such an ordeal, others do manage to find their way back to each other after the initial period of anger—but only if you don’t make the split personal.
“When you strip it down to the essentials, an apartment share is a financial transaction,” says Hutchinson. “Make it about ending the financial relationship rather than telling [them] you don’t like them.”
And remember, whether or not you and your roommate started off as friends or strangers, always treat them as you would want to be treated when broaching the topic of having them leave. “Have the courage to be firm about what you need, but treat the other person with respect, too,” says Hutchinson.
2. Figure out if you can evict them
If a conversation gets you nowhere, you'll have to up the ante. But whether you're going to be the one kicked out or do the kicking depends a lot on the terms of your lease. If they’re on the lease and you’re not, you’re out. If you’re both on the lease, you’ll need to tough it out since you’re both on the hook for the rent, unless you can officially negotiate your way out. (In extreme cases, such as a roommate who has been charged with a violent crime, you can get an Order of Protection and evict them, according to Law NY.) But what happens if you’re on the lease and they’re not?
According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant advocacy organization, you can’t simply kick out a roommate if they have lived in the apartment for at least 30 days or paid you rent; instead, you’ll have to go to the city’s housing courts to begin legal eviction proceedings.
If you have a written agreement that states that they’ll room with you for a year, you can’t force them out unless they’ve breached that contract somehow—either by not paying rent or by violating the building’s rules. So if they’re a model citizen, but you’ve met someone you just like better, you’re stuck with them for the rest of the year.
On the other hand, per the Met Council, in the absence of a written agreement, a roommate who is not on the lease is considered month-to-month, and you can legally ask them to leave as long as you provide a 30-day notice.
That’s why Kelly Ringston, a real estate attorney with Braverman Greenspun, typically recommends a one- to three-month trial period until you’ve determined how well you live together as roommates.
“If you have a month-to-month roommate, you can terminate their tenancy at the end of any rental cycle, upon proper notice, for whatever reason—i.e., 'you’re weird, please leave,’” she says. “If there is a written roommate agreement, the term is usually for a longer period of time—six months, or a year."
If they have violated the agreement or there is no written agreement, you can kick them out. (While actual written roommate agreements are rare, Ringston always recommends them in light of how quickly some of these situations go south. “It’s better for all parties to have an agreement in writing,” she says, so that everyone is aware of the rules and expectations from the get-go.)
“Essentially, you’re their landlord,” Ringston says. The first thing you’ll need to do is serve a notice of termination notifying them that you’re ending their tenancy. If you can’t afford the services of a lawyer to draft one for you, you can do it yourself on the New York City Housing Court website.
An uninvolved party must be the one to serve the notice—so you can’t be the one to do it even though you live with your roommate and could easily hand it over. “The cleanest way to do it is to hire a process server,” Ringston says. Pricing usually depends on how many times they need to return to serve the notice, but it’s usually a few hundred dollars. You can find one here.
You need to give your soon-to-be ousted roommate one full rental cycle to get themselves and their stuff out, meaning that if they’re renting week to week, you give them at least a week’s notice. If they’re renting month-to-month, a month’s notice, and so on.
If you've got the money to stay in a hotel or friends or family to crash with, you could actually leave the apartment until your roommate is out to avoid face-to-face interactions. Failing that, the only course of action is to co-exist uncomfortably until one leaves.
After this sure-to-be-awkward week or month is done, if they’re still not out, it’s extremely important that you not accept any more rent money from them, Ringston says.
“If I’ve said that your tenancy ends on a certain date and then I accept next month’s rent, I’m effectively extending your tenancy,” she says. “Getting an eviction can take time, and since you can’t collect rent, which you probably need to afford the apartment, you can end up in a very difficult situation.”
3. Give them a financial incentive
If you can, offer to help finance their next move, pay their first month’s rent in a new place or to give back their security deposit early, suggests Ringston. “It’s not easy for someone who just moved to fund a second move, so if you can ease the financial burden, you might help expedite the process,” she says.
4. Don't change the locks (yet)
Saladino notes that there is a wide range of potential responses to being kicked out; where some might just be angry, other roommates could become dangerous. “You have to keep yourself and your things as safe as possible,” she says.
She recommends telling a roommate who seems particularly upset, “Let’s just take time to cool off and let me know when you're ready to talk.”
If things become so contentious that you’re afraid that your belongings will be trashed, get a lock on your bedroom door, Ringston advises, but don't lock your roommate out of the apartment. Housing court judges won’t take kindly to it.
“You’ll be subject to criminal and civil penalties,” she says. “You’re subject to criminal fines up to $10,000, civil penalties up to $100 a day, and treble damages, meaning liability for three times the tenant’s actual damages, and yup, you could even end up in jail.”
Anyway, “if it’s really that bad that you need to lock up your stuff, maybe you should just be the one to up and leave,” says Hill of Perfect Strangers. Of course, that’s easier said than done—especially if you’re the leaseholder.
If things get so bad that you fear your roommate will become violent, get the police involved immediately and try to get a restraining order against them, says Ringston. Only then are you permitted to lock out your menacing roommate.
5. If all else fails, take them to court
If your roommate doesn’t leave of his or her own volition after the termination date is up, you can take them to housing court. The court’s calendar is somewhat congested, so it might take a few months to get a court date, but it will eventually happen.
The first step in housing court is to file a holdover petition, "a type of legal action commenced when a tenant, or in this case a roommate, has overstayed the term of their tenancy,” says Ringston. “If the tenant/roommate does not vacate the apartment by the date set forth in the first notice, he/she is ‘holding over.' If you win your case, you get a judgment of possession, meaning you have the right to the apartment, and a warrant of eviction, which means that the other person has to get out.”
While hiring an attorney would certainly make things easier for you, Ringston says that it’s absolutely not necessary. “Having a lawyer is always a good idea, but landlord-tenant court is made to be accessible to pro se litigants, so it can be navigated without one,” she says, before adding that it’s impossible to say how much the services of a lawyer might cost you since it depends on many variables, including lawyer rates and the complexity of the case.
“The majority of the time, you get together with the court to agree on a date that [your roommate has] to leave by,” says Ringston. And usually they will leave once a judge has issued an eviction order. “It’s not often that you have to have someone physically removed,” she says. “If you don’t have a legal right to be there, most rational people will understand that it’s the end of the road.”
Housing court can be time-consuming and stressful for all parties, so try not to let things get that bad, SpareRoom’s Hutchinson urges. “The biggest weapon you have when it comes to roommate dealings is communication,” he says. “Keep talking throughout living together. Don’t just wait till you’re so angry you can’t even look at each other.”
And as uncomfortable as it can be to ask your roommate to move out, it’s a conversation you shouldn’t put off for long.
“Your living environment means everything—it’s really crucial to your health,” Saladino says. “If it’s a really bad situation, you have to get out of it. Sometimes you have to put yourself first.”
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