How to create a contract with your NYC roommates to keep the peace
- Putting roommates' financial obligations in writing can keep conflicts from escalating
- These agreements are important when you live with people not named on the lease
- It’s helpful to have a clause about keys stating if you lose a set you pay to replace them
If the layout of your apartment allows it, sharing your place with a roommate or two can make living in New York City much easier on your bank account. However, living with roommates presents different kinds of challenges, like when they routinely leave a mess in the kitchen, or abruptly up and leave.
One solution is to draw up an agreement to navigate potential conflicts. This route can feel awkward but can also prevent small conflicts from escalating. For that reason, a roommate agreement can be equally important for friends as well as strangers.
[Editor's note: A previous version of the article ran in October 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for April 2023.]
There’s a lot at stake when you sign a lease
If your name is on the lease, you're the one responsible for paying the rent. Under NYC's roommate law, you can have a roommate who is not on the lease to help split the rent. However, you are still individually liable for the full rent if your roommate stops paying.
A roommate agreement is increasingly common, particularly as rents continue to skyrocket in NYC. Another reason why there are more roommate agreements is because parents are often involved as guarantors and they are eager to reduce their liability.
“When parents get involved with paying the rent, they want to make sure that everything is clarified,” says attorney Michael Landsman, co-managing partner at the law firm Holm & O’Hara.
The agreement typically spells out the roommates' financial obligations to the apartment and each other.
"The lease doesn't state who pays how much, so a roommate agreement clearly defines that," says Eric Hamm, senior managing director at Corcoran. The agreement can also cover how utilities are paid, as well as minutiae like who takes out the trash or cleans the bathroom.
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A roommate agreement negotiated with a lawyer might cost in the region of $500 or $1,000, depending on the complexity of the arrangements. If this feels like a lot, consider that you’re paying around $30,000 a year on rent—the cost of the roommate agreement is a fraction of that and it’s a cost you’d arguably be able to split between everyone in the apartment.
What is a dealbreaker for roommates?
In order to get a basic agreement in place, try and do as much due diligence as possible on your new roomie.
You’ll inevitably check them out on social media but Landsman suggests verifying their resume and doing a credit check “just to make sure the person is credit worthy.” This will be a determining factor in moving forward.
If you are the leaseholder, you will have to pay the landlord regardless of whether your roommate is paying you. Landsman says people often feel shy about asking for a credit report or tax return but both will help you determine whether your new roommate can fulfill their part of the financial obligations.
What should be included in a roommate agreement?
Part of the arrangement might be that the rent is proportional to your sleeping space. If it’s a one bedroom and someone is sleeping on the couch or one roommate travels frequently, you may want to split the cost of the common areas and have different rates for various roommates. All this is part of your negotiation, Landsman says.
In an agreement drawn up by Holm & O’Hara, it came out in the consultation that one roommate was planning to propose. The roommates agreed he would pay more if his partner stayed over more than twice a week.
Landsman says there are often instances where one roommate does not hold up the financial side of the agreement or gets a job in a different state and moves out suddenly. He says you will want a clause that says a roommate will cover the rent until a replacement is found and give at least 30 days notice or more before moving out.
On the other hand, if you are the leaseholder it’s important to have a termination clause so if it’s not working out, you can change your living situation. The roommate is permitted to live in the apartment but is not on the lease, Landsman says, and a termination clause will be crucial if you want to end your roommate’s ability to stay in your apartment.
Andrea Wells, an agent at Compass, says it’s worth having a clause about lost keys. “Sometimes there are keys that can be expensive to cut so I recommend a clause that if a roommate loses that key they have to pay for a replacement,” she says.
Is a roommate agreement legally binding?
Although the agreement is a legal document, the courts are not going to make rulings on who does the dishes so the enforceability of the agreement, particularly as it relates to chores, is going to be based on the honor of the people signing it.
If, however, there are large amounts of money at stake a dispute between roommates could end up in the small claims court.
“If you agree to the terms and someone does not fulfill their side of the bargain, at least you have an agreement to fall back on. It’s very useful to have things memorialized,” Landsman says.
When the dispute involves money, more often than not a settlement is reached to avoid legal action. Landsman says this is especially the case when parents are involved. “They will want to see the agreement and compel one or other side to behave,” he says.
There’s also the issue of what is not spelled out in the agreement. “You can’t legislate common sense,” Landsman says.
If you’ve been thoughtful about your expectations for living with a roommate, the process of drawing up the agreement should help solidify everyone’s commitment to the arrangement.