Realty Bites

How can you make sure your roommates are actually paying their bills?

By Virginia K. Smith  | May 26, 2016 - 8:59AM

I've heard horror stories of roommates finding out—too late—that one person in the apartment hasn't been paying their rent (or the utilities) for months on end. Is there anyway I can protect myself, and guarantee that all my roommates are pulling their weight financially?

Unfortunately, roommates flaking on their fair share of the bills is a common problem, and often, their housemates don't find out until the issue has escalated into a major debt. But with some frank conversations and planning at the outset, you can help head off potential problems.

First, it's always a smart idea to draft a roommate agreement. Because everyone on a lease is legally responsible for the rent of the entire apartment—meaning the landlord can take you to court for non-payment even if you paid your share, but a roommate did not—it can help to draw up a separate document outlining details on exactly who's responsible for how much of the rent, and when and how it will be paid.

"Every time I work with roommates, even if they're lifelong friends, I advise that they do some sort of roommate agreement, and even to have it notarized, so it's more official," says Citi Habitats agent Terry di Paolo."When you set it up officially and codify it, that limits your [legal] exposure. And everyone has a clear understanding of what they owe and to whom."

You're still legally responsible for the rent, but this kind of agreement puts you in good standing to take your landlord to small claims court (which can be done without a lawyer) if they fail to hold up their end of the deal. "You could set up the agreement between the roommates so that each will be personally liable, and you can sue them later," says landlord-tenant attorney Justin Brasch. "So if roommate 1 wants to sue roommate 2 for not paying the rent, they could do that."

Another key move here: If you're all sending in checks separately every month (as opposed to having one point person who's responsible for the payment), ask the landlord to send you a receipt every month, so that you and your roommates have concrete proof that the rent has been paid (or not). ("As a residential tenant, you're always [legally] entitled to a receipt if you ask for it," says Brasch. As with all landlord interactions, your best bet is to send in a written request.) 

Similarly, with utilites, have the person who's responsible for paying send the other roommates a screenshot or a copy of the receipt. "Whenever you send money to Time Warner, Con Ed, anything like that, there should be a 'thank you for payment' message, and you can take a screenshot and forward that to your roommates," says Maxim Mitnik of FirstService Realty. "You and your roommates can have an ongoing text or email thread of these photos—each roommate should send each other confirmation of payment receipts for the utilities and rent they're responsible for."

To simplify the process, you could also opt to have one roommmate who's in charge of collecting cash and paying all the bills, in which case, that one person can simply send along all the confirmations to everyone else.

Apps like Venmo and SquareCash can help keep the lines of communication open, as well. "It's free, it's transparent, and everyone can see who go paid," says Mitnik.


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