Many tenants who split rent with roommates think they're okay as long as they pay the landlord their own share of the rent each month. The thinking is that if a roommate comes up short, then only the roommate would be liable to the landlord and possibly face eviction.
If this is how you've been thinking, read on. Roommates who sign a lease agree to pay the landlord a certain total amount of rent each month, just like you. The landlord cares only about getting paid that full amount each month -- how you and a roommate choose to split that total rent is between you. This is known in legal jargon as "joint and several liability."
As an example, say you rent a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate at a rent of $1,400 per month. You've agreed with your roommate that you'll owe $800 and your roommate will owe $600 each month, given that your bedroom is bigger and has a better view. A few months into your lease, your roommate tells you he won't be able to pay some or all of his rent this month. Even if you pay your full $800 share, you'll both be in violation of the lease if you give your landlord any amount less than the $1,400 by the due date.
What About a Written Roommate Agreement?
Even if you and your roommates signed an agreement about splitting the rent, you'll still both be liable to the landlord for the full amount of the rent. Having a written agreement in place is a good idea because it will help you collect the amount a roommate owes if she misses payments, but it won't have any legal effect on what you both owe your landlord.
What About an Explanatory Note?
In the example above, say your roommate only pays $500 of the $600 he owes, but you pay the full $800 that you owe. Your roommate agrees to enclose a note to the landlord making it clear that the $1,300 represents your full rent of $800 and your roommate's partial rent of $500.
Don't expect that this type of note will get your landlord to consider your rent paid in full and look only to your roommate. On the contrary, your landlord will almost certainly consider both of you liable for the $100 shortfall.
Avoid Roommates Who Don't Pay Rent
The bottom line is that one of the responsibilities of being someone's roommate is knowing that you're both on the hook for the other's portion of the total monthly rent. Given that you could get evicted because of a roommate's poor financial habits, it's important to decide if having a roommate is right for you and, if it is, to take the time to find a roommate who's compatible and reliable.
If you already live with a roommate who's not paying her share of the rent, it's wise to start looking for another roommate. Staying with a roommate who misses rent payments puts both your tenancy and your relationship at risk.