Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 27, 2017

Painful Lessons from Roommates

By David Reiss

photo by Bill Strain quoted me in Painful Lessons Learned From Living With Roommates. It reads,

With rental prices surpassing nosebleed levels in many parts of the country, more and more legit grown-ups are cutting costs by sharing their home with roommates. But here’s the unavoidable reality: Sharing expenses and living arrangements with roommates can lead to some painful situations. There’s a strong possibility you’ll learn about personality clashes, crazy quirks, and the financial habits of your cohabitant the very hard way. Sometimes, renting with a roommate can end in tears—or in court!

We asked our readers to air their roommate horror stories in the hope they’ll serve as cautionary tales for you. Here’s hoping your own living situation stays drama-free and way less sticky than the following ordeals.

Pets come in all shapes and sizes

One day Karin Ranta Curran’s college roommate brought home an aquarium and said she was getting a small pet. Curran, who lives in Denver, was leaving town and didn’t want to pry—but she assumed it was probably a hamster or a cat. After the weekend she came home and was greeted by a massive cockroach chilling out in the living room.

“I killed it and later showed my roommate, who burst into tears,” she says. It was a pet Madagascar hissing cockroach she had just gotten (her dad was an entomologist), and it was named Henry.

“I still feel bad to this day because the other cockroaches were pretty cute once you got used to them. Kind of like hermit crabs,” says Curran. “My roommate moved out a few months later. I don’t know if Henry’s death was a factor.”

Lesson learned: Communicate with your roommate about any big changes to your living situation like pets, no matter the size or species.

“What is perhaps obvious to the offspring of an entomologist is not obvious to the rest of us,” says David Reiss, academic program director for Brooklyn Law School’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

Beware of double-dipping leaseholder

Peter Ponce was sharing a large three-bedroom apartment in New York City. He was not on the lease but had agreed with the leaseholder to pay $1,000 a month to rent his room. After living in the apartment for nine months, he booked a job where he had to be away for three months.

“I found and vetted someone to sublet my room, but at the 11th hour the leaseholder said he didn’t want another person in my room while I was away,” says Ponce. He had no choice. If he wanted a place to come home to, he had to just eat the rent for those three months.

When he returned home from the gig, he discovered that someone had been living in his room—and paying. The leaseholder had collected double rent.

“I couldn’t sue because I wasn’t on the lease; there was basically nothing I could do,” says Ponce.

Lesson learned: Get everything in writing.

“If you have a real estate agreement and you want to be able to enforce it in a court, get it in writing,” says Reiss. “You do not need to be the main leaseholder to enforce a sublease agreement.”

Know when it’s time to get out

Kensie Smith had only recently moved into her downtown New York City apartment when things began to get weird with her roommate. Upon returning home from work one day she noticed that her room looked different from the way she left it.

“Someone was obviously coming in my room,” she says. “I confronted my roommate, and he confessed that he was going into my room to ‘inhale my aura.’ I point-blank asked him if he’d been going through my clothes and underwear drawers, and he said, ‘I may have done that a few times.'” Yikes!

Luckily for Smith, she had an opportunity to rent another place in the West Village. “As quickly as I could, I moved in there.”

Lesson learned: Know when it’s time to move out.

“When you find out that you live with someone who is undesirable—whether they’re a crank, a criminal, or a creep—it’s best to cut your losses and move on as quickly as you are able,” says Reiss. “In the meantime, put a lock on your door or call the police if your roommate’s behavior rises to the level of a crime.”

Nickels, dimes, and security deposits

A few years ago Jewel Elizabeth rented a room in a two-bedroom apartment with a woman who had the lease in her name. It turned out the woman was rather crazy in a “Single White Female” way. She would tally up the “expenses” and charge Elizabeth ridiculously minuscule amounts like $2.47 for floor cleaner or $1.27 if you drank a Coca-Cola from the fridge.

“She left Post-it notes everywhere to tell you how to close the doors or put away dishes or what time you should go to bed,” says Elizabeth, who currently lives in New York City.

When she moved out a month later, her roommate kept $692 of her $900 security deposit as a cleaning fee. Elizabeth took her to small-claims court. But the judge said she couldn’t rule in Elizabeth’s favor because they didn’t have a contract that said Elizabeth would get the deposit back.

“There was nothing the judge could do. But I’m still glad I took her to court anyway,” she says.

Lesson learned: Spell out the terms of your rental agreement on paper.

“Whenever you hand over a security deposit, you should always have something in writing—signed by them—that spells out how you are supposed to get it back,” says Reiss.

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