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When Tom Bentley moved to Seattle, his plan was to live with a friend. He didn’t think that, instead, he’d be sharing the apartment with a stranger.

“(My friend) left me in this one-room apartment with a guy he’d invited to stay for a few days,” Bentley tells MainStreet.  “(The man) had just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital for trying to stab his father with kitchen knife and then plunging through a second story plate glass window.”

Bentley explains that his friend then left town for a few months, allowing this man to take up permanent residence in their now-shared home. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t a match made in heaven. According to Bentley, his new roommate would howl at night, smoke, share strange sexual theories and leave open soup cans in the refrigerator for later consumption.

While Bentley’s experience is extreme (we hope), he’s certainly not the only person out there who has a bad roommate. Unfortunately, getting rid of your problematic pad pal is not as easy as, say, getting your security deposit back from a greedy landlord.

“Before accepting a roommate, you may want to think twice,” Scott Paxton, Director of the Rental Protection Agency, warns. “Resolving roommate disputes can be ugly and downright difficult.”

Scott Behren, a lawyer at Behren Law Firm, agrees, saying “if your name is not on the lease, you have limited options.”  However, he adds that leaseholders shouldn’t go changing the locks or throwing a roommate’s personal possessions on the streets either. Tenants who signed a lease can be held accountable for kicking a roommate to the curb. (They can, also, as Paxton points out, be in breach of this lease as most landlords prohibit subletting to avoid the types of problems we are talking about, so those looking to take on a roommate to save some money should read their signed agreements carefully.)
“If you’re a tenant and you accept a roommate, you, in essence, become the landlord of that roommate,” Paxton explains. “Legally, you can be held to the same standards or requirements of the property owner.”

This means that lease holders looking to evict their roommates will have to take the problem to court.  And, thanks to renters’ rights, not all bad behavior legally justifies eviction. For example, you can be legally permitted to kick your roommate out if they are violating the lease, not paying the rent, engaging in illegal activity or have become a threat to your safety.  However, citing personality conflicts, bad hygiene habits, offensive language or even mental illness may not render the court verdict you desire.  

Behren says that those thinking of pursuing legal action have to “weigh the costs and downsides with the upsides.” But does this mean that those reluctant to go to court are stuck with their roommates from hell?

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Not exactly. Behren says that sometimes just the threat of litigation can get the roommate to go away. “I have represented some tenants who, with a strongly worded letter were able to oust the roommate in a relatively short time period without a legal action,” he says.

Paxton suggests that going through a cheaper mediation program or reaching a mutual agreement is your best option, though he does point out that you can legally offer monetary incentives to get a roommate out of your house. Beyond that, it pays (sometimes literally) to be proactive.

“Be picky, very picky,” Paxton says, while pointing out that you may want to require prospective roomies to fill out a criminal background check. “Take your time selecting your roommate. Focus on people with similar likes. Never become roommates with someone that clashes with your likes or personality. Two red personalities equal bad idea!”
Once you have settled on who to share your living quarters with, you should enter into a written agreement (the renter’s equivalent of a pre-nup) before you let him or her move in.  Having a written sublease won’t completely eliminate the chance of court proceedings, but it will entitle you to a wider range of legal rights if things don’t work out. It’s especially helpful to draft this lease through your own landlord as that will essentially rid you of any renters’ rights’ obligations (and pre-empt any unwitting breach of contract, according to Paxton.)

Behren says that many prospective roommates are reluctant to enter into written agreements since most people like the idea they can get out of a lease if they want to. However, choosing to forgo this formality may force you to follow the same recourse Bentley ultimately did.

“I moved away,” he says. “Not long after, my friend returned. I don’t know what happened to [the roommate].”

Heidi Waterfield, a former New Yorker who also had a “roommate from hell,” echoed this sentiment. She dealt with her abysmal living situation by moving to California.

“My advice is don’t go through the stress of trying to kick [a roommate] out,” Waterfield says. “Just move yourself.”

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