Legal Rights of Roommate with No Lease

in Legal Issues, Roommates on by
two roommates unpacking boxes in an apartment

Are you co-renting an apartment with other people, but your name doesn’t actually appear on the lease agreement? If you aren’t the lease-holder but are roommates with someone who is, you may be legally referred to as either a sub-tenant or co-tenant. In circumstances such as this, you have rights nearly indistinguishable from the tenant whose name is on the lease. That being said, you’d be wise to educate yourself about what rights apply if you find yourself in this position, as well as what technicalities exist, as these can all have an effect on your rental experience.


In the typical rental scenario, the tenant will sign off on a lease and all other relevant documents and agree to abide by the lease’s terms as stated by the landlord. There are increasingly many scenarios where one or more roommates will join the aforementioned tenant on their lease — but may not necessarily be on the landlord’s radar. In fact, the lease-holder in these situations is, for all intents and purposes, the landlord — or at least assumes that type of role when allowing roommates who are not on the lease to move into the rental.


The other individuals would therefore be considered sub-tenants, as they rent part of the property from the actual tenant but do not maintain any rental agreement with the building’s landlord. (Subletting is when the entire apartment is rented out, usually temporarily.) In most jurisdictions, a sub-tenant is viewed as being the “responsibility” of the roommate whose name is on the lease, with separate paperwork that doesn’t involve the landlord in any way, so they may have limited rights. If you feel comfortable paying your share of the rent and utilities to the roommate and being accountable to that person rather than the actual property owner, it may end up being a workable arrangement that everyone’s happy with.


Your “contract” with the tenant on the lease may be a verbal one — you agree to make out monthly rent payments to them on a certain day of each month, for a predetermined number of months or month-to-month, to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. Many couples find that this kind of informal agreement suits them. You do need to consider that if the relationship were to sour, the person who actually appears on the rental contract ultimately has more rights than you, and you may find yourself kicked out without any legal recourse.

However, if a sub-tenant has something in writing with the lease-holder, it often provides more security and entitles such an individual to the right to review the lease, as well as the right to make rent payments that do not exceed what the lease-holder pays in rent. Oftentimes, sub-tenants have the right to be presented with an eviction notice in advance of having to move out and, in some jurisdictions, may be able to bring a lawsuit against the landlord. With all of that being said, bear in mind that many landlords will outright prohibit a sub-tenancy on their property and require that all roommates living in the rental unit join the lease agreement.


Many landlords do this in the interest of keeping everything legally above board, and they want to be aware of the identities of all occupants residing on the property. Most of the time, you’ll find that legalities surrounding this can differ considerably from state to state. In California, for example, a landlord must be able to provide a legitimate reason when rejecting a sub-tenancy — they can’t deny one just because they personally may not like the idea of it. The bottom line is that it would benefit you to look up what local laws apply to your unique situation and, if necessary, get professional legal advice before entering into such an arrangement.

Knowing Your Rights

Let’s suppose that you join the lease after it’s been signed by your roommate (who may have been living there for a while before you moved in). If you have signed off on the agreement, and you pay your portion of the rent to the landlord every month, you are considered a co-tenant and will usually be afforded the same rights as your roommate. Depending on the building’s management, this is doable even without adding your name to the lease, but again, this greatly depends on where you live. In any event, it’s best to play it safe and add yourself onto any existing paperwork to avoid any snafus or misunderstandings.

Effectively, a co-tenant has rights identical to the original tenant. Namely, your rights include a habitable living environment, with any repairs and/or maintenance to be performed as needed, as well as the right to be sent an eviction notice prior to your roommate filing an eviction notice. Non-discrimination laws also protect you as a co-tenant, so that you aren’t given unfair treatment by a landlord. You and your roommate are essentially to be regarded as equals on the contract; signing every document that your roommate has signed will help to ensure that.

To summarize, when multiple people go in on a rental together, it is imperative that they do their homework and make sure each person is aware of the building’s rules regarding either sub-tenancy, subletting or co-renting. To minimize risk, make sure that you understand the terms of the lease and have created some sort of agreement that protects you and feels like the best option for you.

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