What happens if your roommate leaves you stranded with the lease?

What happens if your roommate leaves you stranded with the lease?

Q: My roommate signed the lease for my current apartment. He decided to rent the apartment to me, but then broke the lease and left. Is the apartment now mine? 

This situation is a lot more common than people think. Many renters believe that once a previous tenant hands them the keys to their apartment, the unit now belongs to them. 

Unfortunately, that's not how rental agreements work. There's a whole legal component involved with renting an apartment. 

With that being said- let's get into the question at hand! To start answering this question, we need to get into how rental lease agreements work. 

Can you transfer over a rental lease agreement? 

The short answer is yes, but it depends on your lease stipulations and landlord. 

Some tenants don't stay in their apartments for the entire length of their lease agreement. That's why subletting is a thing! 

Subletting implies that another person is taking over a tenant's lease for a pre-determined amount of time. Once that time is up, the original tenant moves back into their apartment. The lease stays in place under the original tenant's name. When subletting, the original tenant remains responsible for the rent. 

Now, there's a term called assignment of tenancies. This implies that a lease gets transferred from the original tenant to a new tenant. In this case, the new tenant becomes responsible for the rent since the lease is now under their name. 

If the landlord allows an assignment of the lease agreement, then congrats! You can get your lease transferred to another person, releasing you from your rental obligations. 

However, if the landlord only allows subletting, then you can't transfer your lease to someone else. 

How do you know if a rental apartment belongs to you? 

It's simple. It all lies in the paperwork. If you didn't sign any sort of legal lease agreement, then the rental unit doesn't belong to you. 

Even if you sublet the unit, the apartment is still not yours. There needs to be a lease agreement associated with you and the landlord for a rental apartment to be yours. The unit needs to be contractually under your name. 

So, in your case, the apartment is not yours. 

I'm going to make a vague assumption that you didn't sign a lease. This small point implies that your roommate is still responsible for the lease, despite having moved out. 

The only circumstance where the apartment would be yours is if you signed a sub-lease or were authorized to be an additional occupant on the lease. 

What should you do if the apartment isn't yours, and your roommate has vacated the unit?

As I mentioned earlier, in this instance you have no legal standing on this unit since there's no contract tying you to the unit. 

With that being said, you should immediately approach the landlord and politely explain the situation. It's important to explain exactly what happened and what your roommate told you about renting the unit. 

If you wanted to stay in the unit, the landlord might let you under the condition that you pay back any outstanding rent payments. 

Another scenario that might play out is that the landlord tells you to move out. If this were to happen, you have no legal right to object. By law, the apartment still belongs to your roommate, so they would still be in charge of the rent. You would have to take your losses and find a new place to live. 

On the bright side though, a landlord's number #1 priority is keeping their units rented. They'll be far more inclined to put your name on the lease if that means that the unit will get rented out. It also means that they won't have to go through the troubles of advertising the unit, vetting potential tenants, and getting the unit ready for another person. It'll save them a lot of money and time. With that said, the chances of them transferring lease ownership to you is fairly high. 

The bottom line is to arrange a meeting with the landlord and try to negotiate something. You shouldn't be liable for anything your roommate has done since it sounds like you were never even close to being on the lease. Don't forget- be honest and polite when speaking to the landlord! Kindness is a way stronger card to pull than entitlement! 


If anyone else is in a similar situation, we hope you found this article useful! 

Check out other stories in our Renters Pickles series to find solutions to other common renting mishaps. 

One last thing. If you're in the market for a new apartment and are looking for some help, visit Lighthouse. We help renters get their perfect apartment while giving them cash back on rent! You can check out our services here. 

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