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“Joint several liability in a group house, is this fair?”

by Prince Of Petworth March 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm 59 Comments

grouphouse
Photo by PoPville flickr user brunofish

“I understand that in general with joint several liability in a group house lease agreement, the landlord can hold any or all of the tenants responsible for unpaid rent.

In our current situation, 3 of us are moving out of a 4-bedroom house, leaving the 4th responsible for filling the rooms. We’ve been helping to fill the rooms, but it looks like some may not get filled with viable tenants by the end of the month. The landlord already said he’d be holding the remaining tenant responsible if that’s the case. Is there any recourse here?

Everything I read about joint and several liability deals with cases of other tenants not paying rent, not cases of multiple roommates who’d been on a month-to-month basis leaving. It just seems unreasonable to expect someone to be responsible for filling 3 rooms regardless of circumstances. Any help would be appreciated.”

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  • stacksp

    Common practice and out of courtesy the 3 that are moving out should not do so until they have found a replacement unless they continue to pay their portion of the lease. The three that are moving out are effectively breaking their lease agreement unless the 4th renewed the lease as a solo tenant.

    • kate

      Exactly. Were you all on one month to month lease or on separate leases? I can’t speak for the case of separate leases, but if you’re all month-to-month, the lease is all or nothing. Either all of you would need to move out with appropriate notice to the land lord and the remaining roommate would need to start fresh with a lease with new roommates, or you’re still on the lease.

      I had 12+ roommates during my 5 years in a group living experience and maybe 3 or 4 times, the rooms weren’t filled by the time the next month’s rent was due. Every time, the departing roommate covered their share (after a good faith effort was made by all parties to fill the room).

      • Duponter

        “Everything I read about joint and several liability deals with cases of other tenants not paying rent, not cases of multiple roommates who’d been on a month-to-month basis leaving.”

        Implies they were on a month-to-month, which is a bit confusing if the landlord says they are breaking the lease.

      • Anonymous

        Can one tenants inaction (lack of notice) bind the rest of the tenants indefinitely into the future? Alternatively, does notice from 3/4 of the tenants constitute notice for the whole lease?

    • Anon Spock

      I’ve never lived in a group house, so I’m curious is that common practice even when you’re month to month? I’m a 1-1 situation you aren’t going to keep paying if the owner can’t find someone, so I’m wondering how that’s usually handled in a multi party lease.

      • stacksp

        At the end of the day, the three should not leave the rent solely to the one remaining tenant. Maybe the 4th person should consider moving out as well if they cant find 3 replacement tenants but financially it should not fall all on that one tenant when they all signed the lease (I assume). Some things are common courtesy and if you half way care about the person you are not going to want to stick them with what I assume is a expensive lease payment each month.

      • Anon

        Well I think the difference is in the 1 on 1 case you are ending the lease. In the group houses case the departing roommates are still on the lease until you can find someone else and get the lease changed with the new names. The people moving out are still on the hook until the lease is changed. But because it is a joint lease, I think the person staying would have to pay the whole thing and then get his or her money back from the old roommates.

        • Anon Spock

          Got it. My statement below didn’t take into account a multi party lease in which case it seems they’d be on the hook whether the landlord comes after them or the remaining roommate.

      • S

        I’ve lived in a group house and we worked out a deal amongst our selves. The person moving out had to provide at least 45 days notice and assist the others with finding a new roommate. If a new roommate was not found after a good effort then the person leaving would still be held responsible for their part until a new roommate was found but no more than a month. If the delay in finding a roommate was because the other two were two picky then they would have to pay the extra rent.

        Luckily we always found new roommates

    • HaileUnlikely

      Assuming they are on a single lease and not four separate leases, you seem to be conflating two totally different issues:
      .
      1. The legal responsibilities of the remaining tenant to the landlord.
      .
      2. An interpersonal problem between the remaining tenant and the other three.
      .
      I agree with your comments about #2; just wanted to point out that #1 is another matter entirely.

      • stacksp

        Understood. I did kind of blend the two issues but I agree that technically the 4th tenant is liable to the landlord because he is the person remaining in the home but but item 2 should way heavily in all of this.

        • HaileUnlikely

          I basically agree. The tenant who is still there is legally on the hook. Well, they’re all legally on the hook, but in all likelihood the landlord will go after the low hanging fruit, i.e., the tenant who he can find the most easily, i.e., the one who is still in his house. The other three tenants would be dirty rotten scoundrels to just make a break for it and not pay their fair share (and the landlord could go after them if he wanted to – there just isn’t really much incentive for him to; he can get to the same place with less effort legally and financially by going after the one he has easiest access to). If the landlord were understanding and compassionate and liked the tenant in question and wasn’t hard up for money, he might let the tenant just pay a portion while searching for more roommates – it probably wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the world that a landlord did such a thing, but there is no legal obligation for him to do so.

          • Elkhaert

            It really depends on how it is structured. It could be the only one legally on the hook it the remaining tenant. We can’t really say without reading the lease.

          • HaileUnlikely

            That would be a bizarre lease that would have taken some special effort to write, would be of no benefit to the landlord, and the tenants have already admitted to their collective naivete in legal matters pertaining to leases, which makes it haile unlikely that they would have negotiated such a term themselves. The OP said the lease was joint and several. I believe him. What that means is that all of the tenants are fully liable to fulfill the terms of the lease (pertinent part here = pay rent). In the event that they don’t, the landlord can hold any or all of them liable for the full amount. In practice, the landlord would most likely exercise his rights by demanding payment from the one who is still physically present, but there is no legal reason that he couldn’t go after one or more of the others additionally or instead.

          • Anonymous

            Yes, they are all responsible, individually, for up to the entire rent. He might go after the one who is physically present, but he also might go after all four, or the one(s) that he thinks is most likely to pay or easiest to collect from after he gets a judgment against them.

    • anon

      + 1 you guys should not leave the 4th roommate to do this.

  • GBinCH

    Is there a single lease to which all tenants are party, or does each tenant have their own separate lease? Without seeing the lease itself (and there could be quirky terms), if the former situation, the remaining tenant is SOL as all parties are subject to the terms, including the month amount. In this situation, the division of rent is something agreed upon between the tenants – the landlord is owed the full amount per month but does not get involved in which tenant pays which proportion. If some tenants move out but the lease itself is not terminate, then its really on the remaining tenants who have agreed to let the outgoing tenants off the hook. If I was the remaining tenant, I would have the outgoing tenants continue to pay their share of the monthly lease until new tenants are found, regardless of whether they live there or not. No longer occupying the space does not automatically relieve them of their obligations under the lease.
    .
    If the tenants each have their own separate leases, then the remaining tenant cannot be held liable for the rent of the other tenants. And if those tenants are month to month and move out, then its really on the landlord to absorb that cost until replacement tenants (either found by the landlord or outgoing tenants) move in.

  • Anon Spock

    If you’re month to month and gave proper notice, I’m not sure they can hold you to any further rent. I say this even if your lease says you need to find a replacement. If you were leaving in the middle of a year lease, then sure.
    I would contact the office of the tenant advocate for guidance.

    • Anonymous

      The link to the OTA is https://ota.dc.gov/. They are pretty responsive, and I imagine that they receive a lot of questions about joint and several liability.

  • APinMtP

    Not sure I’m understanding you correctly, so please forgive me and ignore me if I’m not, but what’s unreasonable about expecting rent to be paid on a house that’s being rented as a house? We’re not talking about 4 separate leases for 4 rooms with common space where the owner decides. You rented a whole house and split the rent amongst your group in typical group house fashion?

    • FridayGirl

      “We’re not talking about 4 separate leases for 4 rooms with common space where the owner decides.”
      .
      Actually, this seems to be the exact question that everyone else here is trying to clarify. I agree that if the house was rented in full and the rent divvied up among the former tenants that landlord should get paid the full amount no matter what, but if they had separate leases for separate rooms…..

      • FridayGirl

        Whoops, nevermind, answered below! Ignore me!

  • anon

    read your lease, it’ll have the answer.

  • Caroline

    Are you all on separate leases or a single lease? when i was group house living the new lease was not drawn up until we had a replacement making all 3 of us responsible for the rent even if 1 or 2 people where moving out. it was only when we secured someone and re signed the lease that the vacating tenants were relived of their responsibility.

    Worse case scenario the 4th roommate should just leave, give her 30 day notice like the rest of the roommates. since you are on a month to month basis.

  • sockpuppetmonkey

    Thanks for the responses.

    We’re all on a single lease, and all of us were month-to-month, and the three of us all gave our 30-day written notice to vacate. Once our 30-day written notice is given, can we actually be held liable for rent after our effective move-out dates? We’ve been drafting new leases every time a new tenant has moved in. If all 4 of us had given 30-day notice, wouldn’t it have been on the landlord to fill the empty rooms at that point?

    And per common courtesy, we’ve been working overtime to try and fill the rooms. It’s just been harder than we thought. Thanks again for the replies!

    • iwdc

      If you are all on a single lease, the 30-day notice is meaningless to your landlord unless you are all giving it (i.e. terminating the lease).

      • mtpresident

        Technically, I believe this is the case. The landlord could choose to be generous and split the different with the remaining tenant(s), but isn’t technically required to. At least that’s my understanding.

      • Anonymous

        Is that actually correct though? Can one tenants inaction bind the rest of the tenants indefinitely into the future. I’ve never seen caselaw answering this definitively so I’m curious.

        • Anonymous

          I’ve never done the group house thing. Seems like this would be a good thing to have spelled out in a lease.

    • Andie302

      Yes – per above if you’re all on the lease and one of the parties is still there on that same lease then you’re all going to be liable until a) you find replacements or b) the fourth person gives appropriate notice and then vacates.

      I’m willing to bet if you shared the link here you may at least get some additional exposure (and I’m sure some commentary on how you might improve the ad/terms/etc. to make it more attractive). Glad you’re all on the same page about finding replacements and I hope you’re able to do so soon!

      • JoDa

        Or (c) the landlord and remaining tenant agree to remove the other roommates from the lease. It’s probably not in the landlord’s best interest to do so without replacements (4 people to go after instead of 1), and it’s *definitely* not in the interest of the remaining tenant.
        .
        I would encourage you to simultaneously help the 4th roommate search for a new place and, if your responses don’t improve, encourage him to give notice at the end of the month.
        .
        I looked at your ad below, and it looks like a nice place with fair rent. One word of caution: you mention the age of the remaining tenant AND desired ages for new roommates. You also mention that you’re looking for a guy and two women. Those are violations of the fair housing act (you can specify gender so long as it’s all the same gender as someone currently residing there, i.e., all men or all women is fine, but a specified mix is not). I get where you’re coming from, but I also don’t want your posting to get “caught” by a review and then you have to start all over again.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Serious question, I don’t know the answer – does this differ when seeking a roommate with whom one lives than when seeking to rent a property that one owns but does not live in? And does this differ when the person posting the listing does not have any control over the property and is basically looking for people to go in on a lease with, versus when the person posting the listing is the owner/landlord/manager and is looking to rent the property? I’m not sure what the legal mechanism is by which one could be held accountable for posting a classified ad looking for three buddies to go in on a lease with. (This is admittedly a little bit more complicated than that even, since the one posting the ad is sort of tied to the property in some sense or another, though is not the landlord and does not control the property but is sort of acting like he is.)

    • Deebs

      Yeah, the 30 day notice isn’t individual-based, it’s lease-based. You signed a lease for the whole house, not single rooms in the house. If you aren’t terminating the full lease, you aren’t terminating the lease and you are still liable for it (unless there’s some kind of clause saying you can give notice on a roommate by roommate basis). It would be on the landlord if everyone left and the lease was actually terminated. But that’s not the case here. It’s not like each of you individually was month-to-month… the entire lease was month-to-month.

    • Accountering

      If you all are on a single lease, and you gave 30 day notice, then the lease terminates for all of you. If you are all on the same lease, and one person is staying on, then the lease is going to remain in full. It sounds like what happens is there is one main lease for the house, and then you all are individually subleasing from the main lease. In this case, it sounds like the main lease is still in force, and the monthly rent is still due. If he can’t fill the room, you should treat it the same as when you replace one roommate. If the room can’t get filled, the departing roommates cover their portion.

      • sockpuppetmonkey

        I find this interesting since the landlord made a point of us all tracking our original move-in dates, despite having resigned a new group lease every time someone moved in. Wouldn’t the year-lease before going month to month technically have reset every time we re-signed the lease?

        • Tsar of Truxton

          If it wasn’t an addendum or if the lease was not a month-to-month lease from the outset then, yes, the one-year clock would have reset. If you signed a recent document that has a one-year term, then you are technically not month-to-month as you and your landlord seem to think. It doesn’t really matter as long as the landlord is cool with people leaving.

      • Anonymous

        Arguably, notice by one would count as notice for all and the lease would cease after 30 days. Otherwise, you could have a situation where one individual’s inaction binds the others indefinitely into the future.
        .
        However, I could be wrong. Not sure how/if courts have ruled on this.

  • sockpuppetmonkey

    Thanks again folks.

    In case anyone happens to be looking for a place effective April 1: https://washingtondc.craigslist.org/doc/roo/6030842549.html (Thanks Andie302). One bedroom is currently available (one of the larges or the smaller one, TBD).

    • Tsar of Truxton

      It seems like a nice house. I don’t know what rents are like up in that area, but I am surprised you are having trouble filling it. I remember a post a few years ago about how competitive it is to get into group homes.

      • FridayGirl

        +1. It might just be the time of year. There isn’t a whole lot of movement going on in March (at least compared to December/January and summer months) since the majority of school and job-related moves seem to happen during the summer or the holidays.

        • sockpuppetmonkey

          This is by far the least interest we’ve ever had in rooms in this house (I’ve been here for 2.5 years). I chalked it up to…
          – More options in the neighborhood than previous years (more renovations)
          – The time of the year
          – The price distribution between the rooms (the smallest room has received more interest by far).

          We’ve had ~9 people come by over 2 1/2 weeks.

    • Formerly ParkViewRes

      Are you renewing it often so it doesn’t get buried? Posting it to Zillow, postlets, padmapper etc will get you more visibility.

      • sockpuppetmonkey

        Good call on Zillow, etc. Thanks. Been renewing on CL constantly.

        • Padmapper is good. Also, if you get really stuck, we are getting into intern season, and you might be able to fill the rooms at least through the summer. And people moving to DC are often looking for a one-month rental while they look for permanent housing, though usually wanting at least some furniture. Check CL “housing wanted” as well as “Sublet and Temporary.)

    • MHillPark

      I just shared your ad with a bunch of friends who are looking for places. Good luck filling the rooms. It is weird that people aren’t snapping this up quickly, but it’s also three rooms so fill, so that might also add to the feeling of the process being slow.

      • sockpuppetmonkey

        Thanks!!

    • anon

      I didn’t see anything in the ad about the bathroom situation other than “no private bath.” I would definitely add more info regarding the bathrooms.

      • JoDa

        Yes to this. Will people primarily be sharing a bath with one other person, or does one room have a private bath and the other three share? If one of the baths is also the primary guest bathroom (assuming a 2 bedrooms per bath arrangement), the rooms primarily using that bath should be priced a little lower (not a huge discount, but if I have to keep my bathroom cleaner/neater, and clean it *more* from their use, so your guests can pee, that’s a factor). If there’s a half bath for guest and casual use (you really need to pee/brush your teeth/etc. but your roommate is in the shower), you should mention that.

        • JoDa

          Also something to discuss with the remaining roommate and any new roommates who sign on: how do you feel about couples/room sharing? Some of the pictured bedrooms are quite large, and may attract couples and people on a shoestring looking to share a room (I once had 3 in a 2-bedroom…they were Americans who had lived in Asia for years, so even sharing one of the (medium-size) bedrooms, they found the accommodations *spacious*). DO NOT put this in the ad, since, once again fair housing issues, but you should have an idea how that works with the bathrooms and common space and any rent adjustments you’d make in those circumstances.

  • OP Anon

    All four of you should have given 30 days notice to quit. Then the 4th remaining roommate should initiate a new lease with the landlord and be responsible for filling the house. That’s the proper way to resolve this situation and limit your liability.

    • I. Rex

      Agree. The 4th roommate was naive not to have given notice at the same time as the other three and found a new place to live, as much as he wanted to stay there. That’s just too many people to replace in a month and a stressful situation when you know you’re going to be on the hook for the entire rent if you don’t fill them.

      • sockpuppetmonkey

        Yea, in retrospect I’m sure we would’ve encouraged him to do so. This was a product of our collective naivete in how group leases worked.

        • Anon NS

          FWIW, you seem like a normal and reasonable person. I’m rooting for you to fill those spots!

          • Accountering

            Agree with all of the above!

          • FridayGirl

            Me too!!! (Group leases are super confusing which is one of the reasons I’ve tried to avoid group housing — so I don’t fault you for not realizing!)

          • HaileUnlikely

            Ditto.

      • OP Anon

        It’s actually not that hard. 45 to 60 days before the new lease (i.e. 15 to 30 days before notice to quit is filed), the 4th roommate can start marketing the rooms and hosting interviews/showings. Obviously this would take some cooperation with the other three existing roommates’ schedules, but that’s an issue when you decide to move out (whether selling a home or leaving a rental). The 4th roommate can then offer to take a new lease with three new people lined up. Thus, no rush to find people in 30 days.

        • FridayGirl

          Sure, they could have started sooner — but I also strongly feel like the time of year is working against them more than their possible lack of foresight. It’s also possible (although I assume unlikely in this situation since 3 of them are moving at the same time) that this was sudden and they may all not have known much before they gave notice.

  • bill

    The rental market is in a slump right now. So many new apartments have become available in the last couple years that supply is finally keeping up with demand. I also think that tenants’ preferences are changing. Tenants want more amenities, and rents on a lot of group houses that aren’t dumps are not that far off from rents on big nice apartment buildings with pools and gyms and 24-hour security. Hopefully supply will level off and demand will pick back up.

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