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How to Write a Roommate Contract -- and Avoid Drama Down the Road

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two cartons of milk in fridge labeled Yours and Mine

Moving in with new roommates is a momentous occasion -- or the beginning of a waking nightmare unfolding every time you set foot in your home and clash over dirty dishes in the sink, impromptu parties in your living room, or a thousand other things.

The only way to sidestep roommate drama before it escalates into a full-fledged tragedy is to sit down and create a roommate contract -- a document that fully outlines your dual expectations about rent, utilities, and general conduct toward one another. Can't we all just get along? The answer is yes -- as long as you have some written backup.

Here's how to draw up an agreement that will set you up for a more peaceful home environment.

How to write a roommate contract

Yep, you've signed dozens of contracts in your life, but unless you're a lawyer, it's unlikely you've written one. It's unnecessary to wade knee-deep through legalese. A clearly written statement of expectations can help you and your roommates understand what is required of each of you. Plus, it provides a small amount of legal protection, just in case things go south.

"Any contract is enforceable if it represents a 'meeting of the minds,' or agreement between the parties, and is not illegal in some manner," says John R. O'Brien, an attorney in Chicago. In other words: No judge will be pleased if you drag in your roommate over an argument over whether your loud binge-watching of "Empire" constitutes roomie abuse, but when it comes to joint financial matters, you'll have standing.

Start with the basics

Note the full name of each roommate and the entire address of your apartment or home at the top of the agreement. Also, be sure to note the move-in date, the length of your lease, and the total rent -- otherwise, you risk your contract being legally unenforceable.

Discuss these touchy topics

Setting in stone some parameters in terms of payment and space can go a huge way toward avoiding misunderstandings later. Be sure to hit these topics if they apply:

  • Rent: Write down specifically how much each roommate is expected to pay and what date the payments should be submitted to the landlord or the roommate designated to handle rent.
  • Who will be living in which bedroom: If one housemate lays claim to an oversize personal space, consider asking him or her to pay a higher percentage of the rent.
  • Payment for utilities: There may be circumstances in which one person pays more than 50%. For instance, if one person works from home, it's often justifiable to have that roommate shoulder a bigger portion of the internet and electric bills.
  • Apartment upkeep: Consider dividing chores equally or assigning each roommate a specific duty. And if one roommate is a pet owner, specify this person's responsibilities. She might be required to pay a deposit to the landlord or your building's management company, but you may want to outline certain chores that ensure she's caring for and cleaning up after her pet.
  • Parking: Many apartments have only one space, sometimes at an additional monthly cost, so determining who should get to use it -- and who gets to park on the street -- is important to prevent arguments and infighting.
  • Visitor expectations: How many nights during the week would it be OK for a roommate's significant other to sleep over? And how long can slightly unstable Auntie Ophelia stay before the other roommates rebel? These aren't easy things to discuss, but setting expectations clearly will provide valuable ammunition if someone is overstepping the bounds.
  • Noise levels: Do you love late-night EDM parties, while your roommate hates noise past 9 p.m.? Bummer! You need to either agree on quiet hours or find other roommates. Writing it down can prevent conflict down the road.

 

Discuss the end

Include details in the contract that address what should happen if one roommate decides to leave the apartment before the end of your lease agreement. Guidelines for early termination -- if you and your roommates want to bail simultaneously -- will exist in a lease, but if only one person wants a premature exit, you might find yourself in a pickle. Typically, the party who wants out should be required to find a subletter everyone can agree on before that party can stop paying rent.

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Watch: Is It Smarter to Rent or Buy?