A 2018 Pew research study revealed that around one in every three American adults lives with at least one other roommate. But while living with a roommate can help cut housing costs and provide companionship, this relationship isn't without potential complications.
If your roommate doesn't pay rent, moves out early, or otherwise breaches the lease agreement, you could find yourself responsible for their portion of housing costs. Often, you'll need to sue your roommate to recover any financial damages. Below, learn more about when you can sue your roommate in small claims court and when you may need an attorney's assistance.
While roommates make rent more affordable, they may create more issues.
Can You Sue Your Roommate for Unpaid Rent?
Most leases involving roommates are joint. Joint leases allow landlords to hold individual tenants responsible for the total rent. Therefore, it may be wise to read your lease carefully before signing. Then you can protect yourself from unprecedented financial responsibility.
It is also important to have good communication with your roommate. It may be helpful to have another written agreement that details how much rent everyone is responsible for. Without a written agreement or proof of a verbal agreement, you could find it tough to collect rent from your roommate if they decide not to pay.
A roommate agreement can be as minimal or detailed as you want. You may want to specify who gets which bedroom, how common space is shared, whether there are regular quiet hours, and who is responsible for which utilities. Your agreement can even dictate how chores are to be divided.
How to Sue Your Roommate in Small Claims Court
There are a few situations in which you may need to sue your roommate:
- Your roommate hasn't paid rent
- Your roommate has moved out early, leaving you responsible for the total amount of rent
- Your roommate has breached the lease agreement, leading to eviction
In these situations, you may be able to recover damages. These can include your roommate's portion of the unpaid rent, early lease termination fees, moving costs, and any other costs attributable to your roommate's actions.
To sue your roommate in small claims court, you'll need to file a notice of claim. This document puts your roommate on notice that you're seeking to hold them responsible for unpaid rental costs. You may not need to provide hard evidence at this step of the process but will need to at least start to tally your damages. Then your roommate will have adequate notice of your reason for suing.
After you've filed a notice of claim and served it on your roommate, the small claims court will usually schedule a hearing. You and your roommate may be allowed to mediate the claim without going before a judge. And if your roommate doesn't show up at this hearing, you could be entitled to a default judgment against them.
If you can show that your roommate violated an agreement (written or unwritten) to pay rent, the court will enter a judgment in your favor. You will then collect on this judgment. In some cases, your roommate may write you a check. In others, you'll need to go through a separate court process known as proceedings supplemental.
In proceedings supplemental, you'll seek financial and employment information from your roommate so that you can garnish their wages until the judgment is satisfied. Your ability to recover damages will largely depend on your roommate's income and employment history. If your roommate changes jobs, you may need another garnishment order for the new employer.
Do You Need an Attorney?
When deciding how to sue your roommate, you may want to consider whether your claim falls under your state's small claims limit. If your state limits small claims to those under $5,000 and you've incurred $7,000 in rental and moving costs, you will need to sue your roommate in civil court or waive any recovery above the small claims jurisdictional limit. In these situations, it may be a good idea to call an attorney to ensure you're aware of all your options before you sue.
Small claims court proceedings are designed for the layperson to navigate. You shouldn't need an attorney to file a small claims lawsuit—although having one can always help. Your attorney can take over many of the administrative tasks required to file a lawsuit and allow you to focus on moving forward.
If you don't want an attorney but still want assistance in filing, there is another option. There are more affordable online small claims filing services. Although they can't provide you with legal advice, they can execute tedious secretarial tasks so that you don't have to.