You moved out, but your roommate didn’t pay the rent. Now debt collectors are calling, saying you owe them a few months of rent and fees. What do you do? What can you do?
The answer depends largely on what state you’re in and whether your name is on the lease.
Can a Debt Collector Come Knocking?
“A debt collector ‘can’ come after you for just about anything,” according to Alex Stern, an attorney with the Little Guy Law Firm, P.L.L.C. in Miami Beach, Florida. “The question is will they be successful. If your name is in a lease agreement and rent is owed, you may still be liable for unpaid rent even if you paid your share.”
If your name is not on the lease, the landlord or collection agency could have a tougher time getting you to pay back-rent. Still, “if the landlord can provide some evidence that you acknowledge responsibility for the rent, then you may be liable (e.g. a check from you every month for a certain period of time),” Stern said.
The good news is, all hope is not lost for those who did sign on the dotted line or think they could otherwise be considered liable.
“Most states impose a ‘duty to mitigate’ on the landlord, so if someone abandons the lease, the landlord usually will have to make some sort of good faith effort to re-rent the property to someone else, and you wouldn’t be liable for the rent the new tenant starts paying (although you could be liable for the expense to re-rent the unit),” Stern said.
You also could benefit from your state’s statute of limitations on debt collection.
If your name isn’t on the lease, but you landlord still thinks you reasonably owe rent via an oral contract, “then generally speaking the landlord will have less time to bring a valid claim than if pursuing the case pursuant to a written contract,” Stern said. “If a debt collector tries to collect a debt from you after the statute of limitations has passed, then you could have a cause of action against the debt collector for violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in addition to state law causes of action.”
You can go here to find out what your state’s statute of limitations on debt collection entails. Here are some other things you can do to make a situation like this end in your favor.
Talk to Your Landlord
Remember, a roommate can’t simply sign you off of a lease, since it’s legally a contract between landlord and tenant. This contract should outline what steps need to be taken should someone want out or be looking to sublet, but it’s also generally a good idea to try talking to your landlord before you simply move and hope your roommate makes good on the rent.
“Usually the landlord will work with you if you give them enough notice for them to re-rent the property,” Stern said. “Also becoming more common in lease agreements are ‘liquidated damages’ provisions, which specify a dollar amount that will be owed when someone breaches a lease or moves out early.”
If the situation has progressed beyond that point, you could trying arguing in court that your roommate agreed to cover your share.
“Even if the landlord does come after you, you can always claim that you had an agreement with the other roommate that the other roommate would be taking responsibility for the lease,” Stern said. “It may not stop the landlord from coming after you, but it may help you in holding the other person responsible for some if not all of the judgment.”
Know Your Laws
You may have additional rights under local tenant laws. And, when it comes to any debt in collection, it helps to know your rights. Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are prohibited from doing certain things as they work to recoup what you owe, including calling too early or too late at night, threatening you with actions (like a lawsuit) that they don’t actually intend to take, and using obscene language. (You can learn more about your debt collection rights here.)
If you’re unsure of whether you’re liable for any debt in collection or you think a collector is in violation of the FDCPA, you may want to consider consulting a consumer attorney.
And, as you try to work this out, you may want to keep an eye on how the collection account is affecting your credit. You can get your free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and you can get more frequent updates by looking at a free credit report summary, updated every 30 days.