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Working with Roommates

Posted By: Denise Myers Management , Leasing , Membership , Tenant Screening ,

In the past, we mostly saw roommate groups in college areas. Now, adults of all ages are likely to share rental homes in order to manage the high cost of housing in many areas. Fair Housing laws that traditionally protected large families may now be used to protect the rights of unrelated people who choose to share households. Conversely, some local ordinances such as in Bellevue, impose limits on the number of unrelated adults living in a dwelling unit. Given all these changes, it may be time to take a look at your policies on roommates.

Occupancy Policy

Unless you have strict limitations on occupancy due to a septic system or local laws, it is best to be open larger household groups that may apply. For example, you may have created a standard of two per bedroom in your small one-bedroom apartment… but what if a couple with an infant thinks it’s the perfect place to live for a couple years while they save to buy a home? A loose guideline suggested by HUD is two per bedroom plus one person, but they stress that you should always be flexible. Yes, there is a point where too many people in a dwelling will lead to habitability issues, but unless you have serious concerns, this should not be cause for denial. Just make sure to check your local laws and comply with any restrictions.

Screening and Lease Signing

It is always a good idea to screen each prospective adult occupant using the same criteria, and ensure their combined income meets your minimum income requirement. By requiring every competent adult occupant to become party to the rental agreement, you have greater control to enforce the agreement and collect rent or damages from any of them as needed.  If when screening, one prospective tenant causes you to deny the group, do not reveal information to the group at large. You must maintain the privacy of each applicant in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Tenant Communications

Even if it seems like one person in a household has taken the lead in communicating with you, it is important to include all adult residents in all communications. Consider something as simple as a notice to enter for repair. If you only give notice to one resident, you might end up catching their roommates (or even a family member) unaware and unprepared for a visit from a plumber. Housing providers who routinely work with unrelated roommates, often encourage them to use a “roommate agreement” to reduce roommate disputes and clearly spell out shared tenant duties.

Rent, Deposit and Other Charges

When working with a group of tenants who are sharing your rental home, you can leave the accounting to them. It is alright to expect one rent payment and return one deposit return check at the end of rental agreement. If there are roommate changes during the tenancy, you can expect the new roommate to compensate the outgoing roommate for their share of the deposit, if applicable. Use RHAWA Form, Roommate Addendum to easily change residents on the lease during the tenancy. If damage is done that needs to be repaired during tenancy, send the invoice to all the tenants. No matter if the tenants are married, domestic partners, or have no other legal relationship, the tenancy is shared, and they are equally and severally liable and responsible for the agreement.  While it is generally not appropriate to increase rent or other charges based on additional occupants, you can charge more for utilities if you are dividing utility costs between multiple units and people-per-unit is part of your billing formula.

New Seattle Laws on Roommates

Last fall, the Seattle City Council passed several new bills relating to rental housing, including CB 119606 which limits the rights of rental housing providers to deny roommates added to a current tenancy. The complex ordinance calls for two new sections in Seattle Municipal Code (7.24.031 and 7.24.032) that will go into effect on July 1, 2020.

The new law will require housing providers to accept roommates and “immediate family” as additional occupants on a current rental agreement. In order to receive this protection, tenants must inform the landlord of each additional person’s name within the first 30 days of residing in the home. The Housing provider can still screen incoming occupants using the same criteria as the original tenant, however there are additional protections for those who qualify under a broad definition of “immediate family members”. Due to these extra protections for family members, there are essentially two different sets of rules when a tenant wants to add an additional adult occupant.

Rules for adding unrelated roommates
  • The landlord may deny occupancy to non-family roommates if they do not meet screening criteria.
  • The landlord may require by written notice that non-family roommates become a party to the rental agreement.
  • If the roommate fails to become a party of the rental agreement within 30 days after receipt of notice, they must vacate the unit within 45 days of receiving notice.
  • The landlord must offer the same terms of tenancy to the added non-family roommate if the original tenant vacates before the end of the term if: 1) they resided in the rental unit for at least six consecutive months immediately prior to the tenant’s vacating the unit; and 2) they meet the screening criteria.

Rules for adding “immediate family members”
  • The landlord may not deny occupancy to an immediate family member even if they fail to meet screening criteria. Exemption: Owners who reside at their single-family-home property and are renting a part of the property, including ADU/DADU, are exempt from this rule.
  • The landlord may not require an added family member to sign as a party to the rental agreement.
  • The landlord must offer the same terms of tenancy to the added family member if the original tenant vacates before the end of the term – even if they do not meet screening criteria.

How is “immediate family member” defined?

The new law will broadly define “immediate family member” to include spouse, domestic partner, former spouse, former domestic partner, adult persons related by marriage, siblings, persons 16 years of age or older who are presently residing together or who have resided together in the past and who have or have had a “dating relationship” (meaning any social relationship of a romantic nature), and persons who have a parent-child relationship, including parents, stepparents, grandparents, adoptive parents, guardians, foster parents, or custodians of minors.

Can I place a limit on occupancy?

You can still have occupancy limits, but they must be based on federal, state or local laws. Also, the new law specifically states that if an occupant vacates the unit before the expiration of the tenancy, a landlord shall not artificially reduce occupancy limit during the remainder of the tenancy.


Formal legal advice and review is recommended prior to selection and use of this information. RHAWA does not represent your selection or execution of this information as appropriate for your specific circumstance. The material contained and represented herein, although obtained from reliable sources, is not considered legal advice or to be used as a substitution for legal counsel.