Sunday, February 21, 2021

How fair should a reader be to a son's roommate who left her in the lurch?

Learning to live with roommates in college can be challenging. Toss those roommates' parents into the mix and things can get far more complicated. 

A reader we're calling Elizabeth emailed seeking advice about the right thing to do after her son's roommate situation went awry. When Elizabeth's son, who was attending college away from home, and his roommate found an apartment to rent, they needed a cosigner on their lease. Elizabeth agreed to serve as the cosigner, making her responsible if the rent went unpaid.

"The other student's parents agreed to send me his half of the rent monthly," wrote Elizabeth. The contract was a verbal one among the folks.

All apparently went well. The roommate's parents sent Elizabeth a check and she paid the full rent. But with a month left on the lease, the roommate decided to move.

Elizabeth writes that she was "on the hook" for the full remaining month's rent. The roommate's parents indicated that they had no intention of paying for an apartment where their son no longer lived. Eventually, Elizabeth's daughter decided to sublet the roommate's apartment for the remaining month. Elizabeth may have been paying the full rent for the apartment, but at least her daughter got to live there for the remaining month so the room didn't go unoccupied.

The lease ended and both of her children moved out, and Elizabeth is now expecting a rebate check from the apartment's owner for the deposit they had left for their two key fobs when they rented the apartment.

As part of the original verbal agreement, both her son and his roommate (well, their parents actually) paid that initial deposit. But Elizabeth believes that the roommate's parents may have forfeited any right to a share of that key fob deposit when he left before the lease was up.

"Would it be wrong to keep their deposit?" Elizabeth asked.

I regularly remind readers that I am not a real estate attorney, a contracts specialist or a lawyer of any type. But if Elizabeth is looking for some thoughts on the right thing to do, I can try to help.

First, let Elizabeth's experience be another reminder that in financial relationships, it's best to be clear upfront about the specifics of the relationship. Elizabeth cosigning the lease places the onus on her to come up with the money once the roommate broke his part of the lease. It also means that the deposit money is likely to be returned to her when the lease is up.

If the roommate's parents had agreed to pay for his portion of the rent for the duration of the lease even if he left a month early, the right thing would have been for them to pay it. If Elizabeth was fine not pressing that issue because she was able to rent that room for her daughter, that seems a fair decision.

With the key fobs deposit, if the original verbal agreement was that each roommate (or his parents) would get half of the deposit back when the lease was up, it seems fair to honor that even if Elizabeth remains a bit miffed about the roommate's early departure. I'm not convinced she has to do this, but it seems the right thing to do. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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