Will my old roommate’s assholery keep me from buying a home?
June 4, 2021 5:23 PM   Subscribe

My former roommate didn’t pay rent for months after I left the house we lived in together, then abandoned the property altogether. For months, I’ve been trying to pretend that this whole..situation doesn’t exist and gone about my life being a model tenant in my new house. Now I’m taking steps toward buying a home. What do I have to disclose, and is this whole mess going to come back to haunt me?

In the beginning of 2020, I lived in a house with three roommates, “Grace,” and a couple, “Victoria” and “David.” That March, just ahead of the covid shutdowns, I moved into a new house and signed a new lease beginning 3/1/20. A new person started subletting my old room but did not sign the lease at that time. (I don’t have the sublet in writing. Yeah, I know, that was stupid). Around the time I moved out, David and Victoria told Grace of their intention to move May 2020. Grace planned to stay on after that, find two new people, and begin a new lease in May.

Beginning in April, Grace started “rent striking.” I put rent striking in quotes because they did not tell our landlord what they were doing, and it seems to me that letting the target of your strike know what you’re doing is a large part of what makes strikes effective. That May, after Victoria and David moved, out all four of us got a ten day eviction notice from the landlord due to the unpaid rent. I contact Grace and told them to please tell the landlord about their situation, and they said they would. Then we got another notice in July, and a separate email to just me, Victoria and David asking if we still lived at the house. David tried to make the case that the three of us could not be held responsible for Grace not paying; the management told us that as long as the property was still occupied with “our” stuff (really almost entirely Grace’s) we were responsible and that because we were never formally released from the lease we were still on the hook.

Grace, meanwhile, went to go live with their partner and completely abandoned the old house, with their stuff inside it. When I messaged them to say hey, you need to actually tell the landlord what the hell you’re doing, and also striking means solidarity and not fucking your old roommates over, they accused me of “blame shifting” and blocked me, as well as Victoria and David, on signal, gchat, and all social media. Victoria, David and I started contacting local tenants rights and legal aid groups around this time asking how to proceed, but everyone was swamped with covid-related questions and we were never able to get anyone to return our calls or emails.

We all got another ten day eviction notice in September 2020. A new property manager contacted us to ask if we still lived at the house, we said no, and then...crickets. No eviction notices or any other contact from the company since then. I have no idea if anyone is living in my old house.

Fast forward to now. I’m taking baby steps toward buying a home of my own, and based on my life now I look like a good candidate. Have a steady, high five-figure job. No credit card debt, and only modest student loans. Solid chunk of savings. Pretty good credit score—if anything I underuse my credit card. Rent paid on time every month at my current house. But there’s this possible eviction and large amount of unpaid rent that shouldn’t be mine but maybe is, somehow, hovering in the background.

When I start the process of applying for a mortgage and the like, is this whole situation going to come up on any kind of background checking? If so, is there any way I can mitigate any effects it would have on my ability to buy? Do I need to disclose the whole mess to anyone as part of the homebuying process? Should I be talking to a lawyer? Have I just wasted hundreds of words on this question because I’ve heard nothing since September and should just let this go?
posted by I am a Sock, I am an Island to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Assuming you're in the US, you can pull your credit reports for free (link) and see what will show up to lenders.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:29 PM on June 4 [8 favorites]

Is the large amount of unpaid rent a higher amount than what it would cost to get a lawyer and sort this out? It isn’t fair, but it might be the quickest way to solve the problem. Sadly, I have encountered people who know how to game theses types of things. The fastest, cheapest way out of it might be just to pay the rent due.
posted by ficbot at 7:53 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

Based on your description I wouldn't be at all surprised if this went to collections which can definitely affect your homebuying/credit. Not to be accusatory but the way you went about this was pretty much the worst way possible and leaves you extremely liable (at least in the US). And they may be more likely to go after you for the lost rent because you're employed and they can't get money from a stone (the "rent strikers"). You might still be on the lease if you never officially terminated your tenancy. A phone call doesn't do that.

Start by reaching out to your old management and see what you can do to confirm you are no longer on that lease and what the damages are.
posted by possibilityleft at 8:12 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]

disclaimer: i am some fool on the internet, IANAL, IANYF.

I would caution against reaching out to the old landlord / property manager without first getting legal advice from someone who understands how rental law works in the region you were renting.

What's the worst case financially if you somehow end up being chased for the whole debt? Maybe you had signed a long, fixed term lease where you agreed to be on the hook to pay rent if you terminate the lease early until the landlord is able to find new tenants. And in the worst case, suppose the landlord still hasn't found tenants. And you're on the hook for expenses of cleaning the property, cost of having your informal sub-letter evicted, maybe even the cost of having your informal sub-letter's possessions put into storage or whatever. Maybe the total loss incurred by your old landlord is more than the cost of paying a year's rent of the entire place.
posted by are-coral-made at 8:39 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]

First, you'll need to pull a credit report to see exactly what has shown up.

If this transpired in the US, and if any of this history has made it onto your credit report, you can kiss qualifying for a mortgage goodbye. I can't imagine that a bank is going to overlook an eviction for nonpayment of rent and abandoning the property less than a year ago. No way. If there's an eviction on your credit report, you can probably expect to be rejected for a mortgage for the full 7 years until it rolls off. You need to see exactly what your liability is and pay what you need to pay to satisfy the debt.

Speaking as a homeowner (I also just completed a refinance in May, which is a very similar process), when you apply for a mortgage, you will be expected to provide a banking history, a tax history AND explanations for anything that turns up on your credit report before you qualify. All these events occurred *quite* recently as far as any bank is concerned. You don't even know whether or not you have a judgment against you for the eviction.

Forget about buying a house. That is not gonna happen in this half of the 2020s. Consider yourself lucky if places still rent to you. It might sound harsh, but that's the reality of what you're looking at.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:17 PM on June 4

Response by poster: I went ahead and pulled my credit reports as a first step and...absolutely nothing. It shows my credit card and student loan payments but nothing pertaining to my old house at all. Credit score in the low-mid 700s.

This is why I’ve been afraid to contact my old landlords or even touch this mess at all, because if they’ve forgotten I exist everything looks great. That and if I think too hard about this it makes me blindingly angry at Grace.
posted by I am a Sock, I am an Island at 9:41 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

If your credit score is good, go for it. If you have a healthy down payment, then you’ll probably be fine. I moved back to the US after 11 years away with practically no credit rating (records are deleted after 7 years and overseas credit doesn’t count) and was able to buy a condo. My choice of lenders was limited, and I didn’t get the absolute lowest going interest rate, but it turned out fine. The credit check is a snapshot at the time it’s taken. I got pre-approved by my lender ahead of time so that the financing was pretty pro-forma by the time my offer on a place was accepted.
posted by mollymillions at 10:07 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]

I was going to be surprised if anything showed up on your credit report. If it’s not there this should be a nonissue as far as home buying. Do not bring it up or pursue it in any way. Good luck!
posted by JenMarie at 10:07 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

We all got another ten day eviction notice in September 2020. A new property manager contacted us to ask if we still lived at the house, we said no, and then...crickets. No eviction notices or any other contact from the company since then. I have no idea if anyone is living in my old house.
To me, this seems like the important part. I once got an eviction notice for a place I hadn't lived at in months. I threw it away. Nothing happened.
posted by inexorably_forward at 10:20 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

Evictions don't go on credit reports, though, as noted, if the management company sent the account to collections, or got a judgment against you, that could be reported. This sounds like it might be an individual small landlord situation, in which case they might not think it worth the cost to follow up further.

(Depending on where you were living, the eviction notice might not even have been valid due to COVID restrictions. That may be why they haven't pursued it so far.)

If there's an eviction on your credit report, you can probably expect to be rejected for a mortgage for the full 7 years until it rolls off.

Even if it somehow were, you are radically overstating the minimum underwriting standards for a mortgage.

In conclusion: you're probably okay, OP, but, good God, learn how to handle your business before you buy a house, because you can do a lot more damage to your life screwing that up.
posted by praemunire at 10:35 PM on June 4 [11 favorites]

I second the above. When I was a first time homebuyer, the mortgage broker I worked with was great about explaining the process in full, helping us take advantage of various first time buyer programs and then helping us clear up credit dings. It took about six months to get rid of some of the credit issues but it happened. Depending on your market, you might find a broker this helpful or they may be too busy. But don’t be afraid of the process. You should check out some home buying books from the library to get more comfortable and knowledgeable of the process. There also might be some first time home buying classes in your city or online.
posted by amanda at 5:27 AM on June 5

I feel like people are potentially overreacting, if I’m reading this right? You moved out in March, Grace didn’t pay rent in April, and the lease you signed ended in May? If your lease ended in May, the MOST you would owe would be Grace’s unpaid portion of the rent for April and May, but it doesn’t sound like the landlords have even asked you for that. You don’t need to be “formally released” from leases as far as I’m aware? They’re not lifetime binding documents! The fact that somebody left their shit in the house before they moved out doesn’t mean they have de facto re-signed a lease and you’re responsible for the rent in perpetuity! At most you should lose your security deposit because it costs the landlords some amount to cart the stuff away. If it were me, I’d tally up the cost of that and keep it in savings just in case it does go to collections, but I think the landlords were trying to bully you in a way that feels fairly underhanded. If they come to you again, or if they send the bill to collections, I’d pay it, but my guess is they decided to drop it once you reached out to legal aid because all they really cared about was finding someone else to deal with Grace’s stuff, and once you pushed back, they moved on.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 5:33 AM on June 5 [9 favorites]

I would just try to get preapproved for a mortgage and see what happens- if there's some sort of a problem, you can go from there. The situation you describe is odd- you say the landlords told you you were still responsible because you had belongings there, but if you were on the lease, it wouldn't have mattered if it was empty, you would still have been responsible for the rent. (Were you on the lease, or just paying rent directly to Grace? Why would the landlord be asking you to pay in July if the lease was up in May and you never signed a new lease?) I've never lived anywhere that allowed sublets not approved by the landlord; did your lease allow for that? Most apartments I've had didn't allow sublets at all. Was the person subletting your room paying their share of rent?
posted by pinochiette at 7:23 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

If your lease ended in May, the MOST you would owe would be Grace’s unpaid portion of the rent for April and May, but it doesn’t sound like the landlords have even asked you for that. You don’t need to be “formally released” from leases as far as I’m aware? They’re not lifetime binding documents!

This is one of those things that varies by jurisdiction--in some places, since they were still "occupying" the house, they might be deemed to be holdover tenants. But it could equally just be landlord overreach.
posted by praemunire at 10:05 AM on June 5

I hope this all works out well for you, and yes, Grace shouldn’t have stopped paying rent, moved out without their stuff, and stopped communicating with the landlord and then all of you. But in terms of being ‘blindingly angry’ at how their ‘assholery’ screwed you... If you had a lease, unless it was an unusual one, you were “jointly and severably liable.” I.e., you didn’t stop owing rent when you moved out, and in fact you were on the hook for the entire rent, not just your share, until the lease ended (as were each of your housemates). Moving out, arranging an unofficial subletter, and assuming someone else would deal with the formalities of your lease’s end is what created the mess that I hope you’re not in, as well as the one that you (along with Grace) stuck your landlord with. So, I don’t know what your situation is now or what you should do about it, but in terms of learning from what’s happened, it would be more productive to stop shifting all your responsibility onto your only partly-responsible housemate.
posted by daisyace at 12:42 PM on June 6 [3 favorites]

Please don't take legal advice from the internet. Call a real estate lawyer in your area, and spend a little money for some actual legal advice. Don't lose sleep over the unknown; find out what is actually your responsibility and what is not.
posted by freshwater at 9:52 AM on June 7

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