Finding a Perfectly Good Roommate
Finally ready to move out of your parents' basement? Tried living alone and didn't like it? Need to share so you can save a little bread? You're not alone: By some estimates, 30 million Americans are renting these days. That means a lot of interviewing is going on. How can you raise your chances of finding the perfect—or at least a perfectly good—roommate?
Ask and send e-mail messages to friends, classmates, and fellow workers about whether they know other people who are looking. Place or answer ads in the classified section of newspapers or trade publications. If you play electric guitar, chances are that music trade mags will get you closer to people who love midnight jams. Check the boards at favorite stores and local colleges and universities.
Finding a Good Match
Picture speed dating—a roomful of singles who get, say, 12 minutes each to talk to all other prospective partners in the room. At the end, each one tells the host who they'd like to see again. And being able to briefly "sample" prospective dates tends to evoke honest exchanges.
Roommate interviews shouldn't be as intense—or as condensed—but the more of them you set up, the better your chances of finding a good match. Try to talk openly about habits that might affect your ability to get along; it will make it easier for others to do the same.
Watch out for 'tude. Mutual respect is as important as good chemistry. Most roommate conflicts stem less from differences—we all have those—than from how they're handled. Would this hip guy go ballistic if you asked him to turn down the stereo because you're cramming for finals? Would this cool woman lose it if she came home to an impromptu beer party? Would you? Toss around some scenarios. It will break the ice, and you'll come away with a sense of your personality mix.
Best buds versus ships in the night. Are you looking for someone to share meals, friends, and gossip with, or just a decent roommate who gives you space? Make sure you're on the same track.
Communication. In one renters' Web log, a student reported that his roommate "painted the bathroom floor [unannounced] . . . and when we came home from a party (lots of beer) she told us we couldn't use the bathroom!" Spontaneity can be a good thing, but not at the cost of courtesy.
Safety, sanity, privacy. Talk about "locking etiquette," from bathrooms and bedrooms to front doors. If you'll be sharing a room, what if you or your roommate found yourself in the middle of a thing called love—can you count on always having access to your bedroom?
Food, glorious food. Compare eating habits—not only whether you eat "things that have eyes," but also expectations about shared meals, cooking and cleanup, and dinner guests. If you'd be keeping separate food caches, discuss whether it would sometimes be okay to borrow.
Early birds and night owls. Conflicting schedules can interfere with sleep patterns, homework, party time, and—let's face it—your style. It's natural to have conflicts now and then, but lifelong habits aren't likely to change.
When duty calls. Discuss sharing such unromantic chores as vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, shoveling snow, and taking out garbage, as well as shopping for food and other necessities. Who will shop for toilet paper, detergent, sponges—all that nice stuff—and when?
Scents and sensitivity. If you're scent-sensitive and your potential roommate goes heavy on the cologne or perfume, air freshener, patchouli incense, aromatherapy candles, Kool filters . . . well, you get the idea.
The sound and the fury. If your tolerance for noise levels isn't in sync, there'd better be something really good to make up for it (like communication and humor and a great place and . . .).
Hot and cold. If you're one of those hardy souls who wears shorts until the first snowfall, you might have trouble living with someone who believes home is where the hearth is always heated. If you go for it anyway, discuss how the heating bill should be divided.
It's an aesthetics thing. In established households, shared areas probably already have a "look." How will you compromise if you want to string spotted-cow lights around the china cabinet that holds your roommate's Limoges collection?
Close encounters of the fur kind. Allergies aside, even pet lovers can be frustrated to find their shredded shoes between the paws of a roommate's smiling collie. If your entire wardrobe is black and two white cats are eyeing you longingly during your interview, prepare to stock up on lint rollers.
Close encounters II: Attraction. If your interview turns into a flirt fest, exchange phone numbers rather than sharing a lease. Breaking up is hard to do, but it's even harder when it involves broken contracts. Really.
Close encounters III: Overnight guests. Discuss guest scenarios, from long-term visits to sweetheart overnights. If your home started to become a second residence for your roomie's boyfriend, would it be a deal breaker, or would he be asked to pay his share? (Note: Your lease probably has something to say about this.)
Nasty habits. If your idea of winding down is to light up, knock back a brew, and crank up the music, it may not be appreciated by a nonsmoking, nondrinking roommate who's working on his "Lutes in Shakespearean England" thesis. But hey, you never know: One Parisian party girl we know ended up rooming with a nun, and they became lifelong friends.
The Cost of Renting
Rent should be evenly divided among roommates, pure and simple, right? Not always. Consider these possible exceptions:
Bedroom size. Sunlight, water view, private deck—there are lots of reasons one room might seem better than others, and "who gets it" usually comes down to seniority. Size is another matter: If rooms are sized differently, figure out your home's square footage and pay equally for common areas, but pay for private areas based on square feet.
One room will be rented by a couple. A couple should count as two people in terms of utility costs, chores, shopping, and so on, but rent is a little trickier. Typically, couples pay more than individual renters but less than if they were renting two bedrooms, but it doesn't have to be about money. Be creative.
One of you is the primary leaseholder. The leaseholder holds responsibility if property is damaged or other renters leave without notice—and has to fill vacancies even under better circumstances. A rent break would be reasonable, but if that would cause household conflict, discuss other forms of tradeoff.
Someone needs extra space. If some common areas are off limits because they house a roommate's home office, sports gear, or stuffed-animal collection, it might be reasonable for them to pay a little more.
Food. Do you want to keep separate food stashes and accounts, or share and share alike? Consider a food "kitty" to which each roommate contributes the same monthly amount. Keep a ledger in the same secure location for signing cash in and out, and always attach receipts. If you take the communal approach, but one of you eats like a horse and the other like a bird, discuss a fair division of expenses.
Utilities. Utility bills should be divided equally if usage is similar. But if, say, one of you telecommutes with the lights turned up and the heat blazing, electric bills should be a discussion point. How will you divide bill paying? If the CPA among you offers to collect for and pay all the bills, maybe she should get a break on dish-washing duty.
The little details. All of those extra small expenses, from paper towels to window cleaner to air freshener, should be shared equally by those who use them.
Furniture. If you'll be moving into unfurnished digs together and you're starting from scratch, how will you work out expenses? If you're low on dough, is it more important to spring for that Ikea "Buddy" bookshelf, or buy extra chairs for guests?
Before you sign . . .
Let's say you've found a great place and it feels like you've known your prospective roommate forever. Before you finalize anything, follow up on references from previous landlords. Consider asking for—and be willing to provide—a recent credit report, along with a photo ID. It may sound goofy, but it will help protect both of you.
Where do you both stand financially in case of sudden layoffs? Some experts even advise that you do a criminal check. To show that your heart's in the right place, try sweetening the meeting with a gift of beer and phad thai. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Sally Anderson is a writer and editor based in Seattle.