Roommate survival guide: 15 strategies to make it work
If you’re considering house or apartment mates, it’s best to agree to some ground rules early and address problems as soon as they arise.
When the going gets tough, the tough get ... housemates?
In these brutal financial times, having a housemate – or even two or three – can be one of the best ways to reduce your rent and other costs, and keep your head above water.
It can also be the quickest way to a murder rap, if you live with somebody who drives you up the wall.
How do you ensure that the “Roommate Remedy” doesn't turn into “Housemate Hell”? Fear not: We know how bad you look in black and white stripes. So we got the experts to cough up these 15 strategies for you.
Plan to succeed
The best way to make sure your roommate situation works, of course, is to actually create a good situation from the get-go – and that means choosing the right housemates.
1. Start fresh. If possible, start out in a new living situation where no one thinks he or she has seniority and therefore more of a voice than anyone else in how the house or apartment is run, says Amy Zalneraitis, author of "Room for Improvement: The Post-College Girl's Guide to Roommate Living."
2. Play the numbers. "Always opt to live with one other person over two other people to avoid triangulated roommate relationships," Zalneraitis says. "For example, I once moved in with two girls who had already lived together for some time. Their apocalyptic-style partying would happen every Friday night. Because they were on the same page when it came to this type of partying (and had sort of established the rules or lack thereof before I moved in), it was hard for me to stop it. Two against one. I felt like I had very little power." (Zalneraitis notes that this applies much more to young women than to men, in her experience.)
3. Best friends — bad? "If you want to stay friends (with friends), then roommate with strangers," says Sylvia Bergthold, author of "Sorry, the Boa Has Gotta Go: A Roommate Survival Guide." "That way you keep your friends and hopefully make a new one in the process."
Why not live with friends? Because good friends take liberties in a living situation that put stress on the relationship, and the relationship often suffers as a result, Bergthold says.
"I've found that my most successful roommate situations have been people that I sort of knew, through friends of friends," Zalneraitis adds. "So I knew that I would have similar tastes to them, and that they weren't crazy, because a friend was vouching for them, but at the same time we weren't spending every minute together."
4. Play detective. "Spend some time together with each other and get a feel for that person," Zalneraitis says. Does he have totally different beliefs? Does one person like to party all the time and the other have to work early, every morning? Ask each other what your goals are in having a roommate: a best friend? A drinking buddy? An invisible rent-payer? "Pay attention to how people answer questions," Zalneraitis says.
5. Trust your gut. By the time you're in your 20s and 30s, you know enough about people to know if something doesn't feel right. Trust that instinct. A red flag now is likely trouble for you later. "Don't ever turn your 'crazy detector' off," Zalneraitis says. "You'd be surprised how many crazy/troubled/unpleasant people are out there."
Once you pick a housemate
Most housemate problems seem to fall under a few categories, such as cleanliness, finances and communication. Below are some strategies for each of those. But first, here's one other question you might face as you assemble your crew:
6. Whom to put on the lease. You might think you'd want everybody to be on the lease. Not so fast, says author Bergthold. "If everyone is on the lease, that means everyone has legal and equal rights to stay the term of the lease," she says. "This could create humongous problems when the roommates are at odds and it becomes obvious they can no longer tolerate living together."
So what to do? Bergthold recommends this: "If only one person is the signer of the lease, the others are sublettees and sign a roommate agreement." Roommate agreements are considered legal documents by judges in many areas if they have dates, terms and signatures, she says. The roommate who is the lease holder signs the roommate agreement as the landlord, and then has the authority to issue 30-day notices to the offending roommate(s). "After talking to many apartment owners, they would definitely prefer this arrangement, as they only have to deal with one person for the rent money, as an example." But not all states and jurisdictions permit this arrangement (e.g., Florida); check with your local housing office before counting on this safety net.
Clean by any other name …
How clean to keep a home is one of the biggest sources of friction in a shared-living situation.
7. Define "clean." At the outset, agree on a definition of cleanliness; your idea of a clean apartment isn't everyone else's. Does it mean everything should be spic-and-span all the time, or the rugs vacuumed just once a month? Defining your terms early will help reduce problems.
8. Make a chore list … then enforce it. Dusting, vacuuming, taking out the trash – all the housekeeping tasks must be on a chore list, and then parceled out among housemates to emphasize that these should be done weekly (or however often the housemates agree). Yet sometimes chores still don't get done. One way to help prevent this breakdown is to talk about what chores people don't mind doing, and try to assign them those chores, Zalneraitis says. Does Mary loathe loading the dishwasher but like sweeping? Hand her a broom.
Unwashed dishes are one of the biggest problems. Establish ground rules about how that will be handled. The easiest? Wash every dish as soon as you're done with it.
9. Get a cleaning service. After years of battling the cleaning issue with housemates, Bergthold finally made a twice-monthly housekeeper mandatory for those who moved into her home. "All incoming roommates have to agree to this," she says. "It is written in their roommate agreement and non-negotiable."
Mary Lou Podlasiak, author of "Rules for Roommates," has a slightly different take: "If you live with a clean freak, and you're not, I suggest you raise your white flag and pay your roommate a fair amount for taking over (the cleaning). It's the only way to keep peace."