Having a roommate is a high-stakes venture. For better or worse, they are guaranteed to change your living environment and your experience of the place you call home. Great roommates can make your home life more affordable, friendly and fun. Splitting the rent can gain you access to more spacious, location-convenient or just plain nicer accommodations than you could afford on your own. If you’re new to a city, roommates can offer some built-in company while you find your social circle – or even become the basis of your social circle, kicking off strings of great memories and lifelong friendships. Sharing your living space can mean having friendly help nearby for some of the little challenges life always involves – when you lose your phone charger, your roommate lends you hers. When she runs out of flour in the middle of a baking project, you’ve got her covered.Some roommates take it to the next level and swap skill sets: one can fix your bike, another can edit your resume, and you take awesome photos for everyone’s Tinder profiles.
At best, shared housing arrangements can bring people together in beautiful ways and make life better for everyone. But while roommates can lead to great times if things go right, they can pose big risks if they don’t. Everyone’s heard horror stories of roommate situations gone awry: romantic partners who move in unexpectedly and don’t pay rent; loud Tuesday-night partying when you have a morning meeting at the office; the messy roomie who never cleans up after himself.
While these stories can be funny in retrospect, they can make your life incredibly stressful and difficult when you’re living them. Bad roommates can cause serious financial damage if they don’t pay their fair share of the bills. They can make your living space hard to use – a sink full of dirty dishes that never get cleaned might have you eating out just to avoid conflict over kitchen conditions. Finally, there’s the emotional toll bad roommates can inflict. Hostility, unpredictability, passive-aggressiveness, disrespect – when these are coming at you from other people in your living space, home can feel more like a prison than a sanctuary. Clearly, the stakes are high. It’s important to screen potential roommates carefully. Your top criteria shouldn’t be people you want to be friends with or some set-in-stone idea of what makes an ideal roommate – rather, you should try to gather as much information as you can about how compatible the candidates’ lifestyles are with your own.
But while there are many ways to be a good roommate, there are some surefire ways to be a bad one! Whatever your lifestyle preferences, there are certain characteristics that you just don’t want in anyone you’re going to share a living space with. To avoid someday having to tell the tale of the Horrible Roommate of 2019, here are five red flags to look out for:
1. They believe there’s only one “right” way to do things.
People grow up in very different ways depending on culture, class, geography and more – and they adopt their own habits as adults based on their needs and preferences. While there may be a general consensus around certain behaviors – against letting garbage bags pile up indoors, for example – anyone who wants to live successfully with others needs to understand that many aspects of housekeeping include room for debate and compromise.
Should the dishes get washed immediately after use, at the end of every night, or within a 48-hour window? Do shoes get left at the doormat, or is it okay to wear them inside? Are big, crazy parties ever okay? Even if you agree on everything that you discuss, if your potential new roommate seems to think the answer to all of these questions is a foregone conclusion, you are likely to run into trouble when something comes up where you don’t see eye to eye. And something will definitely come up. Look for a roommate who demonstrates an ability to hear other people’s opinions and respect them as valid, and who is flexible enough to work toward compromises everyone can live with.
2. They aren’t financially stable.
It can be awkward to ask strangers about their income and finances – but keep in mind if you move in together, you won’t be strangers for long and your finances may be intertwined. Trying to recover debts after they’ve accrued through the legal system can be an enormous headache and sometimes impossible. That’s why you should be sure you have a clear understanding of the financial risk you run if a person stops paying rent or utilities.
Get a full picture – and proof, if possible – of your prospective roomie’s employment situation and income. Do they have an overall stable employment history? If this employer is new, how long have they worked in this industry? Call the HR department to verify. Ask for pay stubs. You might also ask about where they would turn if they ran into a major unexpected expense – do they have savings? However awkward it might be to ask these questions now, it will be much harder to deal with the consequences later if you are relying on your new roommate to pay bills on time and they don’t.
3. They expect you to pay for things you aren’t comfortable with.
This scenario can be just as bad as a financially unstable roommate – one who wants to live larger than you do, in part on your dime. Does your roommate expect you to split bills for optional services you don’t want, like satellite TV? Do they expect you to contribute high-end furniture to the interior decorating scheme, or to help foot the bill to repaint? Do they want the fastest internet speeds and the heat set to balmy all winter, when you’d prefer a thriftier approach? Be sure to chat about expectations for shared costs to be sure you and your potential new roomie are compatible on that front.
4. They don’t share your expectations about sharing.
There is no right way to share within a household – but you need to make sure you’re on the same page about what gets shared and how.
For instance:Does everyone in the home buy their own coffee, or do you take turns grabbing a bag of beans? Does this get tracked in some way, or is it an informal honor system? What if someone prefers more expensive eco-friendly cleaning products, and another person just wants to buy the cheapest supplies in bulk? Is it ever okay to take other people’s food? Is a “share shelf” available in the kitchen, or is there a labeling system for surplus items in the fridge that can be shared? If not, and you think that’s a great idea, are the current roommates open to setting up a system, or does this just sound like a hassle to them? What about larger items that go in common spaces – can your roommates use your keyboard? Can you use their weight bench? What about dishes and glasses? What happens when these items break? (Because they will break…)
Obviously you can’t cover every scenario beforehand, but be sure you understand the general philosophy and attitude your potential new roommate has about sharing – and be sure this is an area where you have common ground.
5. They can’t seem to muster an opinion about anything.
Some people are very easy-going and can accommodate themselves to a range of ways of doing things – that kind of flexibility is fine in a roommate. But the truth is most people have some pet peeves and some preferences about their home environment. If a roommate candidate can’t seem to muster an opinion about anything, insisting “whatever you want is cool with me,” or seems bored or annoyed by detailed questions, chances are you’re going to run into trouble once the need to communicate arises later.
Maybe the person doesn’t have enough experience living with others to have insights about their own habits, or maybe they don’t want to be bothered with the comparatively dull subject of how kitchen storage space is divided. Maybe they are very shy or lack social skills. Whatever the source of the problem, a person who can’t or won’t engage with you on the crucial but sometimes tedious details of setting up a home together is probably not well-equipped for the kind of advanced communication required to prevent and resolve conflict later on.
Some disagreement is inevitable in a shared home – ideally, you want a roommate who has the social skills to navigate that future conflict with grace, humility and a spirit of collaboration (at the very least, without passive-aggressive sticky notes).
So what makes a good roommate?
Once you’ve eliminated roommate candidates with these red flags- the ones likely to make them lousy roommates for anyone – then you can start narrowing the pool down to the ones most compatible with you.
To identify good matches, put some thought into the specifics of what you’re seeking and how you want to live in your home. What are your ideal conditions when it comes to cleanliness, noise levels, and house guests? Do you hope to interact a lot with your roommates, or do you prefer a less social environment? Where are you willing to compromise? What’s a deal-killer? It’s not a bad idea to write some of this down and refer to it during the roommate screening process. Never doubt how important your home environment is to your happiness and well-being.
Screening roommates can feel awkward and challenging at times, but remember that it’s always easier to ask tough questions now than to put up with – or try to get out of – a bad shared housing situation later. Don’t want the hassle of screening roommates yourself? For an innovative approach to shared housing, check out Common’s co-living communities. Click here to learn more.
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