Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Sharing a room and saving your sanity.
I had five roommates in five months. How you can avoid doing the same.

As I mentioned before, I decided to live on my own when going to grad school and since returning to work, and that's a large reason why. To be fair, I had more good roommates than bad, but the bad was bad enough that I never wanted to put myself through that again. And now, a cautionary tale, and my suggestions for avoiding it at the end.

Roommate 1) I had lived with a family member for nine months when I got tired of my 1 hour 15 minute commute. (She had also decided to move to Florida.) We had had a pretty decent roommate relationship, but being in two separate states would put a damper on that. So I started hunting for a new living situation in March. I went through SO many group house interviews, single roommate interviews, and my favorite, married-couples-looking-for-a-third-person interviews. Finally, I found...

Roommate 2) I should have known from the stacks and stacks of newspapers in the family room that she didn't think much about respecting common areas, but I was getting desperate, the room was a decent size, and it was really conveniently located. To be fair, I made the first faux pas. When moving in, I slipped on the wet sidewalk and scraped the wallpaper in the hall. I immediately admitted it and offered to pay for replacement, but she looked aghast and said she'd installed it herself. (That our never-seen landlord basically allowed V. to run the place was part of the problem.) After that, everything was my fault. She couldn't be bothered to give me the total rent due for both partial May and June, and so she didn't get a check right on the first? My fault for not writing two checks. I ran the dishwasher and it stopped working? Never mind that the repairman blamed the caked-on food on the plates that had been sitting there from before I even moved in; I broke it. I didn't take the trash out right at 7 PM, even though every other neighborhood I'd ever lived in mandated that it shouldn't go out until after sunset? I was being discourteous. I got locked out because she neglected to mention that the kitchen door would lock behind me, and she had to take three seconds to come unlock the door? A vast imposition. I'd leave one box of cereal out in the midst of her collection of protein shake glasses? I was being messy.

Oh, and I was also accused of leaving lint in the laundry room (that was on top of some of the old roommate's forgotten towels) and having my car battery die just to drag her into "a drama" (clearly, yes, that was my master plan). And when I suggested that her renting the entire downstairs meant that she could take her things somewhere else than the dining room table so that I could eat, her response was "You KNOW that's my table, right?" That was the breaking point. (During this time, we technically had a third roommate, but she never really spent time there. V. claimed that this was because she really liked her boyfriend. I'm pretty sure it was to save her sanity.)

Fortunately, I never signed a lease with her, so on the first of July, I left a note on the table telling her my deposit was my thirty days' notice, and I was moving out. My parents had driven down for vacation, and helped me move my things in with...

Roommate 3) who needed someone to take over her lease. I hadn't found the place on my own; P. (Roommate-4-to-be) had done that. But P. couldn't qualify to rent the place herself, so we agreed to co-sign the lease for August, and just have me move in in July. L. and I actually got on quite well; even her cat found me friendly. I was kind of sad when she moved into her new place in August, but we still see each other regularly. She's now one of my closest friends. I cannot say the same for...

Roommate 4) who seemed very nice initially. She came off as someone willing to compromise, and because my income was basically allowing the both of us to rent the place, I figured that impression would hold. My first hint that something was wrong was right after the lease signing, when she mentioned that "her husband" would be coming to pick her up. Oh?

It turned out that she was a recent divorcee who had NEVER lived on her own. She was at least a decade older than me and had still lived her entire life with a man handling everything. She'd never paid a utility bill or balanced a checkbook. I tried to be understanding, but insisted that the fact that she wouldn't choose to run the A.C. if living on her own didn't somehow exempt her from doing so if we lived together. When she stopped showing up at home most nights, I figured she was seeing a new guy and left it at that.

Until, of course, she and her ex-husband showed up and told me to give the new sublessee a tour. P. had decided that she was going to go back to school half-time. Apparently she figured that she was such a special snowflake that her current bosses would fall all over themselves to rearrange her schedule to make that possible, and didn't bother checking with them before signing the lease. Surprisingly enough, they didn't accommodate her every whim! So she and her ex-husband (who was, incidentally, basically a slumlord of some run-down properties in the area) decided that they'd sublet the apartment for more than her share of the rent, and she'd move back in with him while they took in the profits. I pointed out that the lease wouldn't allow such an arrangement, and I was absolutely NOT agreeing to take in someone I hadn't picked for myself. I was then subjected to two weeks of telephone abuse from the ex-husband (who was also so rude to the apartment leasing staff that they had him kicked out of the office), and had to basically threaten P. with a lawsuit in order to insure that she'd pay off her part of the rent. I finally got them to agree that I would pick a roommate of my choosing, and that they'd turn over the keys, and that the two of us would sign a new lease. (Since I'd taken over L.'s lease, I was grandfathered in on the month-to-month clause.) After some more obnoxiousness, we finally settled things at the end of September.

Roommate 5) This part was actually pretty smooth. I put a post in the local alternative weekly. The rent hadn't been raised in three years, so the room was quite cheap. The building was very close to public transportation, and the apartment itself had some decent amenities (a W/D and a full-size storage closet), so it was not just cheap, but a good value. I ended up with 70-odd responses to the posting. Of those, 20 expressed willingness to meet for an interview, and 12 actually did. After eliminating some of the applicants (such as the girl with the hair phobia and the one who immediately put her bare feet up on my couch), I winnowed it down to five. And finally, I picked M. She turned out to be a great choice, and we roomed together until I left for school the following summer.

And the point of this long tale of woe? A roommate relationship will impact your psyche as well as your finances, so you should pick a good one at the outset. The better your relationships with roommates are, the more likely you are to share and save money for other things. This means that you should try to be the one in charge of picking your roommates whenever possible. This may be based on a previous frienship, a roommate-matching service, or simply being the leaseholder of the apartment already. Being the one in charge gives you power to ask a potential roommate the important questions about living together.

When I asked those questions, I did so on a questionnaire like this. (Please email me if you would like a formatted copy.)

Please fill out all responses to the best of your ability. This will help me remember you.

Date visited:
Reference First:
Reference Last:
Ref. Phone:
Ref email: (This is CRITICAL. You want someone else's opinion of what they were like as a roommate.)

1)How long have you been in the area?

2)How long do you expect to remain in the area? (These two questions illustrate stability.)

3)Are you currently employed? Where? (And this helps demonstrate their ability to make the payment every month.)

4)How regularly do you like to clean the apartment (vacuuming, bathroom duty, etc):

a) Once a week for vacuuming and kitchen duties

b) Every couple of weeks

c) Once a month

d) Other? Please describe.

(It's not so much if the person is "objectively" clean or messy as it is if they share the same tolerance/intolerance for mess that you do.)

5a)When do you wake up during the week?

5b)..on the weekends?

5c)When do you usually get to sleep during the week?

5d)...on the weekends?

(Night owls and morning doves CAN get along, but a discussion about acceptable activity early in the morning or late at night has to come before that.)

6)If you’re planning a good time, you’re most likely to (rank 3):

a) Go bar hopping/clubbing with friends

b) Catch a movie

c) See a play

d) See a concert or club show

e) Hang out with friends and watch videos

f) Other? Please describe.

(You don't necessarily want to live with someone who only does the activities that you do, but a teetotaler and a bar-hopper might have more to discuss than the two people who both go to the movies a lot.)

7)What were your biggest pet peeves with previous roommates?

(If you know that you'll invariably do the thing that bothers this person, then DON'T room with them.)

8)What are your best qualities as a roommate? What do you hope other roommates have to offer?

(It's the start of a good discussion about expectations. Almost everything can be managed, as long as almost everything is discussed first.)

9)Tell me a short joke. Use the backside.

(Not everyone might use this question, but I did because I wanted applicants who wouldn't treat the process as life-or-death, and I didn't want to live with anyone who couldn't come up with the occasional joke.)


Anonymous Debt Hater said...

For the record, you have sacred me about getting a roommate! But I am still going to try to find a good one and I will use your questionaire. Thanks for the link!

Anonymous Debt Hater said...

And that should say scared, not sacred! See, I was shaking at my keyboard

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