The 5 Most Common Causes of Roommate Discord
…and the questions you can ask to prevent problems—and determine compatibility—at the outset.
Because of the high cost of living in New York City, more people than you might think choose to share their apartments with roommates rather than fend for themselves financially (splitting cable and electric alone can save you $200 per month). But finding a roommate as an adult isn’t the same as when you were in college. For one, there’s no housing office that randomly assigns a stranger to live with you, which is a good thing— with the freedom to choose your own housemates, you can decide for yourself what kind of person you’ll potentially have to be around for up to 24 hours day. But how do you know you’re making the right choice? Figuring out the right roommate isn’t just about compatibility and personality—to really be sure, it helps to get everything out on the table before you hand over any keys, even the little stuff. Below, the five biggest problems people encounter with roommates and the questions you can ask to prevent those things from becoming an issue in the first place.
Personal Space, Visitors and The Boyfriend Rule
Before moving in with someone, you should have clear expectations about what areas of the apartment will be common areas and how often guests (including significant others) can spend the night. Boyfriends or girlfriends can often be an overlooked issue, says Matt Hutchinson, Director of Spareroom.com. “If you don’t deal with this one you may find yourself with an extra roommate you didn’t bargain for or choose (and who doesn’t pay the rent!),” he says. Hutchinson suggests what he calls The Boyfriend Rule: “The fair solution is it’s OK for your roommate’s partner to stay over as many nights a week as your roommate stays at theirs, but with a maximum of three nights per week.”
Where do you plan to spend most of your time in the apartment? If you’re the sort of person who likes to hang out in the living room all night and only go into your room to sleep, you’ll probably clash with someone who expects never to see you except in passing. Similarly, if you want to live with someone who will watch movies with you, cook dinner together, and throw parties with you, it’s probably not a good idea to find a roommate who spends all her time in the apartment holed up in her room.
Do you have a partner/boyfriend/girlfriend you expect to be able to stay over? If you don’t care about The Boyfriend Rule, that’s fine. But you should still lay down some ground rules and expectations; you may not care about accumulating a second roommate but might care about being late to work because too many people are trying to use the shower at the same time.
Do you expect to have out-of-town friends crashing at the apartment? When you live in New York City, there’s always someone who wants to come visit without having to pay for a hotel room. Make sure there are ground rules for how often (and how long) out-of-town guests can stay on your living room floor. “Otherwise, again, you may find yourself with an unwanted roommate,” Hutchinson says.
Finances (Or: Who’s Going to Pay for the Paper Towels?)
As it is in all relationships, money can often be an issue when you’re living with someone else. There are obvious things, like making sure your prospective roommate has a job and enough money to pay the rent every month (and on time, too). But money issues between roommates are more likely to be due to smaller issues that build up to big resentments. People have a variety of opinions on how to handle minor expenses (ranging from “it’s no big deal” to “let’s keep track of every penny”), so chances are good you may have different plans about money than your prospective roommate. But talking about it can help prevent trouble from the beginning, making sure [to match] up with your personal view,” says Jeff Orlick, of roommateswantednyc.com.
Whose responsibility is it to pay for and/or purchase toilet paper, trash bags, and other household items? You should each have clear ideas about whether one person will be responsible (and be reimbursed by the other) or if you’ll take turns picking up supplies. Also, figure out whether you’re going to keep a running list of who bought what.
How will we split up the cost of utilities? Some roommates will split everything down the middle but have different bills in each person’s name, which can be helpful for proving residency for everything from an ID card to a library card. But some people may prefer to have nothing in their name, in which case you’ll have to take the risk of being reimbursed. Other roommates might want to have one person pay for cable, another for electricity and Internet, etc. Whatever arrangement you come upon, make sure you’ve agreed upon it in advance rather than after you get your first ConEd bill.
Keeping a Clean House and a Full Refrigerator (or Not)
There are probably as many opinions about how and how often to clean an apartment as there are apartments. “Cleaning” as a concept itself can be vague, including everything from deep spring cleaning to washing the dishes (apartmenttherapy.com lists dish-washing behavior as one of the major things that can cause roommate discord). And you’ll also want to make sure your potential roommate doesn’t have an issue with your dietary habits (or vice versa)—it could be something serious, like a food allergy you’ll need to know about (if you love peanut butter sandwiches, don’t share an apartment with someone who has a severe peanut allergy).
How often do you do your dishes? Some people wash their dishes right away after eating, while others wait until the sink is overflowing (or they run out of flatware) to bring out the sponge and dish soap—it may be a small thing, but it can be a big deal if it matters to you.
How do you think house cleaning should be handled? There are several options here, ranging from splitting the costs of a weekly or monthly maid service, divvying up chores with rotating cleaning duties or just letting the apartment go to ruin. The best way to ask this question, according to RoomieMatch.com, is to make sure you have similar standards. The site’s Roommate Behavior Ratings can help you get matched with someone who has the same level of cleanliness as you do, for example. Or you can just offer the maid service as the first option and see how they respond (a disgusted look could mean that they don’t want to spend the money, or it could mean that they don’t value a clean apartment).
Do you have any dietary restrictions? Vegetarians and vegans range from those who don’t mind if they live with an omnivore to those who never want anything formerly alive to cross the threshold of the apartment. Make sure you’re on the same page here, lest you find yourself bombarded with PETA pamphlets after eating a steak. You can also use this as a springboard for asking whether there will be shared food or if things will be clearly labeled and hands-off unless otherwise explicitly stated.
Living with Animals, Party and Regular
Parties and pets are another two areas in which roommates are likely to clash. You’ll want to know how often your roommate plans on throwing parties (and what kind of parties they’ll be). The younger your roommate, the more likely this is to be an issue, according to RoomieMatch.com (which breaks age ranges down to under 30, 30-50, and over 50, each with varying degrees of risk regarding partying behavior). And pets can cause a huge amount of discord; make sure there are clear expectations about who will clean up messes, take care of feeding schedules, and handle other pet care duties.
Do you expect to be able to throw parties and, if so, how often and how loudly? A related question is whether someone drinks or smokes; some people may have problems having alcohol in the home at all, much less throwing a wild party. And smoking (cigarettes or otherwise) should be discussed: whether it’s okay only outside, inside, or not at all.
Do you have any pets or expect to get any? Allergies come into play here, but so does personal preference. If you have a pet, make sure your potential roommate not only can tolerate the type of pet you have but also enjoys having pets around. There are few things worse for a pet owner than having a housemate treat their animals poorly.
Coordinating Schedules and Becoming Friends (or Not)
Because complementary schedules are an important indicator of whether roommates will get along, it’s important to be as honest as possible about your lifestyle. If one person likes to get up early and makes a lot of noise doing so, while the other person stays up late and needs to sleep in, this can cause conflict. Or it could be a non-issue thanks to ear plugs. Either way, it should be discussed. And you should also have similar ideas on what your actual roommate relationship will be like—some people are looking for a best buddy and others want to be strangers passing in the night. Either way, some experts (like those at ForRent.com) warn that entering into a roommate situation with someone who is already a good friend can actually ruin the friendship.
What does your daily schedule look like? A related question is whether your potential roommate works at home. It creeps some people out to know that someone’s in the apartment all day long, while other people might already work from home and feel uncomfortable or distracted by someone else being home, too.
Do you expect to be friends or just roommates? Some people don’t want any more friends and expect just to share an apartment in a friendly respectful manner; others expect to become friends with their housemates and socialize together outside their apartment and even host joint parties. Although it might be an awkward thing to ask someone you’ve just met, try to make sure you each have clear expectations about whether you’d rather be best buds or stay friendly strangers. A good way to approach this topic is to ask an open-ended question, such as “what are you looking for in a roommate?”
Regardless of which questions you ask, they all boil down to one thing: making sure your potential roommate has the same expectations as you do. If you start out on the same page, it’s less likely for you to end up wishing you’d never moved in with each other.