Layin' Down the Law: Roommate Rules for Rookies

Shacking up with a roommate can mean the difference between a cool downtown loft apartment and a shack on the edge of town. It can mean the difference between having a reliable buddy in a new city and being a loner, lost on public transit.

Having roommates helps you save money and provides a built-in support system. Well, most of the time – when things go well!

If things go poorly, you can wind up strung out at 5 a.m. listening to your roommate wailing while bashing her head into a wall. (That happened to me – more than once.) This can hurt you at school, work, and socially; it can also hurt your pocketbook if rules aren't set up from the get-go.


Unfortunately, roommate drama, like any relationship drama, is never totally avoidable: but you can make it less likely by addressing some big issues up front. After deciding whose name is on the lease, consider addressing these issues long before they arise by force. And remember to have a sense of humor - after all, you're not always easy to live with, either!

  1. Your Yogurt is Your Yogurt; My Rice is My Rice. The holy grail of roommate rules: before you even decide whose toaster oven gets to stay on the counter, agree to disagree about groceries. Don't try to shop and split the bill. Your roommate will eat all the pickles, and you'll be forlorn, broke, and pickle-less. And there’s nothing more maddening then running out of pickles when you need them. Just shop separately - unless you really intend to cook together – and ask nicely if you want to borrow the salt.
  2. Live-in Boyfriends Must Also Pay Rent. (Really.) Don't get trapped by this one. It's tricky, because technically, Boyfriend or Girlfriend probably does maintain a separate residence - but they sure do like yours! Maybe they even like your food and your recliner. Maybe your dog is more inclined to sit on their lap than yours. At some point, an SO can become a third roommate (or fifth, or seventh - you get the idea). If you're roomie (or you) is attached, it's best to address this before you move in together, or trust me, the "But you never said..." mantra will be invoked. (And it will be quickly forgotten if the relationship ends and you're buying chicken soup for your weepy roommate.) Just be up front: most of these rules matter only when you fail to voice your opinion from the start.
  3. Party Foul Prevention 101. Some people stay up all night; some people are early to bed and early to rise. Some people have 400 "friends," others have 4. All of these iterations are fine - but they create instant friction when your roommate is partying at 4:30 am with 100 of those 400 friends, and you've got strangers stamping cigarette butts into your vintage shag rug. Discuss what hours, days and times are appropriate for guests - or just moping in the common areas. Consider your building or condo's CC&Rs as well; noise violations may involve warnings and, in extreme cases, eviction.
  4. Short Showers, Premium Cable: Who Pays for What? Who pays which bill? Do you divide them equally? Choose who pays what? Make those decisions in advance, or you'll find yourself secretly resenting your housemates for taking multiple showers a week - but footing none or a small fraction of the water  bill. If you have more than one roommate, you might want to negotiate being the point person on this duty for a small discount on rent or bills.
  5. What's Clean and Who Cleans It? To some people, a clean house is one that does not contain 5,349 unfixed cats mewling in all the corners, just 17 or so. To others, a clean house is a place where you can eat off the floor and perhaps the toilet seat, too. Most people fall somewhere in between those two extremes, but unless you know your roommate well in advance (and that's not always the best roommate-finding-technique, actually - more on that later), you may want to ask a few questions. How will we divvy up the chore of cleaning? What are your thoughts on mildew? What are your thoughts on wiping out the interior of the microwave once a decade? And so on. Otherwise, the cleaner person will resent the dirtier person, and the dirtier person will feel abused, and before you know it, you're basically in a bad marriage! I'm kidding, of course, but you'd be surprised how big of a small issue cleaning can become in shared digs.

I know some of you are reading these rules and thinking, "That wouldn't have stopped my nutty roommate from [fill in the blank]." Others are reading these and thinking, "Does it ever get that bad?" The latter group is lucky, and probably followed the rules instinctively.

Tell us your best - or is it worst? - roommate horror story in the comments - and how you fixed it!

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About the Author: Lindsey Donner

Lindsey Donner, is a writer who graduated magna cum laude from NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study in 2006. Her diverse experience includes working as managing editor of an English newspaper in Mexico and copyediting a novel about Cleopatra in the Czech Republic. In 2009, Lindsey launched her own design and writing consultancy, Well Versed Creative. Be sure to read her blog about the business of writing.

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