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How to Find a Roommate

aptsherpa · Apr 19, 2006

You’ve finally found the perfect apartment—the right amount of light, the right number of bedrooms, the right kind of shower head, and the kitchen you’ve always dreamed of. Now you just need a perfect roommate to complete the apartment experience. Unfortunately, all of your friends have housing already, and you’re either single or not ready to move in with your significant other. What’s to be done? You might have to resort to advertising for a roommate, either online or in print. But with all the roommate horror stories out there, how can you avoid selecting a psycho or a sadist as your roommate? This article contains tips and tricks for finding the perfect roommate, and for not getting in trouble while doing so.

A caveat: What not to do

When advertising for a roommate, you need to be careful what you say. According to the Fair Housing Act, no one may “Advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap. This prohibition against discriminatory advertising applies to single-family and owner-occupied housing that is otherwise exempt from the Fair Housing Act.” This means that you’re not explicitly able to note any of these characteristics in an advertisement for a roommate. Other important factors, like cleanliness and sleep habits, are okay to advertise. Given the Fair Housing Act’s specifications, however, your best bet may be to describe yourself and your habits, and let potential roommates decide the compatibility issue for themselves. A hard-partying college student is not too likely to respond to an ad describing a “35-year-old professional who works long hours seeks mature roommate for 2-bedroom apartment in quiet complex.” Think about the kind of roommate you want to attract, and compose your advertisement accordingly—although without specifying any racial, religious, or other “forbidden” limitation. Doing so has the potential to get you into some trouble, but it’s far more likely to cause problems for the medium printing the advertisement, and possibly your landlord as well. Avoid any kind of “categorical” bias in your roommate-seeking search, and all should be well.

Six steps toward finding roommate bliss

1. Brainstorm

Before posting any ads, think hard about what you want in a roommate. Do you want to become best buds with your roomie, or just find someone to help pay the bills? If you’re looking for a friend, it’s probably more important for you to find someone near your own age with somewhat similar interests. Depending on your schedule and lifestyle, you may need to select a roommate who works hours comparable to yours so that your quiet/sleeping hours are essentially the same. However, you might also get along best with a roommate whose schedule is significantly different from yours, so you’re rarely home at the same time and never have to fight over who gets the shower or the kitchen at a particular time. Think about what’s worked best for you in the past and what’s caused problems, then consider what characteristics a roommate would need to have to mesh well with you.

2. Create a “compatibility test”

After brainstorming about the characteristics you’d like to see (or characteristics you can’t stand) in a roommate, create a list of these features. You can then interview prospective roommate candidates with this list in hand. While the list probably won’t be as fun and frivolous as a Cosmo compatibility test, it should take into account both minor and major aspects of living together. Everyone wants a roommate who’s reasonably clean and financially responsible—these are absolute musts. However, the most contentious roommate situations can arise due to seemingly small issues, like watching TV too loud and too late at night, vacuuming at 5 a.m., never locking the door, clogging the shower drain with hair, or leaving empty orange juice cartons in the refrigerator.

Come up with five things that drive you absolutely bonkers and write then down, then figure out how to make sure your potential roommate won’t do those things. Don’t ask about these activities directly—few people will admit that they’re late-night snackers who forgetfully leave out gallons of milk and boxes of Oreos for you to discover on the counter the next morning, or that they tend to wait three weeks to do their dishes, often losing forks between couch cushions while creating stacks of dirty dishes in the living room. Ask subtle questions about the candidate’s sleeping hours, eating habits, and cleanliness preferences. Above all, ask for references. Finding a roommate is in some sense like hiring a “living partner” to help share the rent. Treat your interactions with potential roommates like a cross between a job interview and a social visit, and you should come out on top.

3. Consider collective opinion

If you live with multiple individuals and are seeking one newbie to add to the group, make sure to consider everyone’s opinion when selecting a new roommate. If you don’t, anyone opposed to the new addition is guaranteed to complain incessantly about the smallest problems, and to say “I told you so” if the new person doesn’t work out. It may be tougher to “approve” someone this way, but reaching a consensus is more important than finding someone on a tight time schedule. If anyone in the apartment is opposed to the new roomie, rest assured that person will find a way to make the new tenant’s presence an issue in more ways than one.

4. The ad itself

As noted, describing yourself and your situation is a better approach to advertising for a roommate than describing the ideal roommate you seek. This is true not only because your “ideal roommate” probably doesn’t exist, but also because letting roommates self-screen according to the living opportunity you offer is more effective than making yourself meet and screen all the people who think they meet your qualifications. If you’re seeking a roommate reasonably similar to yourself, describe the apartment using the features that drew you to it—central location, quality workout facilities, proximity to shopping, or whatever else tickled your fancy. The people interested in this type of living situation will likely be at least reasonably compatible with you, and you have the opportunity to screen them with phone and in-person interviews, as well as through references. Making the ad about the living situation should attract the right kind of people; making the ad about you might attract friends rather than roommates. Most of us have had an experience living with a friend that revealed how the most fun people aren’t necessarily the greatest to live with. Ensuring compatibility is primary; ensuring excitement can come next (besides, you had enough friends already, right?).

Advertising locally is probably your best bet. Check out your city’s craigslist (if you have one), as well as local newspapers (major and alternative), or the many non-craigslist roommate-finding sites online. If you’re really looking for a particular type of roommate, where you advertise may have the most effect on what kind of person reads your ad. Think about what websites you visit or what magazines or newspapers you read, and put your ad in those locations. If you don’t want to pay to advertise for a roommate, some website ads are free, and word of mouth is sometimes the best way to find a roommate. If your friends like someone, you probably will too, so their recommendation may be a good approach. You can also print out a description of your apartment and post it at your place of work, as well as coffee shops or other local hangouts.

If for any reason you’re seeking someone very different from yourself to live with you, perhaps as a nanny, cook, or personal assistant, post an advertisement that’s heavier on the job description than the apartment itself. Attracting unqualified people who are merely interested in the apartment, rather than the employment, will waste your time and energy.

5. Ask for references

You had to supply information about your credit history and renting experience when you applied to live in your apartment. Why not ask your roommate candidates to provide similar information to prove that they’re dependable? Talk to the individual’s former landlords and—more importantly—former roommates to see what living with the person is like. Ask the former roommate about any bad habits the person had, and about that person’s willingness to respect others’ wishes. The ability and willingness to communicate openly is an important characteristic to seek in a roommate, as only communication (or moving out) can resolve super-sticky issues (like your roomie’s tendency to spill ice cream all over the counter and not clean it up—ew!).

6. Look for flexibility

Even if a person has some habits that you don’t like, that individual may have an accepting personality and be able to adapt to some of your requirements. As suggested, ask former roommates or friends (if available) about your potential roommate’s personality. If there’s any indication of stubbornness or inability to change, you may want to think twice—unless this person is stubborn in regard to issues on which you, too, are unwilling to compromise.

Even the most perfect apartment can be thoroughly ruined by a bad roommate. And a roommate-hunting experience could easily be ruined by finding out that you advertised in an inappropriate or even illegal manner. Do your research on what requirements are allowed under the Fair Housing Act, think hard about what you want in a roommate, and launch your “advertising campaign” accordingly. Interview prospective roommates—don’t just let them marvel at the apartment—and don’t be afraid to say no. Even if someone really needs a place to live, letting that person move in only to find that you can’t stand each other will only result in immense headaches. Remember that it’s much easier to screen an applicant than to kick out a roommate, and make sure you choose your living partner wisely.

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