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Roommates: How To Find and Screen Somebody to Share Your Home

Roommates are almost a necessity of life in your twenties, but living with them doesn't have to be a pain.

Unless you’re moving in with your best friends, I don’t think many people love the idea of living with roommates.

In fact as I write this, just thinking of my some of my former college roommates makes me cringe. They would forget to turn the stove off, scream at each other all night, and on occasion come home from a late night and puke right beside me as I tried to sleep.

But sometimes, when sharing your house with a roommate means the difference between making the mortgage payments or not, you have to do it. And if you’re careful (and lucky) in choosing your roommates, yours probably won’t be as bad as mine, unless you are a college freshman with randomly assigned roommates, in which case, they probably will be.

If you are going to consider bringing a roommate into your home or apartment, take it slow. Consider all of the possible ramifications and possibilities before you let someone you don’t know into your home. 

PREPARING FOR A ROOMMATE

Determine Fair Rent
The whole reason you get roommates is to save money on your mortgage payment or rent. But what should you charge them? It’s not always as easy as splitting your payment in half. Of course you’ll want to charge as much as somebody will pay to crash with you, but what you charge may also have to be determined by how much of your house you’re letting the roommate share.

Will your roommate have full use of the apartment or home, or is he limited to one bedroom and a bathroom?

Also, if you’re advertising “all utilities included” because you think it will be easier to handle the bills, consider this: the type of person who is going to apply may very well be the type of person that turns the heater on 24/7 and walks around in shorts and flip flops. Splitting utilities down the middle or proportionally based on space may not be as simple, but it may save money.

Draw Up Paperwork
Do not take on a roommate without a written agreement even if (perhaps especially if, that roommate is a friend).

If you have an oral agreement for him to pay you each month and he doesn’t end up paying, you have little recourse. Most lawyers will tell you that you won’t be able to collect the rent you’re owed without something in writing. But don’t worry, you probably don’t need a lawyer to draft as simple roommate agreement. Here’s a sample roommate agreement from NoLo.com.

FIND A ROOMMATE

When you’re ready to find a roommate, of course Craigslist is the ubiquitous hub for apartments, sublets, and roommates. You might, however, want to start with your own network: Post your vacancy on Facebook and ask friends and family for recommendations. Other services like Roommates.com provide paid roommate matching services you may or may not want to consider.

Explore a Roommate’s Personality
When you take on a roommate, you don’t need them to be your new best friend. You may not even interact much if you have different work schedules. But you do want to make sure that your personalities are at least somewhat compatible.

Think about yourself for a second: are you a bookworm? A party animal? All business? You don’t need to find someone who is exactly like you, but try to find someone who won’t mess up your schedule too much. If you go to work at 6AM, then you may not want an admitted party animal who comes home at 2AM. Spend some time getting to know the roommate before he moves in. Go out for coffee and discuss your lifestyles so there are no surprises at the last minute. Gayle White discussed the possibility of taking on a potential roommate who disclosed he was a nudist. She told the Boston Globe, “I probably should have said no right away…”.

Decide on Deal-Breakers
Decide on deal-breakers up front. Will you allow:

  • Pets?
  • Smoking? (Inside, outside, or not at all?)
  • Nudists?

Clearly state in your advertisement what you will and will not accept, and put this in your agreement, too.

Do a Background Check
Just because you and your prospective roommate get along great over coffee doesn’t mean he isn’t an axe-murderer.

Sadly, you just don’t know who you can trust. Although a written contract is a must, you may want to go further in screening potential roommates just as you would screen a tenant renting out your entire home. Do a credit check and ask for at least two months of current pay stubs.

Always remember, if your roommate decides not to pay you one month you are still on the hook for the entire rent or mortgage.)

You should also consider running a criminal background and sex offender check on each roommate applicant. It may cost you anywhere from $15 to $30 for each applicant but it’s money well spent. There are many Websites that you can do criminal and sex offender checks on. I’ve been using YouCheckCredit.com for a couple of years now. It’s easy to use, affordable, and you can check criminal backgrounds and credit at the same time. Just make sure you get the prospective roommate’s written permission to do background checks first.

Finally, take the time to call the roommate’s references, employer and previous roommates or landlords on his application too.

Getting a roommate to share your house is a pain, but it’s often a savvy financial move. Sometimes you have no choice—you need a roommate to pay the rent—sometimes having a roommate or two can simply trim your expenses and build wealth faster.

What about you? Do you have any experience taking on roommates in your home? What advice would you give others looking to do the same?

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About Sarah Davis

Sarah Davis is a real estate broker in San Diego, Calif. She enjoys helping both buyers and sellers and was voted one of the top 10 best real estate agents in San Diego in 2013 by Union Tribune readers. In her spare time she talks about real estate on a local radio show and manages her website RealtorSD.com.

Comments

  1. hey – I rent out a room in my house for $600/month inclusive of utilities & fully furnished. I know that 1-bedroom apartments run around $550/month for a studio + utlities + furnishes .. $600 is fair and a good deal. It also happens to be 50% of mortgage.

    I thought facebook was a good way to check out the person’s hobbies, interests and general lifestyle. I did a background check on her, and she did one on me.

    I grew up in a 3-bedroom / 1 bathroom house with 5-6 people at anytime in the city. At college, I always had a roommate. After college, I lived with my boyfriend at the time & since then have sworn to not live with a guy until I have a ring. I don’t mind having a roommate, so it has worked out well so far .. thankfully.

  2. I have a roommate and we’re close family friends so it’s practically like living with a brother. I think we could have done better communicating in the beginning but overall its a great arrangement.

  3. There are many people who live with housemates successfully and happily. The key is being extra careful about selecting a housemate that works for you. It means being clear on what you must have and can’t live with. It means having an honest conversation BEFORE you agree to live together on the key elements where housemates must cooperate to live comfortably together. I have a questionnaire on my site to help this process. I also have a book about finding and keeping good housemates. In this economy with housing costs and shortages people will need to live together cooperatively. It takes some maturity. It can be GREAT. Living alone can be more of a burden than many people realize. Lots more on my website. http://www.sharinghousing.com.

  4. Never had a roommate, in college or as single professional. I’m way too picky. No, that didn’t affect getting used to living with DH after we got married. Somehow, I felt like we’d known each other forever and it has always felt very comfortable.

  5. Great tips, Sarah!
    I have had many roommates over the years and have definitely found that checking with your networks first is the best way to go. I agree with Annamarie, above, that being extra selective before you live with someone is the key to avoiding considerable stress afterwards (It is difficult to avoid someone if they live with you!)

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