Unless you’re moving in with your best friends, many people don’t 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. 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. What you charge has to be determined by how much of your house (or apartment) you’re letting the roommate share.
Will your roommate have full use of the apartment or home, or are they 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 them to pay you each month and they don’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 a simple roommate agreement. Here’s a roommate agreement from NoLo.com.
Finding 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 they move 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:
- Smoking? (Inside, outside, or not at all?)
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 they aren’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.
Related: A Guide to Renter’s Rights
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 where you can do these checks. 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 their 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.