It’s tempting to move in with someone—maybe even anyone—to share the cost of rent and utilities.
If you’re living with a friend, friend of a friend, or someone who happened to answer your Craigslist ad, you’re not alone.
According to one study, the number of young adults living with roommates increased by 39 percent from 2005 to 2015.
But before you both sign your name on a lease (or even worse, only one of you does), you and the person you’ll be sharing bottles of ketchup with for the foreseeable future need to sit down and have a serious conversation.
We asked a cohabitation expert and some people who lived through roommate-from-hell stories what questions you should ask a potential housemate (other than how much rent they can afford), even if it’s someone you think you know really, really well. Here’s their advice:
What do we expect from each other?
“Having a roommate can be problematic,” says Graham Farran, an Executive Broker at Expert Props, a sales, furnished rental, and property management company in Southern Oregon.
Most of the problems stem from a lack of communication about what each roommate expects from the other.
What’s obvious to you—not eating one another’s food, for example—may not be so clear to your roommate. We were all raised differently, after all.
Take my husband. In his 20s, after a short stint in Alaska, he moved into an apartment with a guy who had put up an ad for an empty room. When they met, they talked about what types of music they each liked, and how much the rent was.
One day my husband, who has learned a great deal about living with someone since this time, walked into his bedroom to find that his roommate had piled up all of the dirty dishes onto his bed.
Granted, my husband was wrong not to do his dishes promptly (a problem he still has). But how passive aggressive can you be to stack dirty dishes on someone’s bed instead of just saying, “Hey, can you do your dishes already?”
My husband soon moved out, dirty glares all around.
The whole situation could have been avoided if the two had talked about their expectations before moving in together.
If you’re thinking about moving in with someone, make it clear what you both are thinking when it comes to:
- Food and house staples—Will you share anything at all?
- Cleaning—How often should the dishes be done, floor swept and so on?
- Heating and air conditioning—How cold or hot do you each expect rooms to be? If one person has a strong preference, will the other pay a larger portion of those utility bills?
- Cable—Do you both want it? If only one of you does, can the other watch it freely?
- Houseguests—How late can you each entertain?
Do you understand what happens if one of us leaves before the lease ends?
“Most renters that are roommates are not aware that they are both have 100 percent responsibility for the rent. If the roommate doesn’t pay, then the other roommate is also liable. The lease can also say that they are all responsible for late fees,” says Graham.
I was a landlord once—one of the worst experiences of my life—and I ferociously held tenants to the terms of their lease.
It’s not because I was an evil slumlord, but because I was responsible for the housing expenses where I live, plus the mortgage and upkeep of the house I rented out. And I’m not exactly rolling in cash. Paying two mortgages at once wasn’t an option.
When one difficult tenant said she’d only pick up her dog’s feces when the weather permitted, I was sure to point out Clause F on page 4, which stated it was her daily obligation, regardless of the season. When that same tenant threatened to break her lease, I told her that she’d be violating clause A on page one, which gave me the right to pursue both her and her roommate in court for unpaid rent.
There are a few different scenarios of what might happen if your roommate is on the lease and leaves early.
- Your landlord can kick you out too. According to Nolo.com, “Moving out without the landlord’s permission is a violation of a lease clause, and one co-tenant’s lease-breaking is a transgression for which all tenants are liable.”
- Your landlord probably won’t do this if you can pay the rent alone. But if you can’t, expect to see your former roomie and landlord in small claims court.
- If you want someone else to replace the parting roommate, make sure the landlord approves the tenant, and his or her name goes on the lease. If you don’t do this and the landlord discovers that someone lives there whose name isn’t on the lease, you can both be evicted. Even worse, if your second roomie moves out, you’re on the hook all alone for unpaid rent.
Avoid an eviction at all costs. It really hurts your credit score. If your landlord successfully evicts you in court, he or she can report the eviction and any unpaid rent that a collection agency tries to recover to credit bureaus.
Granted, it’s a pain for landlords to go to court. I’ve let pain-in-the-a** tenants break leases just to get them out of my life. But I’ve also been so mad at a few of them that I was thisclose to going through the hassle of suing them.
What’s your five-year plan?
You might be able to prevent a roommate from ditching the lease early if you pose one simple question. “Ask, ‘How long to you plan to live here?’” Graham suggests.
No one can predict the future, but if your new roomie would ditch the city you currently live in for any job offer in L.A., maybe you should keep looking for someone else.
What do you do for fun?
This is a trick question. You shouldn’t ask it with the intention of becoming your potential roomie’s new BFF. No one wants a “Single White Female” situation.
You’re really asking this question to make sure your new roomie is a basically normal person who leaves the house occasionally and has friends.
My friend Kelly, who doesn’t want me to use her last name because she’s still freaked out about her former roommate, learned the hard way how easy it can be to accidentally move in with a psychopath.
“My roommate in Oakland came home and found out that one of the dogs (he had three rescue dogs and I had one) peed in his bed. He assumed it was my dog and flipped out,” she remembers. “He pulled his own mattress out of his room, dragged it through the house and threw it over the balcony into the yard. Then he smashed a bunch of things all around the house, while me and the four dogs were locked in my bedroom.”
In retrospect, she realized the guy didn’t have any friends and never really left the house.
If a person doesn’t have any close relationships, consider it a red flag. According to Mental Health America, “Those who struggle with a personality disorder have great difficulty dealing with other people. They tend to be inflexible, rigid, and unable to respond to the changes and demands of life. Although they feel that their behavior patterns are “normal” or “right,” people with personality disorders tend to have a narrow view of the world and find it difficult to participate in social activities.”
- Most rental nightmares can be avoided if potential roommates talk about expectations, lease terms, and future plans.
- If a landlord successfully sues you for violating the lease, you can be assured collection agencies will start harassing you for unpaid rent, and your credit score will take a hit.