Center for Personal Finance editorial intern
My fellow renters: It can be tough to save money in this economy. Since housing is one of your largest fixed expenses, having roommates can be a big-time money saver. Sharing your place with fun and friendly people can be a blast but, in some unfortunate instances, rooming together becomes an argumentative spiral that can end in legal battles.
Whether you're just beginning to search for roommates or have lived with yours for years, use this advice to ensure a positive experience that won't leave you with gnarly legal and financial obligations.
pick and choose
Great news: If you haven't yet chosen your roommates, you have the power to create an optimal shared living environment. You're working with a clean slate, and the smart choices you make now are the best prevention for future disputes.
Living with people you already know does not guarantee you'll get along as roommates. Actually, if lifestyles clash, friends might consider not living together. You don't want your best friend to become your worst roommate.
Living with people you already know is not a guarantee that you'll get along as roommates. You and your future roommates will get along best if you can tolerate each other's lifestyles and communicate openly. See how well you and your potential roomies match up on these traits:
- Personality type
- Financial responsibility
- Respect for others
- Privacy needs
- Noise levels
- Food tastes and sharing
- Strong political or personal beliefs
To find out if you're a good fit, ask for recommendations from prospective roommates' friends, bosses, previous roommates, and landlords. Likewise, be ready to give them your references.
The point isn't to find clones of yourself—one of the joys of rooming with others is experiencing other points of view and backgrounds. You're looking to minimize serious friction, not destroy diversity.
sign here, please
Your next best move is to draft a roommate agreement together. If your lease doesn't provide you with legal protection against your roommates skipping out on rent, utilities, and property damage fees, include those topics in your roommate agreement. Financially, a signed agreement could be your only protection against delinquent roommates. While a judge will enforce financial agreements, such as how rent is shared, not every part of a roommate agreement can be enforced. Even so, the nonfinancial components of an agreement are imperative.
Attorney Bruce Sarbaugh, who has worked with the University of Colorado at Boulder's off-campus student services for seven years, says all roommates should sign agreements. "The primary reason is not necessarily that you would have a legally enforceable contract, but it's more of a tool to get [roommates] to understand what shared living is all about and to get everybody on the same page about expectations of lifestyles."
Don't think that these contracts are just for college students—roommates of all ages should be clear about expectations in a shared home. Your agreement can include anything you believe is important enough to have its own rule. To get started, think about discussing provisions for:
- Rent and utilities
- Splitting of other shared expenses
- Study/work routines
- Noise policy
- Overnight guests
- Sharing of personal items (or not)
- Leaving the lease early
- House meetings/check-ins
In some cases, your roommates may believe an agreement is unimportant or that you don't trust them if you want them to sign a contract. In the latter case, Sarbaugh advises that you first discover the root of why your roommates feel you don't trust them. Then, you can clarify that it's not a matter of trust but more a matter of setting expectations for when it's party time and when it's study or work time.
Affirm that the purpose of forming an agreement is to prevent household problems from ever arising. "You're trying to anticipate the issues down the road, and the roommate agreement addresses these potential issues," Sarbaugh points out.
Try suggesting, "Let's talk about it now while we're getting along so that we don't have to deal with it later when we're not talking. Once we've come to an agreement, I trust that we'll both honor the contract."
get some face time
Each roommate experience is unique and comes with its own set of problems. The list of potential issues is endless but, in any dispute that turns sour, the root is poor communication. "It all stems from not talking," says Nora Kilroy, director of off-campus life at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Kilroy says communication—or lack of it—is the No. 1 roommate problem she encounters. "Roommates who spend time once a month talking tend to do well together," Kilroy says, adding that bringing up concerns in a timely manner works best.
If an issue does arise, make sure that the roommates involved are the first to know if you're upset. For best results, keep your cool and address the problem face-to-face. "Passive-aggressive doesn't work," explains Kilroy. "If you leave notes, e-mail, or text, people can take it the wrong way."
Kilroy says finding the middle ground is key. If, for example, you want to confront a concern immediately, but your roommate needs a couple of days before discussing it, wait a day before asking to talk about it again.
You'll also need to compromise when butting heads with roommates. "You can never go in saying, 'This is the way it has to be.' You'll always have to compromise on something," warns Kilroy. If you're unwilling to compromise, chances are, your roommates won't be keen on doing so, either. None of you will get what you want, and you'll be mad at each other to boot.
Searching for roommates and maintaining communication takes effort, but your time and energy are worth the commitment. Understanding and respecting each other's expectations will do wonders in creating a peaceful home for all.