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11 years, 17 shares: How to pick a roommate

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Donna, a 32-year-old South Dakota native, moved into a 3-bedroom apartment in Gowanus, Brooklyn eleven years ago and hasn't left since. She's waited tables, tended bar and worked retail, but to make her $2,000 rent, which hasn't budged since the day she arrived, she has relied on keeping the other two bedrooms rented. 

Donna has found roommates 17 times, kicked out only 3, and never been stiffed on the rent.   How does she do it? As she recently told BrickUnderground, she has some very clear ideas on who not to hand over the keys to. She shares some more of her roommate-finding technique here:

How much time should you allow for finding a roommate?

One month. At least one month.

When's the best time of year to find a roommate?

They say fall is usually a better time, but I've never had problems filling the rooms. I also think the price point is pretty good. The rooms are $600, $650, and $750, which I think is pretty fair.

How do you find roommates?

Some of them were friends of friends, but most were from Craigslist.

What's important to say in a Craigslist ad? 

Be honest. I think it's very important to say what you're looking for. Just make sure the rules are laid down. Make sure that they know what you're looking for in a roommate. We always say, no smoking in the apartment, no pets, and that we're looking for responsible people who won't bring the party home.

Describe the ideal roommate

Someone who will respect everyone else's privacy, and someone you can trust to not go through your sh*t. Someone with respect, who will help around the apartment and keep it nice. I used to have a joke that the best roommate is someone who's never here.

So how do you pick this person out? 

The way it works in this apartment is that whoever is leaving needs to put the ad on Craigslist and then we do open houses when the other two people who are staying are home. This is the best way to do it. The key is getting more than one opinion--even if you're living alone, make sure you have someone with you who is a good judge of character. Also, don't let anyone live with you who doesn't have a job--you need to make sure people can pay their rent--which makes me sound like a hypocrite. I don't even know if I can say that because when I moved here I didn't have a job.

But now you're in charge.

I'm in charge now. I make the rules.

How many people come to your open houses?

Usually about ten. The most would be like 15 or 16. We have it for two hours on a Saturday or weeknight evening usually.

What are deal-breakers?

No pets, because I'm allergic, though we did have rats once, which I thought would be a deal breaker, but they weren't that bad.

Someone had rats, as pets?

Yeah. She kept them in an aquarium in her room and she gave them baths once a week so they wouldn't smell...if she was gone I'd have a salad for dinner and share it with the rats. I never touched them but I'd feed them.

So other deal-breakers?

No pets, no kids--not that I care if people have kids, but I don't want to live with them. No couples. I never want to live with a couple again because when couples fight, they need to have their own separate places to go to.

No hardcore drugs. I don't think i've had anyone who's had a hardcore addiction to anything other than alcohol.

Another red flag is working from home. Everyone needs some time to have the apartment to themselves and if someone works from home, they throw the whole balance off. I've always worked weekends and had days off during the week when I would relax, bake, watch TV. I never wanted to worry that I was disturbing someone who was conducting business in the apartment on my off day. And people need to have a steady income. No just-students. I've never had a student who's lived here who didn't have a job.

Do you check for proof of income?

I don't think I have. I'm too trusting, which is sad. 

Have you ever had money problems with people?

No.

Do you ask for a deposit?

Yes. One-month.

Did you ever not give it back because someone trashed something?

No. I think there were just a couple people who couldn't find anyone to take their room because they left too quickly. So maybe they didn't get it back. I'm not sure.

You've had to kick three people out. Why?

One was an alcoholic who lived here for six months. He'd go through a case-and-a-half of beer every day and drink my liquor. I sat down with him finally, when things got really bad--he wasn't so bad when he first moved in--and told him he had a month to get a new place. He was pissed off but he dealt with it.

The second girl got into a big fight with our other roommate about dirty dishes. I don't know if we told her to leave, or if she just got the picture that she wasn't welcome anymore, and eventually left. She was here just three months.

The third case the landlord handled. A guy who lived in one of the bedrooms used to hang out on the roof being loud. The landlord couldn't take another complaint, so he handled it and the guy moved out.

Besides these three, have you been satisfied with your roommates?

Lately yes. In the beginning no, I lived with two different couples for a few years. And then there was [one girl] who was so high and mighty about her food. She'd do all this juicing and criticize what I was eating. Then she'd go in her room and eat a bag of Snickers. 

Do you think you're choosing your roommates differently than you used to?

I do believe that with age there is some wisdom and you do get a little better at this as the years go on, but there's definitely some luck with it because you can't control who's going to answer your ads. 

Do you think you're ever going to move out of here, stop living with roommates?

I hope some day.  If I win the lottery, then I'll buy the building.

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