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What I learned — the hard way — living with 10 roommates in 5 years

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While I've only had to move three times in the half decade I've lived in New York, one of said moves was to a large, four-person apartment full of people in their early 20s, and as such, I've had a revolving door of roommates. Ten of them, give or take an extra person who crashed in our Bushwick basement for a few months.

For the most part, this added up to cheap rent, good friends, and great house parties, but living with so many different people was a steep learning curve, to put it gently. Everyone's got different styles when it comes to sharing an apartment, and just when you think you've got things figured out, a new person moves in and upends your apartment's ecosystem (or fills it with trash, as the case may be).

And while there's no universal formula to living with people without starting to hate each other, there are a lot of things I wish someone had told me before I dove headfirst into cohabiting. Trial by fire is overrated. Here's what I wish I'd known sooner:

"Friend of a friend" means nothing

A second-degree social connection to a person does not a compatible roommate make. Sure, it's better to find your new roommates through friends than it is through Craigslist, but when you can, try to get in touch with a person who's actually lived with your prospective housemate—not just gone to bars with them—before letting them move in.

Just because a person is pleasant to run into at parties doesn't mean they won't eat your food without replacing it, leave pots of food to rot on the stove, or forget little things, like flushing the toilet (seriously). You never know a person's habits until you've shared a roof.

Age matters

Whether you're 21 and grating the nerves of your 25-year-old roommate with an erratic schedule and lack of cleaning know-how or you're 25 and suddenly the uptight roommate leaving angry Post-its, a couple of years in your early 20s can make a huge difference. It may be dicey legal territory to ask a person's age directly, but with Facebook and rudimentary sleuthing skills, you can get a pretty good idea. 

If you leave the apartment early: Get. Off. The. Lease.

Whatever you do, get off. Off, off, off. Even if it means paying the application fee for your former roommates to sign a new version of the lease. Oh, but "it's not like that, we're friends, it'll probably fine"? It will most definitely not be fine. People get nuts when it comes to money, and you never want your name legally attached to an apartment you're not living in—there are so many ways to get burned by this!

To name a few that've happened to me: having a lease extended in your name without your knowledge (or signature), finding out that a former roommate stopped paying rent (and amassed a huge debt) and staring down the possibility of housing court, having a different former roommate claim your portion of the security deposit as their own when it comes time to settle up. So, like I said, if you leave your apartment before the lease is up, get your name off of every single piece of paperwork that has anything to do with the place (utilities included). Which brings me to my next point....

Get bought out of the security deposit

No one wants a disgruntled former roommate holding their portion of the security deposit hostage. If someone moves in to replace you for the remainder of the terms of the lease (which you took your name off of, right?), have them reimburse you for your portion of the security deposit, then they can take what you originally put in once it comes time to move out and the landlord hands over the deposit. Getting cash up front is never, ever a bad idea.

Don't get a pet

Your roommate might hate you for it, and they might not, but there's no way of knowing—​really knowing—how the situation will shake down until it's too late to turn back and you've brought an innocent animal into the mix. Even roommates who say they're dying to get a cat can, and will, change their minds about the whole things two weeks in, leaving you holding the bag (trust me). Better to hold off until you're in a more stable living situation.

Assume nothing (and ask for what you want)

This is generally true in life, but especially pertinent when it comes to roommates: if you expect anyone to read your mind, you'll always end up disappointed (or filled with quiet, burning resentment). Meaning, then, that if you want someone to do something or change a certain behavior, you have to speak up.

By that same token, you can't safely make assumptions about another person's standards of living, or what constitutes "normal" to them. If you have strong feelings about in-house pot-smoking, frequency of dish-cleaning, overnight guests, use of common space, or just about anything else, make yourself clear, and come to a set of mutually agreed upon standards. Chances are they'll get broken, but it's a better jumping off point than "We're all chill here, right? It'll work itself out." 

Learn to take constructive criticism

Was my older roommate who badgered me with angry texts about minor cleaning infractions ("There's a Windex smudge on the bathroom mirror!! Why??!") a little unhinged? I'd say so. But on the flip side, did I have any idea how to decently take care of an apartment when I first got out of college? Not really, no.

Shockingly few young people know how to properly take care of themselves, let alone an apartment—we're living in a post-Home Ec world, after all—and for a lot of us, even the basics of cooking, cleaning up after yourself, and paying bills on time are… a bit of a learning process. Just as most people aren't neglecting to rinse their pots just to spite you, if your roommate suggests you do something differently in your approach to the apartment, keep an open mind that they may actually have a point. Even just trying to appease someone—​or appearing to, anyway—​can go a long way towards keeping the peace.

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