Fresh Out of College Week

How to pick the right roommate and live in peace, according to the experts

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We've all probably had some experiences with less-than-ideal roommates (especially if you're a recent college grad). And while you've probably heard of Single White Female-style horror stories, the more typical drama-filled scenarios revolve around such annoyances as disrespect, lack of cleanliness, and general personality mismatches.

To help weed out bad apples early and learn how to cope with awkward situations down the road, we turned to two experts: Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist regularly featured on TV (and who once was a broker), and Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist who acts as a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate, share tips on setting the right tone for roommates from the get-go.

Know what type of person you’re looking for

Before you even start writing a post (on social media or on another roommate-specific site) looking for a roommate, decide if you want a person who'll just occupy a room or a new friend. “If you write a bit about the vibe of the living space you are looking for, you'll likely attract a person who is looking for the same,” Saladino suggests. Also include questions to see if your personalities match, like hobbies, favorite TV shows, and activities you enjoy if you want to set up a more personal relationship.

When choosing a friend versus a stranger, think about the type of relationship you want. “Sometimes it is easier to set rules and stick with them if the person isn't a friend," says Saladino. "There's also less possibility of messing up a friendship in this case. Often people are great friends but challenging to live with.” 

But if you think a friend could be a great roommate, there is a built-in “baseline of trust that you may not have with a random roommate,” she adds. Overall, proceed with caution. “Really consider any cons of a friend moving in pretty carefully before jumping on the opportunity. I see a lot of people living with friends because they ‘feel badly’ saying no to them. I'd try to avoid this if you truly don't think it's a good match."

Match up routines

Even if you get along, there’s nothing worse than finding out you both need the bathroom at the same time every morning. Prevent any misunderstandings early on by figuring out your routines beforehand. To help know what you need, Saladino suggests taking a day to observe your own routine, decide what’s most important, and then share it with potential roomies. Make sure to also confirm whether you’re both comfortable with significant others staying over—whether one-time dates or long-term partners.

Watch out for red flags

Gardere suggests noting “if the potential roommate is very late for the interview, rude, dismissive, or pushy in comments.” It’s also a red flag if he or she immediately asks for concessions from the get-go, because they’re more likely to want to make changes to rental agreements down the road, too.

Dig into the past to check out patterns from their previous arrangements by starting an open conversation about issues you have both had in the past with roommates, and what you’re looking for now.

“Most of us have had a bad experience or two, but if it's starting to sound like they have more than the average human, that's something to look out for,” says Saladino, who also suggests that you ask your prospective roommate to share anecdotes about situation that worked well for you and one that did not.”

If you find that you are on the same page about major issues that have affected you in the past, it could be a great fit. Conversely, if you notice they’re describing a naggy roommate who always asks them to clean up and you’re a neat freak, you probably haven't found the right person for you.

Set ground rules

Once you’ve decided on the person who should move in, start on the right foot with rules for your shared living situation and don't assume anything. “It's often better to start with a clear set of rules that can be loosened as you get to know each other than make rules as each person bothers the other,” says Saladino. This comes down to things as small as who buys the toilet paper.

Gardere agrees about establishing boundaries early, but takes it a step further. “Whatever rules are agreed upon, make sure they are in writing and understood” so everyone is on the same page.

Prepare calmly for conflict

If you do get into an argument with your roommate, no matter how long you’ve lived together, it’s all about timing for resolution. “Wait long enough to cool off, but not so long that it festers," says Saladino, "and pick a time when you are both not rushed and can talk in person.” A passive-aggressive text exchange is, yes, a no-no.

In person, Gardere suggests keeping a “very friendly, neural but professional tone” and not getting drawn into angry arguments. “Mirror back by stating what you think the other party is saying and allow them to do the same for you. But be firm that any discussion will have mutual agreements and will be firmly about problem solving… Every discussion should be a win-win, not a winner and a loser.”

Know how to deal with friends vs. strangers

If you move in with a friend, be even more wary. You don’t truly know someone until you’re sharing a bathroom with them and having to clean up after his or her mess. “When it comes to mediating with friends, it can be an even more tenuous situation. If the friendship is meaningful to you, remember to preserve it!” Saladino suggests. “Many people can be great friends but terrible living partners. If it's really going south after trying to resolve things, you may want to call it quits before you lose the friendship.”

But that doesn’t mean you need to change your tactics for a Craigslist roommate. “You should mediate with friends and strangers equally,” he adds. “Friends can try to take advantage more than strangers. But strangers can also have hidden baggage so stay diligent with both groups.”

Understand some things are out of your hands

You can only plan for so much. “Be clear on expectations, communicate about conflicts, and know when to call it quits,” Saladino ultimately suggests. If you clash with someone, it may just not be meant to be. But if you follow some basic guidelines, you may end up with a great pick. “By choosing carefully, setting clear rules, and having a system for resolving conflict things can go a lot smoother,” she concludes.


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