One of the hard lessons of roommating is discovering that most things are actually your fault.
For instance, a roommate's chronic filth and penchant for disappearing around the first of the month, while morally condemnable, is actually your fault and problem if you chose to move in with a lowlife.
Of course, you may not know just how much of a lowlife your roommate is until you move in together, which is why roommate experts and battle-scarred veterans recommend agreeing on (if not signing your name to) five key items that will add weight--and in some cases, legal legitimacy--to your cries of injustice, should your relationship and happy home life sour.
“Don’t let it get to the point where you’re putting notes on the fridge,” says Matt Hutchinson, co-author of “The Essential Guide to Flatsharing” and spokesman for Speedroomating, a roommate matching party that exploded in London before making its New York debut last month. “Get the security deposit and rent in writing; talk about the lifestyle stuff.”
1. BILLS: WHO PAYS WHAT WHEN
Money, Huchinson notes, is top priority. With electricity, heat and shelter on the line, disputes over bills prompt the most explosive arguments, but also have the best shot at a fair resolution in small claims court.
Janet Portman, an attorney and author of “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide,” recommends drawing up a point-by-point agreement that includes anything from how common household expenses are covered, to how many days notice a roommate must give if he decides to pack his bags.
“A judge won’t order anyone to take out the garbage,” Portman said. “But he could order a roommate to write a check.”
2. GUEST POLICIES
Sarah Rammos, a 22-year-old Brooklyn freelance writer, once had a “train wreck” roommate whose boyfriend became a permanent houseguest—a common issue that tends to boil over when visitor policies aren’t set from the get-go.
“Her boyfriend moved into the apartment, but she denied it,” Rammos says. “She’d tell me ‘his stuff’s not here, he has his own place,’ but he was there every day, every night.” When she finally told her roommate that either he starts contributing or leaves, the couple moved out, leaving a 2-liter soda bottle filled with urine as a departing gift.
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3. WHAT'S CLEAN?
The slob-neat freak dichotomy can also ignite tensions. Brooke Berman, a playwright and author of “No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments” (who’s now living in her 42nd home, she believes), recalls a roommate she had years ago in Park Slope who confronted her about her cleaning habits.
“He said, ‘My standard of cleaning is just higher than yours, so I’ll always want to clean up behind your back.’”
He offered to do all the cleaning if she would pay for utilities. She happily agreed.
4. QUIET TIME
Policies on noise and schedules should also be discussed before you find yourself pushing pillows over your ears (or your roommate's face).
Jeremy Pease, a senior at Pace University, co-founded SpaceSplitter (a site that manages roommate relationships and shared expenses) after observing and experiencing disastrous roommate situations as a Resident Assistant for four years. He recalls one roommate who’d bring his girlfriend to their shared dorm room at 3 a.m. to do drugs and other things inconsiderate college couples do in dorm rooms hours before their roommate has to wake up for class.
“It became a battle,” Pease said. “I’d then wake up at 6 in the morning and throw the blinds open and turn my music on.”
5. AGREE TO TALK
Now Pease along with SpaceSplitter co-founder Rob Caucci preach roommate agreements. “Effective communication helps to manage expectations,” they repeat like a mantra. They say they believe in it, they practice it, they’ve seen it work.
Pease—whose dorm room battle ended when his roommate fled to off-campus housing after authorities searched their place for drugs—concedes that there are some circumstances that no amount of communication or precaution can prevent.
But declining to go over any ground rules, Pease said, is a steep risk to take.