How to find a room (and a roommate) on Craigslist—and avoid the freaks

By Alyse Whitney  | June 22, 2016 - 9:25AM

Moving to New York is intimidating enough, but when you add a Craigslist room or roommate search to the mix, the task becomes ten times more daunting. (While there are more and more solid roommate search sites cropping up by the day, if you're looking to cast a wide net, Craigslist is still the top of the heap.) Good news: It isn't as scary as it seems, and the likelihood that you'll end up with someone straight out of Single White Female is incredibly slim. Chances are, your potential roomies are just as anxious as you are to find someone who's a good fit.

In less than a year in New York, I've shopped for a room twice on Craigslist and found roommates for my place once. The first go-around was my first time moving to New York. It took weeks of diligent Craigslisting to find the right summer sublet.  The second time, in December, was the most difficult. During the winter, rooms are harder to come by because fewer people are moving.

Although I tried to start looking for a room in late November, I couldn't find openings for the end of January until at least January 1. (Lead time on apartments is generally two weeks to a month, so plan accordingly.) I was down to the wire, finding my current room just one week before I needed to move in. It was the 30th room that I saw.

My most recent experience was searching for roommates to fill the two vacant rooms in my apartment. I put together a post that looked like one I would respond to, including a bounty of details and great pictures.  Not so surprisingly, I received 10 responses overnight, and about 40 overall. I weeded through them, met with about a dozen people, and found the two perfect roommates. The entire process took less than two weeks. 

The moral of the story is that while it can be exhausting, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Below, an insider's guide to surviving the Craigslist room search—whether you're looking for a room to move into or searching for roommates to join you in your current place:


1. The devil's in the details

When writing a post or reading a potential roommate's Craigslist post, think about the (seemingly small) details, such as a dishwasher or how recently the apartment was renovated.

Of course, first you'll want to check for the basics: room dimensions, distance to the subway, income requirements, laundry services, and obviously, cost. Chances are, if the poster is thorough in their write-up, they will be an equally respectful and organized roommate.

Is the grammar messy or are there are a lot of all-caps phrases? Onto the next one. The more it feels like a scam, the more likely it actually will be. 

For all you animal lovers out there, make sure it is A-OK with your new roomie(s). I was looking to adopt a puppy within the next six months of my roommates' move-in, so I specified that in my post, along with OKing someone bringing Fido along with them. Thankfully, the two women moving in were just as excited as I was, but it's always good to do a quick allergy check.

Whether it's dealing with pets or sleeping habits, be specific about what you're looking for, and when in doubt, ask your friends or family if there's anything, personality-wise, they think you should include. You may have some quirks even you're not aware of.

And once things get farther along, you should also ask to see a copy of the lease, and hammer out the details about utility accounts ahead of time. "Make sure the tenant is the actual lease holder, and understand what the monthly expenses are and who is responsible to pay them," suggests Mdrn. managing director Kobi Lahav. Even if your prospective roommate seems perfectly on the level, you'll want to confirm all the details in the paperwork for yourself.

2. Location, location, location

For those searching for an apartment, if you're not familiar with the neighborhood, look it up! Oftentimes, cross-streets are listed, so you can use Google Maps to see what the street actually looks like. There are also a wealth of online resources available to help you investigate a neighborhood's crime stats, rodent issues, noise complaints, and more (we've got a full guide here). 

Also, don't take anyone's word for it when it comes to neighborhood; people often fudge the details to make it sound like their apartment is in a more desirable or popular neighborhood than it really is, so you'll want to confirm the details yourself. If you're the one posting, don't exaggerate the particulars—like saying you're in Williamsburg when you're actually in the outer edges of Bushwich—it'll just cause more confusion and more non-viable candidates to contact you, thus wasting your time.

However, if you feel that you live in a perfectly safe neighborhood that might not be on the top of everyone's list (say, way uptown or far out in one of the boroughs), make sure to explain that. If you've lived there for five years and never had any issues, be vocal about it! You don't want to deter someone just because they're unfamiliar with, or hesitant about, your neighborhood.

3. Opposites don't attract

Once you've covered the basics (financial responsibility chief among them), try to get a feel for your potential roommate's personality and lifestyle: Is she a young professional looking for someone to fill the gap her sorority sisters left post-college? Is he a grad student who needs the apartment quiet at all hours?

"Be clear yourself as to what it is your looking for—do you want a friend, or just a roommate?" advises Lynn Saladino, a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate. "And if you're reading someone else's ad, try to get a feeling for what the person is looking for; whether they seem friendly in the ad, whether you would have written it in a similar way." This is also a time to take note of potential communication skills, and whether they're clear, timely, and respectful in their responses. "If the communication isn't good at this point, it won't be when you actually move in, either," says Saladino.

Lahav also advises doing some social media sleuthing, citing one client who realized, via Facebook, that a potential roommate was a hard-drinking party boy, and nixed plans to move in together. "Spy, spy, and spy more," he says. "You can find out a lot about someone from social media."

Regardless of how amazing the place sounds or looks, none of that matters if you can't get along with your roommate; you must be on the same page, even if you aren't best friends. 

4. Love it? List it!

The easiest way to find someone you'll get along with is by identifying shared interests. When writing up a post—or responding to an ad via e-mail—make sure to write about what you like. When weeding through dozens of e-mails, similar design ideas and favorite TV shows separated my potential roommates from the pack, and during my last search for a room, my cooking and baking skills won everyone over. And like I said before, don't be afraid to share details about yourself and the apartment. It's better to say too much than too little. Plus, you'll be answering fewer questions if your post is informative.


5. Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

People are notorious for skimming long paragraphs of text, especially on the Internet. To help potential roommates along, I've found that bullet points are helpful, but I still end up answering a lot of questions that are easily answered by reading the post.

To prevent being faced with annoying questions I've already answered, I include a reading test at the bottom of my post. For example, last time, I wrote, "To ensure you read the entire posting, please include your favorite TV shows in your response." It's simple and effective—more than half of the responses passed the test, and my two new roommates both love the same shows I do!

6. Meet and greet

It should go without saying, but after you've weeded out everyone who seems like an obvious 'no,' it's time to meet. I've found that you can typically get a good feel for people via e-mail, but always plan to spend at least 30 minutes with a person before signing on the dotted line.  

Whether you're looking to rent out your room or trying to find one, ask plenty of questions; think of this as roommate speed-dating. (Here's a list of questions to get you started.) Find out about morning routines and job schedules so that no one is scrambling for the shower, but also ask if they are a night owl or a light sleeperno one wants a grumpy roommate!

And if you have "rules" about significant others or general overnight guests, speak up about it. You don't want to confront someone after seeing their boyfriend in the shower.

It's also wise to float a few questions about their prior roommate experiences, says Saladino. "Did they have a long-term roommate before, and if so, what were the circumstances of their moving out? Or are they constantly rotating through people," she says. "It sounds cliche, but the best predictor of future behavior is previous behavior, so if you can get an idea of what has happened before, that helps." And if they unleash a tirade about their terrible former roomie, that's not such a great sign. ("There's a respectful way to say 'we didn't get along,' and then there are really nasty ways of doing that," Saladino notes.)

Lastly, when it comes to partying habits, you can ask politely by inquiring about their idea of a fun weekend. Do they prefer wine and Downton Abbey or beer pong and The Big Lebowski? Know what you want, and don't be afraid to ask for it.

7. Get everyone together

If you are looking to fill two rooms, make sure the two potential roommates you've selected also get along.

Whether you're looking for one, two, or five roommates, it's always good to grab brunch or a drink and make sure everyone clicks. And even after you've signed the lease, if there's a few weeks to go until you move in together, take that time to get to know each other! 

My roommates and I started a Facebook group to share photos of our furniture, post decorating ideas, and make plans together. We've already started off on a good foot with open communication, also using the group to keep tabs on paperwork for the apartment and move-in times for the end of the month.

8. A picture's worth a thousand words

Although there are plenty of great posts without photos, I am always wary of someone who can't take five minutes to snap a few of their apartment. When compiling my post, I included a wide-angle photo of the room to more accurately show the size, as well as pictures of the shared space (kitchen, living room, and both bathrooms). 

Often times, you will see barren rooms with no furniture or signs of life—watch out for them! There are scammers galore on Craigslist, and some of them are more sneaky than others. A general rule is that if it looks too good to be true, especially if they use stock photos or the apartment is empty, it probably is. In addition to pictures, watch out for lots of asterisks or caps-lock heavy posts. The details and photos should guide the way rather than someone having to point it out to you in large blocks of obnoxious text.

Phew! I think you're ready to brave the Craigslist search now. If you follow all of these tips, you may just find exactly what you need in a week like I did.

Within the first five minutes of meeting my new roommates, I knew they were perfect, and was counting down the days until they moved in. There's no shortage of great people looking for roommates—this is New York, after all—but you just have to find the right ones.

***This post originally ran on June 26th, 2012 and was updated on June 22nd, 2016 with additional reporting from Virginia K. Smith.

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SurvivalList: Do the roommate thing right

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