When I landed in New York City as a bright-eyed, budget-minded law school grad, I found myself on a slippery slope, increasingly willing to compromise on safety and other standards just to find a suitable-enough apartment. Priced out of studios, never mind one-bedroom apartments, I quickly realized I needed to find a roommate to help pay the rent.
These days, with so many people looking for roommates to replace those who have left—because of job loss or concerns about the pandemic—finding a new roommate is a more serious undertaking. You will want to make sure you are a good match, especially considering expectations that there will be another coronavirus outbreak in the winter and NYC will face a repeat shutdown. You will need to find roommate you’ll be comfortable staying home with—and you may even be caring for each other if one of you gets sick.
But what if you don’t have a roommate? How do you get one? You could start by going through one of the many matchmaking services (see Brick Underground's roundup here) or find one yourself by putting the word out through your social network. Either way, it pays to be very engaged in the process and ask lots of questions—because roommates are pretty much a fact of life here. As Elien Becque, founder and CEO of RoomZoom, a NYC-based roommate-finding service, explains, New Yorkers need roommates "when the economy is down because their salaries are more uncertain and they need them when the economy is great because rents are high."
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in August 2020. We are presenting it again here as part of our holiday Best of Brick week.]
Lessons learned the hard way
Take it from me, I learned a few lessons the hard way. I trusted a friend’s referral not once but thrice, with mixed results: There was Dan the channel-surfing couch potato who left pizza boxes and Chinese take-out containers strewn everywhere; Debra the compulsive cleaner (yep, I overcompensated for Dan) who insisted on all lights and sounds off at 10 p.m., even on weekends; and Gina, who was fine for the first few months until she began bringing her boyfriend over more nights than not—and then moved out in a huff when I asked if she could maybe spend some nights at his place instead.
Then I got smart and screened the next person myself, ruling out five candidates before finding a suitable match. It made all the difference. She even turned the tables and asked me the same questions. Very reassuring.
Treat it like an interview
You will want to do the same. Be sure to treat the initial meet-and-greet as an opportunity to do your due diligence, even if you are thinking of rooming with someone you know. But even that may not be a good idea.
“We suggest not living with a good friend, as the only potential is to ruin your relationship,” Becque says. “Living with a stranger on the other hand gives you the potential of gaining a new friend.”
The following is Brick Underground’s questionnaire, based on tried-and-true tips. Stick to the script so you are sure to gather all the information you need and can then make an informed and unbiased decision. And should your new roomie “pass” with flying colors, be sure to capture everything you discussed and agreed to in writing.
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1. How seriously are you taking social distancing?
Asking how someone handles social distancing is critical, because you want to be on the same page. Find out how the other weathered the shutdown and what they are doing now to avoid spreading the infection (yes, it still matters). Who are they seeing? Are they limiting their social circle? Think of the people you see as being in your pod. By moving in together, you are combining your pods, so you want to know exactly who it will contain.
Why should you get into each other's business? Well, if one of you is following CDC guidelines, and the other is attending raves in Prospect Park—that’s a recipe for a lot of aggravation—or much worse.
2. What are your cleaning habits?
One person’s definition of “clean” can vary drastically from the next, which is why Becque includes a few questions around this subject in her proprietary algorithm for RoomZoom. “We hear from our users that cleaning is the number one source of frustration between roommates.”
What specifically you choose to ask will depend on your own cleaning habits, but you’ll want to get beyond generalities. Inquire about the person’s usual cleaning routines. Do they make the bed each morning and put away the dishes every night? Which chores do they like and which ones do they loathe? (Maybe you can split the tasks accordingly.) Share your habits with them too. Honesty is key here: It doesn't really matter if you're messy or not; what matters is that you have similar styles. It’s also important to agree on a cleaning schedule and on who will be doing what and when.
Consider asking whether your roommate would be willing to pitch in on a professional cleaning service, something RoomZoom does in their survey. This investment might be worth it for eliminating discord.
3. What do you like to do on the weekends?
Asking this question helps you determine if you’ll end up spending your precious free time doing something you’d rather not—like having to vacate the apartment every Sunday a.m. while your roomie hosts brunch (or feeling obligated to stay despite not really getting along with the others). One friend used to complain about having to sit through his suitemate’s method-acting classes. Cramped city apartments often pit roommates together, for better or worse. If you will both be having in-home activities, best to work out a schedule ahead of time.
This question also helps you learn whether the person is a homebody or the after-after party type. If it’s the former, be on guard: this person might be looking for you to provide a built-in social network—or just annoy you with their continual presence. If the latter, just make sure the person is respectful of others when they traipse in at all hours.
Who knows, you might also discover shared interests, not so you can become besties but rather in figuring out whether you two are a good match. Even one tiny commonality (such as cycling around the city or hitting the Brooklyn Flea) can go far in establishing a connection.
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4. Do you smoke?
Living with a smoker (be it pot and/or cigarettes or even cigars) is a deal-breaker for some, and an essential question to ask if your building forbids smoking indoors. (A NYC law that went into effect in 2018 requires buildings to create a smoking policy, and some are going completely smoke-free.) If they say they're occasional smokers, ask how occasional. It may also be worth adding a clause to your agreement explicitly stating they cannot smoke inside the apartment.
Note that smoking is prohibited in all common areas, so you will want to make sure your potential roommate is aware of and in compliance with that rule at all times.
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If you yourself smoke at home, be up front about it. And don’t forget about vaping, which some people might not consider smoking.
5. Are you still friends with your old roommates?
Here’s a question that’s designed to separate fact from fiction. Hopefully the answer will include at least a couple happy tales of lasting relationships, including from their college days.
If however your candidate spews forth one disaster story after another about ex-roommates, let your inner skeptic take charge. Problems cannot possibly originate every single time from the other person.
Any hesitancy on their part to discuss their past living situation(s) can also signal trouble ahead; in that case, you may want to dig deeper and even ask to speak to one or two former flatmates (see references, below).
6. Do you have any references?
Many landlords (and all co-op boards) require references to vouch for a renter’s veracity. As the landlord of your own roost, you will dispense with this formality at your own risk.
“Certainly if you are going to be on the hook for part of the rent, we recommend that people get references,” RoomZoom’s Becque says.
Follow the usual guidelines and seek out three endorsements, preferably from people who know the prospect well and for at least a year. Former roomies and landlords are your best bet, but co-workers, employers, professors, and family friends are also standard sources. Get their phone numbers and emails—people tend to be more candid on the phone, but email's a good back-up if your calls go unanswered.
“While you're at it, check out your potential roommate's social media feeds,” Becque says. You may come across certain pictures alerting you to potential headaches way before you actually have to live with them. At the very least you’ll get a better handle on who you’ll be sharing living space with.
7. What is your usual bedtime?
If you feel awkward asking this question, don’t, but odds are the candidate is wondering the same thing about you. The ideal situation is of course when you both turn in around the same time and have a similar wind-down routine. You might think that having two night owls as roomies would be equally advantageous, but think again: You’ll both be vying for precious late-night privacy (and in a tight space). Ask yourself whether that matters.
Potentially problematic is someone who claims not to have a regular sleep schedule, or who laughs the question off as being “too nosy” or “whatever.” In that case, try and figure out what an average weeknight looks like for that person. Does it involve falling asleep on the sofa while binge-watching the latest Netflix show? Practicing the ukulele? Talking to a long-distance partner on the phone? Or better yet: reading quietly in bed, taking a bubble bath, and meditating? (A girl can dream!)
Just be prepared to be reasonable. And consider if you simply must get your eight hours of zzzs and cannot abide any noise after lights out, you may have a hard time sharing your living space completely on your terms. Look for ways to compromise—and invest in a white-noise machine!
8. How often do you have friends over?
That’s the question to ask to figure out whether you’ll be having a steady stream of visitors during the week. “We find that questions like these have a pretty big bearing on the algorithm,” Becque says. “Some people never want anyone over while others keep an open-door policy.”
Depending on the answer and your own approach to the topic, you can probe deeper to discern the frequency and the circumstances. Monthly book club meetings or the occasional dinner party are one thing, twice-weekly poker matches or a nightly sleepovers with a significant other are something you need to know about in advance.
“Quite often we work with clients moving specifically because they can’t stand having other people in their apartment without their roommate having asked for approval,” says Mike Jeneralczuk, CEO and founder of Undorm, which specializes in finding apartments for college students and young professionals.
In a similar vein, you’ll want to know upfront how many overnight guests will be in the picture. New York City is a prime destination and hotels are expensive. Will your roommate’s far-flung family and friends be wanting a place to stay? If so, how often? How many people and for how long at a time? If you have a two-bedroom apartment this will not be as great an imposition as a flex-one bedroom, but still. Boundaries must be established.
Gauge the person’s reaction to setting down clear rules, such as weekends only and maybe once a month at most. Or see if they are open to arranging those visits during times when you will be away yourself. Make it clear your expectations regarding common areas (so no sleeping on the sofa or on air mattresses in the living area).
All in all, if the person has a packed calendar of back-to-back house guests, you may want to simply steer clear.
9. Do you have any pets?
First and foremost is the need to comply with your building’s pet policy. While there are plenty of stories of renters (and owners) hiding cats and even dogs from their landlords, why take the risk of having to pay a fine and, worse yet, part with your beloved four-legged companion when you get caught?
Even explicitly pet-friendly buildings may instill certain restrictions, such as the type of breed or size of dog or the total number of pets. Condos that permit pets may also prohibit subtenants from having them. Then there’s the matter of a pet deposit, which can be fairly steep. Make sure your roommate is prepared to comply and to cover that cost.
You’ll also need to consider your specific situation. If you have pet allergies, you’ll want to either rule out pets entirely or make sure your roommate is aware of that and has a hypoallergenic breed. If the person already has a dog or cat, it behooves you to ask to meet the pet too.
Lastly, be sure to delve into how that person deals with all the usual pet-owner responsibilities. Is there a dog walker during the day? Nothing like coming home to a dog who’s been cooped up all day (and left some nice messes to clean up after). Will the pet be allowed on all the furniture? These and other questions should be hashed out from the get-go.
And even if the prospect doesn’t currently have a pet, make sure there is a meeting of the minds for getting one during your lease.
10. How will you pay for rent?
New York City law prohibits denying accommodation based solely on a person’s occupation, but there is nothing to stop you from asking about their job in determining their source of income (and also their schedule, discussed below). Landlords here have the right to impose strict income requirements, and you can too.
This being New York City, you should be prepared to hear it all—investment bankers and tech entrepreneurs as well as actor-slash-baristas and even dog walkers. If the person seems less than fully employed, or is juggling multiple gigs, try to get as many details as possible. You can even ask for a letter of employment.
“We also ask that people provide the link to their LinkedIn profile, as that’s a great way to verify their job,” Becque says.
If they’re a student or an intern, you’ll especially want to make sure they can prove how they’ll be paying all the expenses. This can be in the form of a bank statement or by having a co-signer or guarantor—anything that will avoid their half of the rent being delinquent.
11. Can you put down a deposit?
The whole point of having a roommate is to find someone who can help carry the load, so it pays to do your due diligence before you sign a lease together—or to rely on that person for half the rent. Asking for a security deposit is the standard way to ensure the person has enough funds set aside (read: is fiscally secure) and cover any damage they may do to your digs.
(Reminder: Thanks to a new law passed in June 2019, landlords can no longer require more than one month’s rent as a security deposit—meaning they can't ask for last month's rent plus a security deposit.)
“I can’t begin to explain how many deals fall through because of this,” Jeneralczuk says. “Everyone loves apartment shopping, falling in love with a place, and verbally committing to it with their roommate. But then suddenly when money becomes the topic of discussion, they get cold feet.”
This is also a good time to ask how they plan to make payments for rent and utilities. Lots of New Yorker use Venmo to transfer money. But to be safe, discuss how you’ll handle the situation if they can’t come up with their share of expenses.
12. What is your workday routine?
Having different work hours can save a lot of headaches, giving you and your roommate much-needed alone time in the apartment. Savvy apartment-sharers will often end up never even seeing their roommate beyond the occasional hello and goodbye. in other words, if you are a nine-to-fiver, you might want to consider shacking up with someone who works the late shift—chefs, actors, musicians, security guards, you name it.
When your work schedules coincide, however, it is helpful to ask what time the person wakes up and leaves for work. You’ll also want to find out what their a.m. routine looks like so you’re not competing for the toaster oven or shower. “It’s not always possible due to budget constraints to have your own bathroom, so avoiding morning conflicts is important,” Jeneralczuk says.
This is one area where compromise will be inevitable and easy. If your new roommate admits to hogging the bathroom, consider altering your own habits. (Sleep experts recommend taking a hot bath or shower before bedtime!) Or see if the person is amenable to setting strict time limits on bathroom use, or to taking turns (you get odd days, they have even days).
13. Do you work from home?
A “yes” answer to this question can be a boon or a bummer, depending on your perspective. If you work from home yourself, for instance, it could be a huge burden.
Having someone in the apartment all day, every day will increase your electric bills for sure, and you may not like the thought of your home being used as another’s office (especially if the apartment is your long-term habitat). You may also be bothered by knowing your roomie has all that time to invade your personal space and belongings (if so, just admit it and find someone else).
On the other hand, having a person on hand to accept deliveries and wait for the cable guy may be a benefit. People who work from home (particularly in cramped quarters) also tend to avoid claustrophobia by getting out and about when the day is done, leaving you with ample alone time in the evenings. Just be sure that’s the case, and that the work schedule isn’t 24/7.
Ultimately you need to ask yourself: How much will it annoy me to have my roommate home during the day? Play out the scenario in your mind before you come to any conclusion. Now is the time to be realistic.
14. Are you in a romantic relationship?
Living with a couple is one hassle—three people crammed into two bedrooms can be way too close for comfort, plus there's the potential for feeling like a third wheel in your own living room. But living with a roommate whose significant other stays over constantly raises a whole other set of issues. All of a sudden, you've signed on for more mess, higher utility costs, and less privacy without the benefit of an additional savings on rent.
What’s more, you're basically signing on for a third roommate you've never met, which is never a good idea. If you are the slightest bit open to the idea of sharing your space with the person (and their plus-one), at the very least make sure you meet them both, and at the same time so you can see the dynamic. If they bicker during this first impression, you can well imagine what they’ll be like once they’re all settled in. On the flip side, having a built-in partner takes the pressure off of you to be your roomie’s at-home pal. It’s a toss up.
If you prefer not to sign on to this situation, be cautious about a potential roommate who says they are in a serious relationship with someone who lives in another borough or who shares a bedroom at their own apartment, such as in a co-living building. Then you should expect lots of sleepovers.
(For more on the highs and lows of living with a couple, read what one person told Brick about it.)
15. How often do you cook?
Kitchens in NYC being what they are, dinner time (like a.m. bathroom time) can be a source of strain in a shared apartment.
If both you and your roommate love whipping up your own meals, it may be difficult to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Find out what and when they cook too—like fish at 10 p.m.—that might be a non-starter.
Don’t forget to ask about their shopping habits, so you can make sure there’s enough space in the refrigerator and cupboards for your own provisions. You might also want to agree on divvying up the cost of staples, since it’s more economical to buy these in larger quantities. Just be sure whoever finishes anything replenishes it (nothing like discovering you are out of extra-virgin olive oil in the middle of a cooking spree).
Of course all the above goes out the window if you are the type to order in and/or eat out. Indeed, if your potential roomie is an aspiring chef, that could be a fortuitous match. They get to test out their food, you get to try it. You might even pick up a trick or too.
16. How often do you drink at home?
Whether you're a teetotaler or a devotee of Sangria Saturdays, you'll want to make sure your flatmate is on the same wavelength. Likewise if you have to rise early for your job (and limit yourself to a glass of wine with dinner) as opposed to someone who can roll out of bed anytime they want, come hell or hangover. You don’t have to have a total meeting of the minds on this point (or be puritanical about it), but it is important that you both mesh.
After all, frequent drinking may lead to being strapped for cash. Likewise, and even more importantly, a serial binge-drinker might expose you or your home to risk if the person ends up dragging home a stranger (it happens). Certainly it puts the person’s ability to hold down a job, and therefore fulfill his or her financial obligations, into serious doubt.
That said, if you both agree that “it’s always after 5 o’clock somewhere,” you’ll want to set boundaries around what’s yours, theirs, and “ours.”
17. What do you want in a roommate?
Think of this as the roommate version of a classic job interview question. “This is actually the last and only freeform response in our survey,” Becque says. “It is one of our toughest in that we filter out people who don’t bother writing down anything or take a laissez faire attitude, as we think that is indicative of how they approach roommates in general.” (They do get a second chance to provide an answer.)
Basically what you want to elicit is the person’s expectations regarding the roommate relationship. There could be a disconnect for example if one of you wants a new BFF while the other prefers to keep some distance. You may have already gleaned this from the person’s responses to question four above, so be sure to explore any concerns that may have come up then. Don’t just shrug them off.
Use this question as well to prompt a discussion about sharing certain things versus maintaining separate supplies.
18. How long do you plan to stay?
Before you ask this question, make sure you know what you are looking for in a roommate. If you are tired of churning through a different person every year (or six months, etc.), you will need to communicate your desire for a more stable and secure long-term arrangement from the get-go.
Moreover, you will want to weed out students and interns and others who may only be in New York City for an indefinite time along with anyone whose answer is “I’m not sure.”
Even if you are open to sharing your apartment on a short-term basis, you’ll want to put the agreed-upon end date in writing, and to provide for a penalty should the person have to move out before then (such as forfeiting the security deposit). Life has a way of throwing curve-balls, so why not prepare for them by protecting yourself from any unpleasant financial hiccups.
19. What are some challenges you've faced in past living situations?
Bed bugs, rodent infestations, lack of heat or hot water, noisy neighbors, and negligent landlords are pretty typical experiences for the NYC apartment dweller, so it’s no cause for concern if someone mentions any or all of the above.
What is telling however is how they say they handled these hurdles, which can enlighten you on whether you’re dealing with someone who can get things done, and in the right way. Watch out for anyone who says they withheld rent (without due cause) or got belligerent in the management office. Also troubling would be someone who stood by and left it to their former roommate to resolve all the problems—unless of course that’s your preference.
20. What are your pet peeves?
We all have them, so why not find out what they are at the outset rather than after you’ve done something to annoying—and vice versa?
“When you live with someone in a New York City apartment, which is usually a very confined space, it’s good to know what can irritate them,” Jeneralczuk says.
Be on the lookout for anyone who has a lengthy list though; the last thing you need is to tiptoe around a persnickety roommate in your own home—life is hard enough here as it is. But consider the particular gripes carefully too, as there may be some (say, listening to NPR in the morning or eating red meat) that you may be able to accommodate.
21. Anything else I should know?
Don’t underestimate the “reveal” element of this end-of-interview, open-ended, catch-all inquiry. You just might discover a fact that did not come out from direct solicitation, like how the person is learning to play the trumpet or loves cooking tripe (or other malodorous foods).
Let the interviewee take the lead—and their personality, and all its quirks, come through loud and clear. Pay attention to subtle cues and body language (avoiding eye contact is a huge red flag). Be wary of anyone who has nothing to offer here; at worst the person is hiding something, at best they are simply not very interesting. Either way, silence is not a good sign.
As Becque puts it, “Given the opportunity, people will tell you who they are. They say certain things and in a certain way. That transparency can cut both ways.” Make sure you are listening.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Lucy Cohen Blatter and Donna M. Airoldi.
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