Do a quick search of "roommate horror stories," and you'll find yourself tumbling down a terrifying Internet rabbit hole of incidents ranging from the gross to the grotesque to the downright criminal. As we suspect a lot of you have already learned firsthand, figuring out how to live in a sane and comfortable fashion with someone who isn't a blood relative—or really, even someone who is—tends to take a strong stomach, and a knack for diplomacy.
This in mind, we chatted with two clinical psychologists who specialize in real estate-related conundrums: Dr. Lynn Saladino, who acts as a health and wellness consultant for Mirador Real Estate, and Dr. Jeff Gardere, who has a master’s degree in real estate development. Here what they had to say:
- Choose wisely. Admittedly, hindsight's 20/20 when you've realized—too late—that your roommate's a bad fit. But next time you're on the hunt, let any past bad experiences serve as a reminder to stick to your guns. "So many people are so desperate and in such a rush to find someone, especially in New York," says Saladino. "Don't fudge details about what your lifestyle is, or you'll make concessions and end up being unhappy. Remain calm during your search."
- Speak up. This is another one that in theory seems like a no-brainer, but in practice, bears repeating. "People are very averse to conflict," says Saladino. "Sometimes people don't say anything and the other person doesn't know [something's wrong.]" Instead, Saladino recommends waiting a while to cool your temper—but not so long that the problem festers—and trying to resolve the conflict at least three times before jumping to more extreme options, like moving out (or giving your roomie the boot). On the flip side, at a certain point, it's time to stop. "If you've tried to talk to your roommate 20 times and you feel like you're banging your head against a wall, then it's time to make a decision about whether you want to stay and try to adapt," says Saladino.
- But do it sensitively. "A lot of times the reason apartment-related disputes are so difficult is because people bring in the way that they lived at home," says Saladino, meaning that if you criticize their way of doing the dishes, by proxy, you're criticizing their entire family. "It can go way deeper than just a knife somebody left in the sink," she adds. And even if your roommate is doing something egregious, try your best not to jump to conclusions. "If someone has stopped paying the rent or cleaning up after themselves, don't just look at these behaviors as the person being lazy," says Gardere. "It could be that there's something deeper going on, and as roommates we need to be there for one another." Yes, you'll still have to find a way to address the problem, but it can likely be done much less contentiously if your first assumption isn't that your roommate's bad behavior is a direct attempt to, say, ruin your life.
- Know your audience. To send—or not to send—the angry roommate email is a dilemma for the ages. And it's something you should decide on a case by case basis. "I often talk to clients to try to learn a little about their roommate's personality so they can communicate in the best way possible," says Saladino. "Some people do much better with email, and others read that as passive-aggressive." So, is your roommate deathly afraid of direct conversations, or more of a "just say it to my face!" kind of person? You'd do well to figure that out before moving forward.
- Get the agreement in writing. "I'm a firm believer in contracts," says Gardere. "They're a very good psychological technique, and empowering, because the protect everyone, even the person who's signing it." For instance, if you have a roommate who has ceased any attempt at cleaning, Gardere recommends drawing up a contract stating that you and your other roommates might help out to a certain extent, but that if your wayward roomie doesn't start picking up the slack, they'll have to find new digs. "Essentially, you're saying 'this is what I will do, this is what you will do, we both think this is fair and agree to it.' I'd make it mandatory not to just sign a lease, but a contract outlining rules of behavior."
- Know when to throw money at the problem. Yes, the whole point of living with roommates is to save money on your apartment, but sometimes, a little cash goes a long way. For instance, says Saladino, if your roommate keeps the place looking like a pig pen—truly, this is the most common genre of roommate complaint we've seen—it'll save you both a lot of time and arguments if you can get them to agree to share the cost of a cleaning service. As for roommates who've dropped the ball on their portion of the utilities, "Sometimes it's about confronting them, but sometimes it's important to take the responsibility on yourself even if it doesn't feel fair," she says. On the flip side, there are ways to protect yourself to prevent this kind of situation from piling up: "I find money issues often come up with roommates you didn't know before," she says. "You don't want to be paranoid, but if you're anxious, sometimes the better solution is just having the information." In other words, quietly keep tabs on all the apartment's utility accounts so you don't wake up one day and find out that your roomie's been stiffing Con Ed for the last six months. (Fun fact: this exact thing once happened to a Brick editor who shall remain nameless. Cough.)
- And know when it's time to get out of dodge. Some roommates are such a bad fit that there's only one solution: leave. "Even if you're broke, if you can throw a little money at it, it's worth it, because your environment is going to impact your entire being," says Saladino. "Especially if it's a safety thing, I would say cut the cord."