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Unless you have generous parents, live a two-hour train ride from all of your friends, or happen to land an impressive Wall Street job right out of the gate, if you're moving to the city post-college, roommates are going to be a fact of life. And while you've probably racked up some experience in this realm from your dorm days, when you're all working adults paying astronomical NYC rents, roommating becomes something of a different ballgame. (The scourge of dishes in the sink is, however, still universal.)
Even if you ask all the right questions of a potential roomie (tips on that here), certain bad behaviors might still catch you off guard. Below, five of the biggest sources of tension that tend to trip up roommates (and how to avoid being that person in your shared household):
A sink full of dishes—and other cleaning pitfalls
Whether you're a little laissez-faire or can't stand for a single thing to be out of place, misaligned cleaning priorities tend to be the number one issue that sours roommate relationships. And this isn't just anecdotal: According to a recent poll of several hundred NYC-based users from roommate-matching site SpareRoom, a whopping 56 percent of respondents cited "cleanliness" as the biggest source of conflict with their roommates.
"The biggest thing that concerns roommates is the communal space, in terms of how you treat it and what you want from that space," adds Erik Heitz of Triplemint (FYI, a Brick partner). "For instance, I like things to be pretty clean, and I had a roommate who just made the common space like her second closet, things were strewn everywhere, and there were glasses of water she'd drunk half of all over the place."
Though you can't oversee your roommate every hour of the day to make sure they're cleaning properly and putting things away, communication can head off a lot of these problems. "I think that can be avoided, to some extent, if you're up front and honest with people about how tidy you are," says SpareRoom founder Rupert Hunt. "If you're someone who's happy to leave dirty dishes til the next day, you want to choose someone who's like that."
In Heitz's case, the roommate in question improved after they discussed the problem and came up with new house rules (for instance, not using more than one glass at once). "It's about communicating and accountability," he says. "And if you're the one who fell short, you can text and say, 'Sorry I know I didn't do those dishes before I left town. If you can take care of it, I've got you when I get back.'" Offering a mea culpa when you drop the ball can go a long way toward keeping the peace with your housemates, whether it has to do with cleaning or any number of other issues.
Poor fridge etiquette
Anyone who has ever lived with a roommate can tell you that if you're not on the same page, the fridge can become one of the apartment's biggest battlegrounds, whether your roommate is eating your food without asking, taking up too much room, or leaving items for weeks (or months) after their expiration.
For this reason, it's important to discuss ahead of time what the sharing policy will be, and establish clearing out the fridge as part of the regular cleaning routine. "In my current apartment, we kind of take turns to buy the stuff we all use, like milk and toilet paper," says Hunt. "And the rule is to sort of ensure that you're not the one who used the last of something and didn't replace it."
And if you don't have reason to think that those leftovers or block of cheese are communal, for goodness sakes, don't eat them. (Or if you do, fess up right away and replace whatever you pilfered.) "If you know that leftover biscuit from Red Lobster is mine, don't get drunk and eat it—I'm gonna be pissed!" says Kelly Higgins of Bohemia Realty Group.
But on the flip side, says Higgins, quietly stewing over the problem will make it worse. "Be forthright and honest so things don't get weird," she explains. "Instead of saying, 'So, did you want me to do those dishes?' it should be 'Yo, do your dishes.' Or if you're entertaining, that's fine, just let me know that I'll be coming home to five people drinking in my living room."
The guest and sublet policy
From partners who become permanent fixtures to a revolving door of out-of-town guests (spoiler: everyone wants to visit when you've got an apartment in New York), your apartment's approach to guests can be tricky territory.
"In my current apartment, we have a Google house calendar for planned guests, friends, and family coming into town, or if the roommates are going out of town, as well," says Heitz. "It's good to have things in writing so there's accountability. And it's also good to have a house meeting or dinner once a month to bring up plans, concerns, and what's going well."
If there are frequent overnight guests, it might be smart to develop a policy. "There's something we call the 'boyfriend rule'—your roommate's partner can only stay at your apartment the same number of nights of the week that your roommate stays at theirs," says Hunt. "That way if their partner is over three nights a week, you also get the place to yourself three nights a week."
Similarly, says Heitz, if an out-of-town visitor is going to be staying for more than a week, it might be time to talk about having them chip in for utilities and household costs. Whatever you decide, there shouldn't be any unpleasant surprises. "I had a roommate once who had a guy spend the night and left him in the apartment when she went to work—he was hanging out and ordering Chinese takeout to my house," says Higgins. "I was like, 'Who is this person?' I'd definitely say no unattended overnight guests should be a rule."
Problems paying the bills
While a lot of the previous categories hinge on questions of etiquette, if a roommate is lax (or straight-up delinquent) about the bills, it's a problem for everyone, as this could land you all in debt, housing court, or evicted. (Don't forget that if you're on a lease, you're responsible for the whole apartment.) According to Hunt, 16 percent of SpareRoom users cited money as the primary source of conflict with their housemates.
"The financial responsibility is a big thing, especially for recent college graduates who may have student loans, and haven't necessarily accumulated liquid assets," says Heitz. For this reason, it's not a bad idea to get a roommate agreement in writing, and ask for receipts from the landlord every month if you all send in your rent separately. (More tips on that process here.)
The world of payment apps has also made it easier for roommates to quickly reimburse each other for rent, utility bills, and other assorted costs like toilet paper or dish soap. Instead of going on the honor system, it's best to have the financial responsibilities of every roommate laid out in writing—and to get confirmation from the landlord that everything's been paid, the better to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.
Too much noise
To an extent, this is an issue you can largely head off in advance, by asking roommates about things like their hours, entertaining habits, and the like. But according to Hunt, noise levels were the second most common complaint on SpareRoom (21 percent of respondents listed noise as their biggest issue), and the cause wasn't always what you might expect.
"One surprisingly common thing we heard was a roommate going away for a few days, locking their door, and forgetting to turn their alarm off," says Hunt. Even on a less dramatic front, don't be the roommate who sets their alarm before everyone else, but hits snooze twenty times, ensuring a steady stream of beeping for everyone else to try to sleep through.
"I've had clients complain that a roommate was having really crazy loud sex every night," adds Higgins. With this one, you'll have to bite the bullet and just tell your roommate to keep it down.
Besides, there are a million ways to discuss these issues, anyway. "It's so easy to communicate in a household these days, between group text thread, shared Google Docs and calendars, that kind of thing," says Heitz.
But whatever you do, err on the side of being a little more conscientious than you think you need to be. "In some ways, it's more difficult to share with friends than strangers—when I've shared with friends I think I was inadvertently less considerate," says Hunt. "You think, 'Oh, they won't mind.' With a stranger you might become friends, but you're more respectful starting out."
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