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How to Find the Right Roommate: The 3 Essential Elements

Updated on May 21, 2013

Times are Tough

One popular way to increase your income and reduce your expenses is to take on a roommate or become a roommate. I thought long and hard before I put the ad on Craig's List, but it was either that or moving in with the relatives. I had an extra bed and bath, only used by my daughter when visiting from college. I decided she could sleep on the couch.

3 Non-negotiables

Whether you're becoming a roommate or taking on a roommate, the following three items are essential. Don't make the mistake of being too laid back. Don't assume (you've heard that saying about what happens when you assume . . .)

  1. Learn roommate 'speak'
  2. Know thyself and know thy roommate
  3. Get it in writing (ALL OF IT)

Learn Roommate 'Speak'

Like a travel guide that describes a hotel room as cozy, you need to understand that means tiny and cramped. So, too, roommate euphemisms abound. When you hear one, ask more detailed questions, or 'what if' scenarios.

I've found that many prospective roommates are from a younger, more inexperienced set, so often some miscommunications occur. Here are some examples:

  1. "I'm very laid back." This could mean the person is a slob, will not clean up after themselves and will eat all your food.
  2. "I'm very clean." This could mean that this person is anal about germs and will harass you about following their methods for sanitization and instant, rather than reasonable, clean-up schedules. (From Frasier to Daphne: You left the sponge upside down! My God, woman, are you trying to kill us???")
  3. "I'm hardly ever home." Even if the prospect claims to be in school and working full-time, this may be total BS. Maybe they think they're busy, but just don't count on it. If you are a very private person, a roommate may not work for you.
  4. "I have a boyfriend." This could mean that your are going to be seeing this guy in your kitchen, in his underwear, in the middle of the night, browsing through the fridge. It also may mean (this happened to me), that he'll be moving in with the new roommate, but according to the roommate, he's just visiting.
  5. "I'm non-drama." Wellllll, drama means something different to each person. Ask for an example of what she thinks drama is. (In my case, my non-drama roommate ended up yelling at me through my locked bedroom door that it was a good thing I locked the door, otherwise she'd beat the sh** out of me.)
  6. "I don't party, but I would like to have friends over sometimes." Sure, perfectly reasonable, but one person's definition of 'having friends over,' with wine and loud music, is another person's definition of a party.
  7. "I have a full-time job." Uh, huh, well how long have you had it, and do you have any plans to change? (See the following section called: The Trush)

Basically, just know that everyone's reality is different, and although they may or may not be lying, you need to ask a LOT of questions.


Know Thyself, and Know They Roommate

Sing it with me and Julie Andrews: "Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You." (In case you're too young, that's from The Sound of Music.)

Before you even start the process, you need to do some soul-searching. Are you really a flexible, open-minded person? Be honest. If not, a roommate may not be the situation for you. Frankly, no matter what measures you take ahead of time, there will be surprises and disappointments, as happens when living with anyone. So, 2 very important elements are:

  1. The interview (what they say and the vibe)
  2. The references (the truth)

The Interview

So, you've advertised your pad on Craig's List or some other roommate site, and if priced right, you have a flood of interested parties. Some you know right off won't work, but as for the viable prospects, try to schedule them all within one or two days. You might think one is perfect, but the next one that comes along may be 'the one.' Make sure all interviews are in person.

Start by preparing a basic application - you can find templates or create your own from scratch: Name, birthdate, SSN#, current address, phone #s, employer with contact info, references (more on that later), etc.

Then, prepare a list of well-thought-out, open-ended (not yes or no) questions - kind of like a job interview. Take a few days to do this (as you're cleaning your kitchen, you may realize that you can't stand cleaning up after someone else). Even if you are the one looking for a room, you need to know if the two (or more) of you will be compatible. A few suggestions to get you rolling:

  1. Is this your first time as a roommate? Tell me about your other experiences. What went wrong, what went right?
  2. Why are you moving?
  3. What are your goals?
  4. What are your best and worst qualities? How would your friends describe you?
  5. How do you define drama, and can you give me some examples?
  6. How do you like to communicate?
  7. Do you think roommates should be friends? Why?
  8. How do you handle conflict, and some examples?
  9. What are your 3 most important characteristics in a person? What are your pet peeves?
  10. What are your thoughts on live and let live?
  11. What are your expectations of your roommate?
  12. What's a typical day like for you?
  13. How do you define basic respect?

The Truth

So, if the vibe is right and you're both laughing at this point, maybe it will work, but do not, by any means, stop here. The truth is in the facts. If they don't want to provide this information, or can't, move on. They need to provide:

  1. Current employer, supervisor name, and contact info.
  2. Credit score (they can look this up online and just show you from their computer - no cost).
  3. Background check (if they can't afford the $35 to obtain and provide you with a copy of their background report, you might have trouble getting the rent.)
  4. References: Not friends, not relatives, but professors, employers, etc. along with contact info.
  5. A security deposit. I usually make it something reasonable, not so low that they won't bother to give you move-out notice or clean up before they leave. Give them some impetus to get that security deposit back.
  6. First month's rent.

Tell them you'll make your decision after you've verified employment, talked to their references, seen their credit score, and received a copy of their background check.

At this point I have to say, I only feel strongly about this after actual roommate experiences. The first time I interviewed a roommate, I left it at that, since we seemed to get along. I did nothing else. What a disaster. The second time, I had the application ready, the growing list of interview questions ready, checked a couple references, and that also ended up being a disaster. For my third roommate, the application was 3 pages long, the interview questions were an entire page, I verified everything, and the final roommate agreement ended up being 5 pages long. And, guess, what? She was a total dream. She made up completely for the first two psychos.

Lesson learned.

Get it in Writing - ALL of it

With roommate #3, I had to apologize about the length of the agreement, but just explained that it was based on previous experiences, not that I didn't trust her, and I asked her to review it for a couple days and suggest any changes or ask for clarification.

The basic principle of this agreement for me was, not that I'd drag her into court if she didn't follow through, but that we both knew exactly what was expected of each of us. No misunderstandings.

You can start with an online template if you want, but think long and hard about what all to put into this agreement: Security deposit, rent, late fees, length of agreement, cleaning, food, who pays what, visitors, noise levels, privacy, etc, etc.

Also, when you prepare this agreement, review the State Laws for Tenants and Landlords. Despite what you put in your personal Rental Agreement, some of these laws may take precedence.

The Perfect Roommate

First, remember, that no one is perfect, but hopefully you'll end up with someone who is basically respectful, not pushy or judgmental, pays on time, knows to settle conflicts early on, and maintains open communication.


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