Heading Out on Your Own — Day 8: Living With Roommates

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 8, 2012 · 29 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own

If you’re like most young men leaving the nest for the first time, you probably won’t have enough money to live all by yourself. To save money, you’ll very likely have to bunk with a roommate or two to cut down on living costs. While roommates can save you money (and provide camaraderie and companionship), they can pose many challenges. Any time you put two people with different backgrounds and lifestyles together under one roof, there’s bound to be conflict and awkward social moments.

Learning how to effectively manage the roommate relationship is an essential skill for every young man to have. Not only will it make living with roommates during your bachelor years easier, it also prepares you in many ways for when you settle down and start a family of your own.

Below we provide some tips on how to make living with roommates as drama-free as possible. The advice is based on my personal experience of living with dozens of roommates when I was single, many of whom came from completely different cultures than me.

Establish ground rules from the get-go. A friend of mine who left home a year earlier than me summed up this guideline thusly: “Establish rules before you need them.” Don’t wait until someone forgets to pay their share of the rent to figure out what happens when someone doesn’t pay the rent. Neither should you wait until the night before a big final to have the discussion about your roommate’s proclivity for blasting his TV at 2 AM in the morning.

The best thing you can do to get along with your roommate is to sit down with him the first day you move in (if you’re in the dorms) or before you sign a lease (if you’re getting an apartment) to discuss the rules of the apartment/dorm. Don’t make this conversation combative. Don’t be defensive and uptight. You want everyone to be as open and frank as possible. You can say something like, “Just so we’re on the same page and so we can avoid any conflicts in the future, can we lay down some ground rules for the apartment?”

What sort of rules should you establish? Here’s a list of a few questions you might consider bringing up in your conversation with your roommate:

  • When should everyone pay their share of the rent and utility bills?
  • Who cleans what and when?  Also discuss the consequences if people don’t do their chores.
  • What are the rules on dishes? Do dirty dishes get put in the dishwasher right away or can you leave them in the sink? Who unloads the dishes?
  • Is smoking inside allowed?
  • What are everyone’s drinking habits?
  • What sort of expenses will we share? Cleaning supplies? Garbage bags? Toilet paper? Any shared food expenses like coffee and milk?
  • What are the rules on bringing guests over? Can friends crash in the living room? How big of a heads-up should everyone give before having a party or bringing guests over? Do we even need to give a heads-up?
  • What about significant others? Can they spend the night? Can they hang out all day, every day? Can we give them duplicates of our keys? You’ve got to be careful with this one. I’ve seen several roommate relationships go south because a girlfriend slowly turned into a non-paying third tenant. Nip that in the bud from the get-go.
  • Speaking of significant others, if you’re sharing a room with a roommate, you might want to establish some sort of “Do Not Disturb” signal. It will save you from some awkward walk-ins.
  • What are the rules on morning and nighttime noise levels?
  • Are pets allowed?
  • What temperature are we going to keep the thermostat set at? (You’d be surprised how contentious this issue can be with roommates.)
  • Have everyone share whether they’re neat freaks or slobs. It’s best to know from the outset so you can manage expectations about what constitutes a clean apartment.

A lot of roommate conflict boils down to a mismatch of expectations. Roommates expect each other to be mind-readers, and to live up to expectations that they’ve never actually verbalized, but simply expect the other guy to magically know and adhere to. When the expectations aren’t met, resentment follows. By sitting down together before you move in, you’ll know what to expect. For whatever psychological reason, even when someone doesn’t meet your standards, if you already know that they won’t, you won’t get bent out of shape about it.

By the way, I know some will feel resistant to the idea of drawing up ground rules, feeling like you’re young and want to keep things loose and that because you’re buddies, things will just naturally work out. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Think of the ground rules as friendship insurance — getting a policy isn’t the most pleasant task, and maybe you won’t need it, but if you do, it can keep your friendships intact and make the whole experience smoother and more enjoyable.

Be flexible and willing to compromise (but stand firm on your deal-breakers).  During your conversation about ground rules, you and your roommates will inevitably run into disagreements. Be flexible and work to compromise in order to accommodate each other’s differing lifestyles. For example, if you’re a night owl and your roommate is not, you should be willing to keep the noise down after he goes to bed, and he should in turn try to get ready quietly in the morning when you’re still snoozing. If there are some things that are deal-breakers for you, don’t be afraid to stand your ground. So if you don’t want any smoking in the house, say so. If your roommate isn’t willing to adjust to your request, find a new place or roommate.

Follow the Golden Rule. The key to managing roommate relationships is be mutually respectful and considerate of one another. You will be well served by following the Golden Rule.  If you don’t like walking into your living room to unexpectedly find a stranger sacked out on the couch, don’t invite friends over without giving your roommate a heads-up; don’t touch your roommate’s stuff without asking permission first; don’t leave your dirty dishes in the common area. You get the idea.

Have a weekly sync-up meeting. One activity that I found immensely useful in managing and preventing roommate conflicts is having a weekly meeting to sync up with each other. At this meeting you can discuss bills that need to be paid and chores that need to be done. It’s also a good time to let your roommate know about guests that are coming over in the coming week, so they have a heads-up.

The sync-up meeting is a good time to bring up and resolve any issues that are causing friction between roommates. Again, don’t be combative when you bring up concerns. Just tell your roommate what’s been bothering you and ask what the two of you can do to resolve the issue.

I’d also use this time to ask my roommate if there’s anything I can do to help him out that week. For example, if I knew that he was working overtime to finish a school paper, I’d ask if there were any chores or errands I could help out with that week. My roommates would do the same for me when I was getting bogged down.

Another nice feature about the weekly sync-up meeting is that it carries over nicely to married life. Kate and I do something similar in our own relationship. It’s a practice that has definitely contributed to our success in both our marriage and our business.

There will be conflict. Address it calmly and directly instead of avoiding it.  Conflict and disagreements are a normal part of any relationship, be it in a marriage or with a roommate. So don’t be surprised if you and your roommate don’t get along all the time. Unfortunately, many young people handle conflict by simply acting like it doesn’t exist or hoping that the conflict will magically resolve itself. Managing conflict like this will only turn small issues into big ones. Don’t avoid conflict. Don’t leave each other passive aggressive notes. Instead, rip off that band-aid and understand that “pain now is better than pain deferred.” So if you notice that your roommate is slacking off on his chores or is stealing borrowing your food, bring it up as soon as you can. Don’t let the conflict fester until it blows up like a puss-filled boil.

Understand you don’t have to be best friends with your roommate. One mistake I’ve seen many young people make when entering roommate relationships for the first time is having unreasonably high-expectations about the relationship. They expect that they’ll be best buddies with their roommates and do everything together and never get in fights. Their roommate, on the other hand, prefers to have his space and spend time with his own friends. This mismatch in expectations can cause friction in the relationship from the get-go.

To prevent this mismatch of expectations, go in understanding that you and your roommate might not be best buds, but merely roommates who respect each other. While you should certainly invite your roommate out to a party or a ballgame, don’t get offended if he declines. That’s his prerogative.

Even if you’re rooming with your best friend from high school, understand that just because you’re good friends doesn’t mean you’ll naturally be good roommates. I’ve seen the most volatile roommate fights between people who were once best friends. The problem usually stems from poor expectation management. Best buds naively assume that they’ll get along without establishing ground rules or having weekly sync-up meetings. But they don’t. Don’t skip those steps if you’re moving in with a good friend.

Friendships can also deteriorate if you rely on each other for all your social and emotional needs. Even if you’re two manly peas in a pod, don’t spend all your time with each other. Make other friends, find different interests, and do things separately sometimes.

Use Google Docs and Google Calendars to manage everything. During my roommate days, the only tool we had to manage shared expenses and chores was a whiteboard. My roommates and I would post rent due dates and the chores list for the week. And of course, the whiteboard was used occasionally for scribbling passive aggressive notes about some grievance.

Take a tip from Apartment Therapy and upgrade from the humble whiteboard to the Cloud by using shared Google documents and calendars to manage your roommate experience:

  • Create a Google spreadsheet to manage rent and other shared expenses.
  • Another spreadsheet can be used to keep track of chores and whether they’ve been done.
  • Create and share a Google Calendar just for your roommates so you keep everyone abreast of when guests are coming over or dates for parties. You can also put rent and utility due dates on the calendar and have Google send everyone an email reminder when the date rolls around.
  • Use a shared Google write document to share random notes.

If your roomies don’t use Google, you’ll have to convince them to sign up to take advantage of this system.

GoodMate is a new web app that allows you to manage the roommate experience from a central dashboard. You can manage shared expenses, chores, and calendars all within GoodMate. GoodMate will email your roommates with reminders to pay rent or do their chores. The only downside to GoodMate is that you have to sign-in with Facebook. If you have a roommate who doesn’t use Facebook, you’ll have to use the whiteboard. And look into whether he hasn’t time-traveled to your apartment from the year 2002.

I Can’t Stand My Roommate. What Can I Do?

Despite doing your darnedest to make it work, your relationship with your roommate has reached a point that you can’t imagine living another day with him. What can you do?

If you’re living in a dorm, go talk to your RA. They might be able to help you make a room switch. I had a friend in college who decided to get assigned a random dorm roommate for the “experience.” Little did she know that the roommate assigned to her would turn out to be certifiably crazy. After a few weeks of trying to make the relationship work, my friend asked for a new dorm room. She got one with little trouble.

If you’re living in an apartment, getting rid of a bad roommate or moving out is a bit trickier because of the lease agreement. Unless you have enough money to pay for the months remaining in your lease agreement, plus an early termination fee, moving out might not be an option. You could always evict your roommate, but that process can take time and makes an already awkward situation even awkwarder.  The eviction process is a bit complex for this post, so I might revisit it later in a future post if there’s any interest.

Unless your apartment roommate is not paying their share of the rent or is conducting illegal activities in your apartment, your best bet is to wait until the lease is up and go your separate ways. It will be a learning experience for sure.

Any other tips for the young man living with roommates for the first time? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephen Dunscombe August 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I use De-Bee.com for tracking shared expenses with my roommate. It works great. You can note an expense, amount, date, reason, and it’ll e-mail your roommate to let them know you’ve added it; likewise they can add payments. It tracks balances owed between people really nicely.

2 Jon August 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm

If you have a roommate who is a habitual drug user…get out.

A little pot, depending on how old you are and how prevalent it is among all the roommates in the house if fine.

Your roommate and his sketchy friends going upstairs for 5 minutes every hour, where it’s clear that cocaine is involved…is not.

3 Shane-San August 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Three years ago, my best friend and I roomed together in an apartment while attending school. We’d known each other since we were toddlers, and I expected that nothing would really change just because we were now sharing an apartment. Man was I wrong! I learned quickly that living with someone takes the relationship to a whole new level. Though this is a great post all-around, I particularly agree with establishing ground rules and expecting conflict. We established some ground rules early on, and that gave us some guidance for how not to annoy the heck out of each other too frequently; yet even with the rules I had to learn to be more flexible. I’m a neat freak, and my roommate was more lax. For awhile the pile of dishes at the end of the night annoyed me immensely. However, eventually I learned how to communicate this respectfully, and even to put up with more clutter than I was used to. The main thing is looking out for the other person’s needs rather than just your own, and accepting that they grew up with different expectations for how things should be than you did! We survived those two college years, and both learned how to adjust our behaviors while gaining new insight into our annoying idiosyncrasies. I’m proud to say that we are still friends, in fact I’d say we are better friends than before as a result of the wisdom we attained through the experience. God bless all those embarking on this journey for the first time.

4 Steve August 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm

This is good stuff. Thanks for the tips. I haven’t moved out yet, but I will be soon, and a roommate is something I hadn’t really thought about. This is all very relevant information. Keep it coming.

5 Jacob August 8, 2012 at 8:20 pm

This is perfect timing for me! I’m about to move out and probably get a roommate or two. I’m definitely going to lay ground rules before we move in together.

6 C August 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm

One more suggestion for any of you that will be living with roommates: consider having dinner together once a week.

When I was in my sophomore year of college, I lived in a house with seven other students and we had dinner together at the same time every Sunday night. Since cooking for eight is a fair amount of work, we would pair up and every week one pair would cook for everybody. People would get recipes from their moms and make all kinds of different things… lasagna, chicken pot pie, tacos. Or when the weather was nice, we’d grill up some burgers. Since we all met for dinner anyway, this was the perfect time to “sync-up” and discuss any issues that had come up.

It may not work for every set of roommates, but at least for us the Sunday dinner tradition was one of the things that made it such a great year.

7 Billy B. August 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Great article.
Last August I moved in with another guy I knew from college and two of his friends from back home. I suggested we do a sit down and get everyone on the same page as far as cleaning, paying rent/bills, and other expectations for living together. My suggestion was not heeded as the others thought we could just work things out on the fly. Well after some money issues between myself and another one of the guys, we were not talking five months later. Everything hit the fan and things were quite stressful for all parties involved. Please listen to this advice!

Show a little grace in dealing with roommates, no one is perfect.

8 Hunter August 9, 2012 at 12:01 am

Some practical stuff I learned with my housemates:

Once it’s figured out who’s on what utility or other bill (go with paper billing), bills should be placed in a specific spot, and each mate puts their cash or check on it, writing what they contributed on the bill itself.

Rotate cleaning of shared spaces weekly: bathroom, vacuuming, mopping, kitchen scrub-down, etc. Make some kind of chart if it’s hard to remember, and to keep everyone accountable.

Buy your own food, but share freely when asked.

9 Jimmy C. August 9, 2012 at 6:56 am

As far as a do not disturb sign, sock on the door. Never had a single walk-in.

10 coops August 9, 2012 at 7:53 am

8 years in the British are has taut me to have a masturbation time table. So you don’t walk in when you roomy is ” relaxing in a gentleman’s way “

11 Matt F August 9, 2012 at 9:49 am

Great article Brett! I would also like to second the “not leaving passive aggressive notes”. I lived with six guys under one roof in college (in a very expensive California beach town, where there were two of us to a room). I was more on the cleanlier side, while the rest of the roommates were complete slobs, which definitely leads to problems. Talking to eachother like adults resolves issues much faster, and (usually) doesn’t lead to any kind of resentment. I do have to say though, I’m glad the days of roommates are behind me.

12 Rahul August 9, 2012 at 10:55 am

C,

That’s a great suggestion. Lived it and know it’s effects. Specially since you might have very different schedules and with busy lives might not meet each other a lot over the week… just taking some time to sit together, enjoy a meal, talk about your life- happenings, problems and aspirations and oh by the way we need to clean house or settle bills etc. goes a long way in making it an amicable experience.,…

13 Richard August 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Thanks for the great advice! I can vouch for sync-up meetings and dealing with issues directly rather than letting them fester. A great tool to keep track of shared expenses is Splitwise: http://splitwise.com

It keeps track of everything so that everyone knows how much they owe each other at any given time. So far my friends and I haven’t had to write a single check to balance things out because whoever owes money gets to pay for the groceries.

14 Garret August 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I had a situation two years back where I lived in a dorm with three other people. It was something of a difficult situation since three of those people (myself included) were quiet, respectful (perhaps even “boring”) people while the fourth was flamboyantly gay. None of us had any problems with homosexuality; the problem was that he exhibited all the negative qualities of the “gay stereotype” with great gusto.

He was loud, moody, dramatic, and disrespectful to other people. He often came home completely trashed and made a huge racket late at night; he often brought home one-night stands and had loud sex with them. Tiny slights would turn into massive dramas with him, and he would consistently monopolize the common room (it was a four-bedroom design with one room in common) to the point where all of us stayed cooped up in our own rooms all the time.

We quickly learned that we couldn’t really negotiate stuff with him – for example, there was an early discussion between me and him about alcohol in the room. I asked him not to keep his drinks in the apartment (we were all under 21, and this was a dry campus; if any alcohol was found in the dorm at all, all the residents were penalized.) He simply responded to this by asking, “But if I can’t store my alcohol here, where will I keep it?” This should give you a good example of his mindset.

Anyways, because he was so dramatic and the rest of us were as reserved as we were, it led to a difficult living situation where he almost always got his way. We all got the impression that him being gay would give him an advantage if it ever came down to talking to the RAs (he often accused us of being bigoted for any criticism of his annoying behaviors). When we did eventually go to the RAs they essentially told us it was almost impossible for him to be moved, though I think this was just general policy, and not because of any special status he held.

Anyways, that entire school year essentially consisted of me staying in my room with the door shut. It was a pretty bad deal. Could we have done anything about it? Maybe…but considering the tantrums he often threw over very minor things, I think we all felt that it’d be better just to turn the other cheek and ignore him as best we could.

Is there a lesson here? The only thing I can really see is that you ought to think long and hard before cohabiting in a college dorm, since you have almost no control over your own situation with the school.

15 Morghan August 10, 2012 at 12:54 am

Why time travel? I would find it more likely they simply realized what a complete time suck Facebook is and decided their limited hours could be better spent.

16 Roland August 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm

I’ll he heading to college soon and I’ve tried to get in touch with my roommate but have had no sucess. Any advice on what to do if the first time we meet and talk is on move-in day?

17 Peter August 12, 2012 at 10:03 am

I have lived with roommates for over 8 years now both in University and in shared accomodation.

I currently share a house with 2 girls and the dyamic is great.The key is following, as you say, the golden rule of mutual respect with a healthy dose of tolerance.

However, I was once in a nightmare situation. I shared with 3 peopleI knew, 2 guys and a girl. One of the guys was the long term boyfriend of the girl. However, they eventually grew apart and the girl went running to the other guy. There were often violent arguments every night and a horrible cordon sanitaire between everyone. Being the one stuck in the middle I was often approached to try and sort out arguments and just act as someone who would listen to them all bitch about each other. It was not a time I will ever yearn for.

However, the experiences I have had have been positive. As the article suggests, sharing accomodation is not only good for saving money. It will help you develop tolerance, assertiveness and how to develop trust with people. It will also broaden your social and cultural horizons.

@Roland – I didn’t meet my new roomates until my first day at University. Everyone is in the same boat so there is a very understaning atmosphere during those few days. Offer them something to break the ice such as a drink and just get to know them, you will be fine.

18 Ahmad Halis August 13, 2012 at 2:42 am

Brett & Kate, awesome timing with this!

I am moving out soon. It will be my first time living away from home, and with other people I don’t know. I have been sweating about all the possible drama that can happen, but all this advice is perfect in trying to avoid it and make the best of the situation.

Thank you!

19 Ryan August 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Facebook group is very helpful too. Add everyone to it to easily disseminate information on rent, upcoming plans, “Can somebody get take the trash out, I wont be home”, etc…

20 Steve August 17, 2012 at 8:13 am

I’m not sure if this works elsewhere, but when I’ve previously rented a shared house in London, a lot of landlords have been happy for someone to move out, provided they find someone to replace them first. Clearly, you should check this with the lettings agent/landlord, and I am sure that your co-tenants would appreciate vetting the potential new roommate, but it has got me out of an uncomfortable situation before now.

21 Daniel August 19, 2012 at 3:10 am

First of all, great post!! I’m entering into my 3rd year of college and have experienced nearly all the issues that you have addressed here, and I gotta say, you really hit the nail on the head!

One thing I would definitely add is to not become/let your roommate become dependent on you for basic needs. Last semester I moved into an apartment with some guys from my dorm, one of which was one of my good friends. The only problem was, this guy didn’t have a car!!! We didn’t think that this would be a major issue because, my other two roommates and myself all had vehicles… WE WERE WRONG!

It got to the point that my roommate believed that it was our responsibility to get his lazy @ss to school multiple times a day, and caused a great deal of tension in our place. By the end of the semester we were all went our separate ways, and our friendship was lost. Please learn from my mistakes!!!

22 RM August 21, 2012 at 12:45 am

Here’s my question for you guys: I’m 47 years old and my roommate is 46. I’ve known him for quite a number of years through church and we decided to get an apartment together 5 years ago. I’ll cut to the chase: there have been a number of things I’ve had to remind him of since we moved in (re. keeping the kitchen clean; dropping/spilling things on the floor; etc.) and he’s improved on most things with the exception of this last issue: hygiene. I’m talking about smelling like a dirty diaper hygiene. Since it’s an embarrassing subject, I mentioned it to him in a roundabout way so he understood what I was saying, but here we are again…and baby’s diaper needs changing again. I’M NOT THE ONE TO DO IT EITHER. I feel like a 46 year old grown man should know when he needs to take a shower/bath and I shouldn’t have to tell him. Next conversation we have, I’m not going to sugarcoat it; I’m going to have to be blunt, but do so in a respectful way. What are your thoughts on this?

23 Saurabh Mandar November 25, 2012 at 12:13 am

I have always had this problem, be it with my housemates or friends that I often hang out with.

Couldnt find a good solution so decided to build something on my own with a few friends – BillPin (www.billpin.com).

Its a very simple application to manage finances between friends/housemates and we have an iPhone app to go with the webapp. We will also be launching an android app this december. Hope you like it and do feel free to write to us with feedback!

24 Tyler G. December 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I’m lucky to have my own dorm room, although rooms here are arranged in a suite style, with 2 rooms and a sliding door between them. You can talk to your roommate as much or as little as you want, but noise issues can sometimes come up, especially if they have a significant other over and they start getting intimate. To that end, our hall has declared what we call “the donuts rule:” if you hear someone else having sex, you can yell “donuts,” and the offenders are obligated to buy you donuts. This makes things a little more fair; they get sex, you get free donuts.

25 KT January 11, 2013 at 9:12 pm

I really like this i think it will help me, and my future roommates! :)
I like the “Donuts” rule ! ahah

26 checkfloor September 24, 2013 at 4:51 am

Search Roommates at http://www.checkfloor.com

27 Joe October 9, 2013 at 11:42 pm

There is also this pretty cool website called http://www.rumr.co which uses social network to find suitable roommates.

28 Sam November 14, 2013 at 10:40 am

Another alternative for keeping track of expenses is Split It Quick http://www.splititquick.com

29 Dude December 2, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Hello, I just have a question. We have a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment. 1 tenant pays for their own room/bathroom, so therefore half the rent. The other bedroom has 3 tenants in it, all 3 dividing half the rent 3 ways. My question is does one of those roommates in the room with 3 people have the right to throw either or both roommates onto the couch and out of the bedroom that they all share because their significant others spend the night? Even if the 2 people who have significant others follow the rules of the lease in allowing guests to spend only 7 nights a month and they pay their fair share of the rent, does 1 roommate have the legal right to dictate where another roommate can sleep if they bring their significant other over? Or it doesn’t matter if they sleep on the couch or on a separate bed away from the disgruntled roommate in that room? Thank you.

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