What I learned about being a good roommate (from those times I was a not-so-great one)

If you’re reading this, you might be about to head to college and get your first roommate. Or maybe you’re getting your first apartment, or an old pro entering a new roommate situation. Regardless of what is happening, most people want to be an awesome roommate no matter what. But what many people don’t realize is that there’s actually a learning curve to be a good roommate, and like any other relationship, it takes some work. While you may think that you’re amazing (and you are), what time you get up, how often you do the dishes, whom you have over and when, and how loud you play your music are all things that are specific habits to you and your life. Negotiating them with a new person, who is not only your age, but might be living in the same bedroom as you, is whole new ball game.

How do I know this? I used to be a pretty terrible roommate my freshman year. I didn’t always clean up after myself, I spent a lot of time in our room, and I had my boyfriend over. A lot. I didn’t think I was a bad roommate at the time, but now in retrospect I realize how tough it must have been to share a room with me. Luckily I’m still on pretty good terms with everyone I lived with, but it might have gone totally different. Since then I’ve moved out of the dorms, lived in two apartments, and had a whole slew of roommates. Here is what I’ve learned about being a good roommate over the years:

1. Be honest about your habits. Like, really honest.

Are you messy? Are you a neat freak? Do you practice an instrument every night or get up early and do yoga every morning? Do you have to sleep with a humidifier or a white noise machine? Here’s the thing: you need to be open about your habits when you’re looking for roomies, or else you may encounter some problems. In college when I was filling out the housing survey, I found myself giving answers that weren’t true to my real habits, so I could come across as more of the easy-going of person I thought was cool (messy, late nights, outgoing) when in reality that’s not me at all (I’m fairly neat, have early nights, and am shy little dormouse).

What ends up happening when you’re not honest about your habits is you get into situations where there’s automatically a potential for conflict. Your new roomie might not only not jibe well with your habits, they might be mad that you weren’t honest about them in the first place. So if you’re looking for a new roommate and don’t know them personally, ask for references. When you talk to the references, keep your questions really general so the reference is more likely to answer honestly without being sure which kind of answers you want to hear. That way you can get the real scoop, and are more likely to end up with a roommate who works well with you.

2. Read between the lines when your roommate tells you his/her plans.

After doing whatever you please for years in your own room, having to share a space with someone else can be a little tricky. When you share a room with another person, you need to be aware of their needs in order to keep the peace. Does your roomie have a test they need to study for that night? If so, maybe now isn’t the time to invite all your friends over to hang out in your room and watch movies. Do you want to stay up, but your roomie has an early class and wants to go to sleep? If so, go hang out in the common area or at a friend’s place. The same goes for apartment living. If you want to do something that is going to interfere with your roomies’ schedule, try to find a compromise.

All of this may sound like a no brainers, but a lot of times it can be tough to remember other people’s schedules and needs, especially if you’re not used to it. It’s also important to remember that something that might not bother you could bother your roommate. If you’re social and they’re shy, give them a heads up before throwing a party or having a bunch of people over. Same goes for shy people. If you never like having guests over, but know your roommate does, let them have people over every once in a while. A little courtesy goes a long way.

3. Avoid falling into a passive-aggressive note hole.

Are you frustrated that your roomie isn’t picking up their stuff or eating your food without asking? Do you want it to stop but don’t want to talk about it? Put down the pen and paper, and don’t write that passive aggressive note! Even though being indirect might feel like an easier way to deal with a problem between roomies, it just adds to more weirdness later. Passive aggressive is still aggressive. It’s much more straightforward to talk to people directly. Even if it seems scary, your roomie will appreciate you coming to them first about a problem rather than jumping to other tactics. The same goes for you. If you’re roommate is asking you to do something or trying to discuss a problem they have, listen to them. Ignoring them or blowing them off, even if you don’t want to deal with it will only cause more tension in the long run. And if someone leaves you a passive aggressive note, ask them about it next time you see them. That way the problem is out in the open, not on the back of everyone’s minds.

4. Don’t let your romantic partner become the third roommate.

If you’re in a relationship with someone and share a room with a roommate you need to tread lightly. Obviously everyone wants alone time with their partner, but if you’re hanging out in your room several nights a school week, or creating situations where your roommate is literally unable to come into the room without any notice, you’re probably going to cause some problems. Talk to your roommate about what they’re comfortable with when it comes to significant others, and stick to the rules. The same goes for when you live in an apartment. Be sure that everyone is on the same page, and comfortable with the amount of time your sweetie is over. And remember, absolutely no one wants a ‘Bevers’ from Broad City, so don’t have your partner stay over if you’re not home unless they absolutely have to. That will make everyone crazy.

5. Here’s a biggie: Pay your rent on time. 

This sounds obvious, but we all need to be reminded to pay our rent and utilities on time now and then. It may seem silly or like it’s not a big deal, but these things add up. If you’re in a scary financial situation and can’t make rent in time, tell your roomies. If you’re subleasing you should have a security deposit that is meant for emergencies like this. If you’re not subleasing, talk to your guarantor. If you don’t have any of these fall backs, talk to your roommates and see if they can cover you, but start paying them back immediately. You don’t want that hanging over your head for very long.

6. I know, I know it’s tempting, but don’t use their things without asking.

My parents lived with my aunt when they were in their twenties. During this time my dad and my aunt got into what is now affectionately known in my family as ‘the cheese wars’. What would happen was that my dad would buy special cheese from a cheese store, and bring it back to the apartment intending to enjoy it later. My aunt would then eat the cheese without asking when my dad wasn’t around. Later my dad would come home and get annoyed that his cheese was gone. My aunt would apologize and offer him money to get more cheese. My dad told her that money wasn’t the point. He had already spent time travelling to buy the cheese, he shouldn’t have to go out and get more because my aunt wanted to eat it without asking. While they eventually came to a truce in ‘the cheese wars,’ the lesson has forever stuck with me.

While some roomies split the cost of staples like milk and eggs, for the most part we buy things for ourselves because we intend to use them. So if you want to borrow something from your roomie, ask first, not later. If they oblige and you have a feeling you’re going to use it all up, offer to by them more, and do it promptly.

7. Have a conversation every once in a while. For real.

It’s easy for everyone to get caught up in their own lives, and a lot of people need some time to unwind by themselves after a long day of school or work. But make sure that you and your roomie are not total ships passing in the night. If you can, be sure to have a quick chat when you see them around the apartment. If you’re both too busy, try to schedule a dinner or a movie night every once in a while. Although you don’t necessarily have to be best friends with your roommate, friendliness and rapport goes a long way toward making a happy home.

8. Establish ground rules for the living space beforehand.

Talk to your roomie and make sure that you have ground rules for your room or apartment that everyone can agree on. Do you want the common areas to be clean? Do you want everyone to take turns cleaning parts of the apartment? Is one person going to cover Internet, and the other person is going to cover utilities, or will you split everything? Who is buying toilet paper? It’s really important to get your ground rules out in the open before you start living together, so everyone knows what to expect.

9. Give them a heads up if you are having guests over.

It might not seem like a big deal to have your cousin crash on the couch for a week, but most people like to have a heads up when it comes to random guests. Once you know when your guest wants to come stay over, tell your roomie and make sure that is an OK time for them to have an extra person in their space. When your guest does come over, make sure they keep their stuff out of the way so it isn’t annoying to your roommates. Also be sure to give your guest a spare copy of the keys if you can (I keep a spare for this reason alone.) You don’t want to have to be texting your roomie to let your friend into the building. Try to make your guest’s stay at your place the least intrusive to your roomies as it can be.

10. Don’t forget the one month move-out golden rule.

Like all things, roommate partnerships will eventually come to an end. If you’ve got an expiration date on your stay, whether it’s moving coasts or studying abroad, let your roommates know immediately. If things aren’t working out and you need to move out, give them at least a month’s notice. At my first apartment I was too afraid to tell my roommate I was moving out, since we were friends and our relationship was getting tense. When it came time to re-sign the lease, I finally told her I was moving to a different apartment. She thankfully told me she too had plans to move out, so we were able to move on from the apartment, and no one was burned. But had one of us not made plans to move out, we would have left the other person in a really bad position. Even if things have soured between you and your roommate, it is really important to give proper notice so they have time to find a new roommate that they’re happy with. Even if that roommate isn’t you.

In short, when it comes to roommates and living situations, it really pays to be kind and courteous. Do unto your roomie as you would like them to do unto you—not only for the added benefit of having solid roommate references later, but for your own quality of life. Keeping your roommate relationship harmonious will only improve your quality of life. And who knows, you might even make a life long friend.

(Image via Relativity Media)


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