If you live in a big city like New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, having a roommate is almost inevitable. Until I moved to NYC, I thought the "rent is too d*mn high" guy was pure comedy. After I arrived and began my apartment hunt, I was ready to vote for him. The rent for a decent apartment (no amenities) was double my mortgage in Chicago for a house. I knew that I would have to downsize living in NYC, but things that were considered bare necessities for apartment living in Chicago, did not apply in the Big Apple. Half of my monthly income went to rent.
I had not had a roommate since my freshman year in college, and after that I vowed that my next roommate would be my spouse. Now I understand why so many dating couples in NY live together–it’s a financial necessity, and at least you know that person better than someone responding to a Craigslist ad (not that having a boyfriend/girlfriend as a roommate doesn’t present its own problems if you break up).
The idea of getting a roommate to afford my rent seemed like a step backward in my adulthood, like moving into my parents’ basement. But after six months of living alone, I posted a roommate wanted ad.
As I browsed other roommate wanted listings, I became afraid. I talked to New Yorkers who told me horror stories about roommates and why it is not uncommon for the ad to insist that rent only covers the room rented and bathroom access--no kitchen privileges, no couples, no 420, etc. I picked up some Bohemia crystal on my last trip to Europe. People suggested that I either lock up my valuables or get a storage unit and keep them there.
I have since had several roommates, and basically I have had a good experience all around. Here are some tips I learned to avoid contemplating a Game of Thrones death for your roommate.
Understand what your renters insurance will cover, and protect your property from unnecessary risk
It goes without saying that each roommate should have renters insurance. (You can add a roommate to your own policy, but any claim will be paid to both of you, so it is not something you would want to do with a stranger.) However, you may want to clarify exactly what your roommate plans to do with the room.
For example, if your roommate works from home or is an artist/designer and plans to keep product at the apartment, don't put your own property at risk even if you have renters insurance. Call me suspicious, but I don’t want someone's clients or their associates assuming that I have valuables worth stealing.
If your roommate has this kind of side business, refer her to local co-working spaces like Wix Lounge or WeWork where she can store her merchandise and benefit from being around other creatives.
Use a roommate agreement
No, I am not referring to your lease. Even if you and your roommate sign the landlord’s lease together, you need a separate agreement that clearly outlines: (1) guests; (2) household chores; (3) utilities; and (4) contribution re: toiletries (toilet paper) and household cleaning products.
If you are signed to a lease and are subletting a room, your roommate agreement should also include length/term of lease and security/damages deposit. Yes, I include all of the above in my roommate rental agreement to avoid any confusion. All were inspired by an experience.
Specify the length of the room sublet
Although you try your best to weed out crazies during the apartment viewing, some things you just don’t know until you live together. Therefore, to avoid being stuck long-term with a Lady of the Vale or Joffrey complex, I limit the initial term to three months. After two months, I either offer an extension of the lease or inform the roommate that the lease will not be renewed. This way, if you are not compatible or the person just annoys you, then you have an out.
A friend relayed a story of a roommate who left food on the floor for "Mickey and his friends." Yes, the woman was leaving food out to feed the rodents. As if NYC doesn’t already have a rodent problem!
Get a security deposit
If you and your roommate sign the lease together, then the landlord will collect this from you when you sign the lease. However, if you are subletting a room in your apartment, you should require a security deposit to cover any damage. The security deposit is returned at the end of the lease less any deductions for damages.
This saved me when I realized that one roommate never washed the towels, sheets, and linens that I provided with the room rental. I had to throw the sheets out and replace them. Now, I have a clause that if the room is not returned in the condition let (clean linens, broom swept room, all appliances i.e. TV in working order) then the security deposit will be reduced for the amount to repair and/or replace. I also impose a $250 fee if keys are not returned. It is an incentive to be cleanly, take care of property, and not lose keys.
Set clear rules about guests
This seems to be one of the top problems with roommates. Some assume that their rental means that their significant other can stay 24/7. I specify that the room rental is exclusively for the sub-leasee. Although they are free to have guests, overnight guests must be approved. My apartment is not the "do-drop inn." Plus, I don’t want strangers constantly in my space.
Too many friends complained about items missing after another roommate had guests over. If your friend is drunk, put them in an Uber. I am not assuming responsibility for the drunk who needs to go to the hospital, or who accidentally damages my apartment or the building, causing the landlord to come after me.
Establish rules about cleaning, chores and toiletries--and get professional help
Some people have lax cleanliness standards. Others must have had maids or parents that cleaned for them. If you are sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and living room, then this needs to be addressed. Each roommate should be responsible for contributing to household toiletries and cleaning products.
Another friend mentioned a roommate who asked, "Why do we need to pay for toilet paper when they have it for free at work? I never paid for toilet paper. In college, I just took it out of the bathroom." This individual was not strapped for cash--she just did not want to pay for toilet paper.
In my kitchen, I have a high shelf with collectible Chicago Bulls Championship glassware from 1992 and a vintage coffee mug that belonged to my late father. One roommate consistently used my vintage and collectible glasses. I turned into Arya mumbling the names of people I would kill: Mountain, Cersei, Roommate. The same roommate used my shower loofah. Another used my hair and makeup. Naturally, I threw out all of my bathroom and makeup products. Cue the Arya mumbling: Mountain, Cersei, Roommate.
To avoid dealing with the roommate who believes the shower cleans itself by virtue of one taking a shower, or who rinses dirty dishes in the bathtub to "clean" them, hire maid service weekly and include it in the price of rent.
*Although renters insurance will help you replace stolen belongings and will pay for accidents guests have, that doesn't mean you want anything bad to happen. Establishing some clear rules with your next roommate will protect both your interests and sanity.
It will spare you not just from mumbling,"Mountain, Cersei, Roommate," but also from contemplating it seriously.