A friend of mine recently decided to take on a roommate. She began to interview people when it became apparent that she would probably never find the perfect applicant. After several days of unsatisfying interviews, she called me to vent her frustration. My initial thought was that there is no such thing as a perfect roommate—just ask anyone who’s been married! Some of us choose to spend the rest of our lives with someone, and even these people aren’t the perfect roommate. But what does make for amicable cohabitation most of the time is effective communication and realistic expectations. Marriage can often force two people who know and love one another to learn and solve this the hard way, but they have a commitment to one another. The same cannot be said for roommates.
Instead of immediately telling my frustrated friend that there is no perfect roommate, I considered how one might go about creating a roommate “commitment” via effective communication. Perhaps, similar to a marriage license, there could be a roommate “license,” whereby a list of realistic expectations is communicated and agreed upon. But where does one begin?
It’s definitely not enough to say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Everyone’s version of the Golden Rule is as unique as his or her own DNA. Perhaps my “do unto you” is leaving my cat free to roam the apartment at night because I don’t mind his waking me by biting my septum or licking my eyelids. Perhaps your roommate’s “do unto you” is leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor because they wouldn’t mind picking up yours.
Since everyone has a different version of the Golden Rule, some common ground needs to be identified. It seems logical that a starting place is to identify the most common roommate complaints, and then set realistic expectations around these issues.
So for those of you wishing to identify such complaints, below is a list—none of the items should come as any surprise if you’ve ever lived with someone. But sometimes just identifying the issues helps us understand that these issues aren’t personal—they’re common. And if they’re common, well then, there must be common (and not-so-difficult) solutions.
1. Household chores
Set a schedule for completion of chores and responsibility for them. Vary responsibility so everyone shares all chores at one time or another.
2. Wash your own dishes
If dishes not belonging to you are left in the sink on occasion, do these, too. Your roommate will most likely oblige when you occasionally do the same. Leaving nasty notes about this type of thing does not accomplish anything and only harbors bad feelings.
3. Ask permission
Ask permission for anything that may affect others, e.g., parties, guests, changes to décor, etc. Including roommates on how the house is set up (furniture arrangement for example) helps everyone feel valued and appreciated.
4. Pay bills on time
There’s nothing worse than having to track down a roommate for payment on an outstanding bill. Since money can be a touchy subject for many, paying bills on time can help you avoid arguments and bad feelings.
5. Offer time alone
Even spouses don’t want to spend every breathing minute together. Vacate every now and then. This allows individual time—for everyone.
6. Phone etiquette
A phone call lasting a minute or so is generally not disruptive. Lengthy conversations in common areas should be taken into another room.
7. Own your own
Roommates (rarely) last forever. Buying major household items together only makes the eventual move more difficult. Shared the cost of a dining table? Who gets it when you move?
8. Discuss problems
Even the best of roommates can have occasional disagreements. This is normal living. Discuss any problems openly and positively. Pick the right time for discussion, however.
Using this list as a template for interviewing potential roommates could reveal compatible personality traits that could help you narrow down the candidates and find a suitable roommate. When personality traits are similar, cohabitation is less of a struggle.
Whether you’re looking for roommates or just looking to be a good roommate, common decency and a little foresight can go a long way. While there’s no guarantee a few crusty dishes or dirty towels won’t be in your future, hopefully they’ll be the exception, not the norm.
Updated September 16, 2010