Social Minefield: Avoiding Roommate Drama

They're kind of like friends, kind of like business partners, and sometimes they're a lot like enemies — today in Social Minefield, learn how to deal with those fixtures of many of our lives: roommates.

We all have stories of roommate relationships gone sour, of doors slammed, leases broken, and passive-aggressive post-it notes left. But you can stop things from getting to that point if you follow a few simple tips. And if all else fails and you do need to break up with a roommate, we have advice for that too. First, an ounce of prevention:

Compatibility is key!

A friend of mine once opined that the success or failure of many romantic relationships is determined by whether the parties involved have compatible cleanliness standards. This is even more true of roommate relationships, since you're not (usually) going to have sex to make up for the weird fish going bad on the counter. If you live with someone way cleaner than you, you're either going to feel like an asshole all the time or end up doing more chores than you want to. If you live with someone way dirtier, you're going to be constantly angry and disgusted and/or turn into some kind of taskmaster, none of which are any fun. So if you have any choice in the matter, find out your potential roommates' attitude to filth before signing anything. And be honest about your own standards — pretending to be cooler or more laid-back than you actually are will only lead to a rude awakening later. The same goes for things like partying, visitors, shared space, shared stuff, noise. My First Apartment has a handy checklist of important points to discuss here.

All the above are fairly obvious, but when I talked to Alissa Green of My First Apartment, she added one more subtle factor to consider: what kind of relationship do you want with your roommate? Green explained,

There tend to be three types of roommate relationships: friends, roommate friends, or virtual strangers, and you'll likely end up as one of the above.

I've had friends that immediately became BFF's with their new roommates — one pair started dating they liked hanging out so much. And, actually, one of my favorite personal roommate relationships was when I was roommate friends with two girls in Chicago. We'd all gather on the couch and watch Gilmore Girls re-runs together (sigh), but otherwise led pretty separate lives. It was nice to have that extra distance, so we could provide reason and outside perspective to one another, but we also knew we had each other's backs.

However, in NYC there are plenty of people who prefer the third relationship of virtual strangers. These folks would probably live alone, if they could afford it. That's cool too — but disagreements happen when roommates want different kind of relationships.

So — again, if you have a choice in the matter — consider what you want out of a roommate before moving in. Oh, and if you're friends beforehand, be extra careful. Your desire to live with someone you know and like might overshadow more practical concerns, but don't forget that the stakes are actually higher here. If your roommate drives you nuts, you can leave at the end of the lease and never talk to her again. But if this happens between you and your friend — well, then you've lost a friendship.

Be businesslike.

Most people want to come off as extra-nice at the beginning of a roommate relationship — and while good first impressions are important, so is your bank account. Plus, nothing fucks up a relationship of any kind more thoroughly than money arguments. So make sure all parties involved can pay the rent, and consider putting safeguards in place in case something happens. Green offers this advice:

Kicking a roommate out if they aren't paying rent is really, really hard, which is why it's doubly important that you understand your roommate's financial situation. It's awkward. It's uncomfortable. But, understanding where rent money is coming from at the beginning of your relationship is vital. If you think your Craigslist roommate is spotty, be sure they have a guarantor. Sounds like a cold-hearted broker talking, but in this city of seven million, it's often hard to know who's reliable. Your landlord won't care who pays the rent, as long as it's paid, so it's important to protect yourself. If you're not comfortable suggesting a guarantor but also aren't comfortable with your roommate's money situation, consider opening a bank account where both of you put an extra month's rent and give access to an impartial third party. Think of both of these options like a roommate prenup. We hope you'll never have to use it, but it's there should the worst occur.


Don't be an asshole; don't be a doormat.

These two maxims will actually get you pretty far in life, but they're especially applicable to roommate situations. First things first: don't be a dick. Don't use your roommate's stuff without asking, don't make her take out the trash/clean the kitchen/buy toilet paper all the time. Don't let your food rot. Do the fucking dishes. If you're in college, and you share a single room, don't lock your roommate out every night so you can hook up with your boyfriend, then assume she doesn't mind because she never says anything. Take it from me: she minds.

And on the flipside, if your roommate is doing any of the above things, or screwing you over in any of the myriad ways one person can screw over the other occupants of his or her living space, stand up and say something. Don't just seethe with resentment while your roommate blithely continues her bullshit, until finally you both move out and nobody learns anything. If your roommate is doing something that annoys you, you need to...

Talk.

Even if you're in the virtual-strangers camp, you can't completely stop talking to your roommate once the lease is signed. For starters, you need to figure out how and whether to share your shit. Says Green, "Some roommates like sharing food and shampoo. Others prefer space. Either works well as long as there's open communication." Beyond these basics, it's pretty much inevitable that stuff's going to come up that none of you planned for. Maybe someone gets a girlfriend or boyfriend who stays over all the time and takes really long showers. Maybe someone else converts to Scientology and wants a poster of L. Ron Hubbard in the bathroom. The point is, it's not possible to foresee everything, and when your cohabiting bliss hits a roadblock, you need to be able to smooth things over. Green recommends a direct yet friendly approach:

As hard as it may be, try on to ask your roommate directly about your problem issue. It doesn't hurt to order in some takeout and make it a more friendly conversation, if things haven't crossed the border yet. Killing a roommate with kindness tends to work quite well on the road to compromise/getting one's way.

As with breakups, it's usually best to address roommate problems face-to-face. Email is not ideal. While a quick message is totally fine for settling up the month's expenses (and it's nice to have those kinds of things in writing anyway), or to share funny or disturbing apartment news such as a cell phone photo of the bug that came out of the shower drain (I am still recovering from this), an email about a real problem or concern just has a way of coming off as overly intense. It may seem counterintuitive, but a face-to-face chat can often seem less confrontational. And while it may be obvious, let Jenna spell it out for you, "Avoid note-writing. At. All. Costs."

Sometimes, you just have to break up.

There are some problems that all the takeout and candor in the world won't solve. And sometimes, the best thing you can do for a roommate relationship is to end it. But how? Green writes, "definitely don't draw it out any longer than it has to be." That is, if you've made your decision, let your roommate know — that way he or she can start making plans. Green does offer a caveat, though — "don't break-up with your roommate in June if you're moving in October." Especially if you're worried it may make things uncomfortable in the apartment, you don't need to give more notice than necessary — but don't spring it on your roommate either.

What if you love your place but just hate your roommate? Depending on who's on the lease, it may be legally feasible to kick out your roommate at the end of the term — and if he or she totally sucks, feel free to do so. But know that you probably won't be able to be friends when it's all over. You'll also want to exercise courtesy — give him or her plenty of time to find a new place — and expect chilliness — you might want to spend more time at work/the movies/a friend's house/the laundromat until the offending party is gone.

Finally, and sadly, there are cases where courtesy must go out the window. As we've seen, sometimes roommate relationship go from merely obnoxious to actually abusive. If this is the case for you, first take care of your personal safety — consider contacting an abuse hotline or counselor, and finding an alternate place to stay. You can also contact your local Fair Housing Agency to learn about options with respect to your lease. Whatever you do, know that this is one situation where you don't have to consider the other person's convenience or feelings — just do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.

May you never need this advice — and may your roommates never commit lesser offenses against your sanity either. But if they do, now you know how to handle it.

My First Apartment [Official Site]

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