By Gary Malin
Sharing an apartment is a necessity for many people, especially those who are just entering the housing market for the first time on an “entry-level” salary. In these tough economic times, sharing costs with a roommate is a great way to help cut expenses. And living with someone can be a lot of fun and a great bonding experience: Many roommates remain lifelong friends well after their living arrangement is over.
But the success of a roommate relationship is dependent upon two factors — compromise and communication.
Do you really want a roommate?
First and foremost, if you are considering a roommate purely for financial reasons, you may be able to afford an apartment on your own — if you are willing to make the required tradeoffs. For example, if you are willing to move farther from the city center —and live in a walk-up building instead of a luxury doorman tower — there is a much better chance that you will be able to find a rental property that fits your budget. It all comes down to your priorities. What is more important to you: privacy, space and independence, or living in a prime neighborhood in a more luxurious building (along with the potential camaraderie of having a roommate)? The decision is yours.
Keep it equal
If you choose to enter a roommate situation, there are a few things you can do to increase the chances of the experience being positive. While it’s not always possible, it helps to start the apartment search on “equal footing,” meaning that both parties are moving into the apartment at the same time. This scenario helps avoid the feeling that the apartment belongs “more” to the first person who got there, which can cause instant tension.
While it may seem cold, it also helps for both roommates to be in similar financial situations. It can cause problems if one party feels they cannot “keep up” with the other or if one roommate feels the other is “pulling them down” (by being late with bills, rent, etc.). What happens if one roommate wants to hire a cleaning service or spring for the premium cable package, and the other can’t afford it? In roommate situations, a similar financial status equals a better chance of success.
It’s also always a good idea for both roommates to sign the apartment lease. This way, both parties have equal rights (and financial responsibility) for the space. In many cases, apartments with two bedrooms will have a larger “master bedroom” (which may include an en-suite bath and/or larger closet space) and a smaller second bedroom. The equitable solution is that the person who sleeps in the larger room pays a larger portion of the rent. Exactly what percentage more should be discussed prior to signing the lease.
Communication is key
Outline your expectations for the new living situation as soon as possible. Be clear as to your expectations up front and don’t hold back — it’s better to discuss these issues prior to the move-in date rather than six months into a lease. What are your thoughts on visitors, the division of chores and sharing personal items or food? Everyone has a different idea of what an ideal roommate should be. Do you want a joined-at-the-hip best friend with whom you share everything, or a nearly invisible roommate who works an opposite schedule and locks the cabinet where their food is stored?
Also keep in mind that there is no better way to kill a friendship than by living together. The reason? People who are friends often take liberties with each other that they wouldn’t dream of taking with strangers or acquaintances. As the saying goes, “You only hurt the ones you love.” It’s often best to live with someone whom you are not emotionally invested in.
Don’t go to bed angry
We’ve all heard this gem of advice when talking about tips for a happy marriage, but it applies to roommates, too. Do not let little annoyances build up. If something bothers you about the other person’s behavior, address it immediately.
It also helps to use a little basic psychology. The “I message” is a powerful and proven tool to help diffuse tense situations. For example, saying “I was disappointed when I came home and saw all the dishes still in the sink” makes the other party react much less defensively than “you never washed all the dishes from last night — it’s still a mess!” Using “I” implies you are responsible for how you feel instead of placing blame on the other person by using the subject “you.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff
As I stated earlier, compromise is a main component of successful roommate relationships. Will your roommate drive you crazy sometimes? I can almost guarantee it. When things are not going so smoothly (and this will happen) remember to put the situation in perspective. In some circumstances, it’s simply not worth the stress. While I 100 percent advocate expressing any issues with your roommate quickly and directly, remember to pick your battles.
With proper planning and a focus on open communication, living with a roommate can be a rewarding experience. It will help you learn valuable skills in dealing with people that transfer to all aspects of life. In fact, I still look back fondly at many experiences I shared with roommates over the years, and I sincerely hope my advice helps you achieve the same result.
Gary Malin is the president of Citi Habitats, one of New York City’s largest and most successful residential real estate brokerages. He is also a licensed attorney and a member of the Real Estate Board of New York.
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