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How to Find a Roommate ... Safely

Written by Courtney Ronan on Tuesday, 07 November 2000 6:00 pm
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You're new to a city, and you can't afford to live alone. An extremely tight renters' market has forced monthly rents through the roof, so living solo is simply out of the question. But aside from a couple of old college buddies who recently moved to the area (who already have roommates), you haven't yet made friends in your new city. You've got to find a roommate fast if you want to have any chance of scoring an apartment. You'll have to take a deep breath and do what many solo renters do every day: go "potluck." It's a bit frightening, especially for those of us who saw the film "Single White Female" and are still traumatized from the experience.

So how are you supposed to find a roommate? You could always use a roommate service, but even using a professional source is no guarantee that your lifestyles and habits will be compatible. What kinds of sources can you rely upon that won't compromise your personal safety? You've got to start your search early, because it's very rare that you find a roommate immediately. It's going to take time, patience and some careful screening before you find the stranger with whom you'll be sharing living space for the immediate future.

First of all, before you even get started, abandon your illusion of finding the perfect roommate with whom you'll enjoy and instant rapport and certain domestic bliss. Sure, it happens on occasion, but don't weed out potential candidates because you think they'll fall short of that ideal. All you should expect from your roommate is neatness, common courtesy, safe living habits (including the avoidance of drugs, hanging out with and inviting over a dangerous crowd and a willingness to the keep the doors locked and the keys to himself/herself) and timely payment of his/her half of the rent. If friendship develops after those ground rules have been established and respected, terrific. If not, you should still consider yourself lucky for finding yourself a good roommate, because that's exactly what you've got.

Let's say you do, in fact, have a friend in the area with whom you could consider living. Should you do it? We've all heard the advice that we should never travel with friends if we want to remain friends. In some cases, that's true for roommates, too. Even if you have separate bedrooms, sharing a common living space (the living room, kitchen and bathroom, in particular) can create a host of problems. You and your friend might be bosom buddies, and while you might swear that you'd remain the best of friends as roommates, avoid it if you can help it. You and your friend could start to view each other in a different light once you're sharing an apartment. New personality characteristics will suddenly come into focus in a much sharper and clearer way. The smaller the living space, the better the chance you'll be at each other's throats before long. In many cases, it's best to reside with someone who knows nothing about your history - an objective audience, so to speak.

This isn't to imply, however, that you should go grab someone off the street and ask him or her to split the rent with you. Instead, start with the local classifieds section. It's a great place to find leads for potential roommates. You'll definitely want to interview candidates; never under any circumstances should you make an offer to someone over the phone, sight unseen. Our telephone personalities can be very different than the ones we project in person. When you do start to interview candidates, have a friend or family member stay with you for two reasons: the first, for your own safety; and second, to offer a second (objective) opinion about your candidates. The sooner you start scanning the classifieds, the better. It's likely that you'll run through many duds before you find yourself a good roommate.

If you decide to place an ad yourself, set specific hours for which candidates may call. Don't print your name, or if you can help it, your sex, either. This doesn't mean your ad has to be vague, dull and straightforward, though. You can and should make it fun-spirited. Use your creativity and a touch of humor to entertain. You're more likely to receive a positive response from candidates - and a greater number of them.

A potentially safer search technique is to ask all of your friends in the area if they know anyone who's looking for a roommate. If not, or if you a limited number of people in the area, you could try scanning the bulletin boards of reputable spots like local universities, coffee houses, your church or favorite bookstore. These are all destinations where stand a better chance of finding someone who's not only goal-oriented and moralistic, but who shares your interests, as well.

When showing your place to potential candidates, be sure that you run down the list of required utility expenses - even if the candidates don't ask (and they should). You don't want to offer someone a position as your roommate, then have them leave when they discover just how high their share of the utilities is. Also, if the building in which you live has any particular quirks - eccentric or noisy neighbors, a challenging landlord, a problem with excessive heat in the summertime - be honest and up front about it. You can counter those disclosures with positives about your building and the surrounding neighborhood.

Your most critical job as a roommate-screener is to listen to your instincts. If the red flags are waving in your brain about any one of your candidates - even if you can't put your finger on the problem - don't make that person an offer. Our instincts often prove to be our most valuable tool. They're there for our survival, so be listening.

It's not easy finding yourself a roommate - especially when time is of the essence. But you can do it safely and responsibly provided you proceed with caution as well as enthusiasm. After all, you've got to sell yourself, too.

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