Housing & Mortgage
Four Steps to Avoiding a Horrible Co-Living Situation
Roommates, lovers, spouses, boomerang adult kids: they all need to be vetted
With the unemployment rate at its highest since the Great Depression, perhaps you’re one of the many Americans currently having difficult conversations — or avoiding one — on the topic of sharing space.
That might mean welcoming a roommate into your home, crashing with Mom and Pop for the foreseeable future, or taking the plunge to work from home or retire —resulting in far more time around your spouse. You might also be on the other end of the equation, facing a home invasion from the beloved offspring you thought had long since left the nest.
As of 2016, 30% of U.S. adults lived with either a roommate or a parent, according to analysis from Zillow. In metropolitan centers, it’s higher: 40% in New York City, 41% in Miami, 45% in Los Angeles. When recessions hit, co-living rates go even higher.
The doubled-up household, a term demographers use, is sometimes a happy occasion — a couple stepping out together, say. But often, it’s less positive: friends begrudgingly shacking up to save cash, or adult children moving back in with parents.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you can no longer afford to live alone. (Try to be gentle on those boomerang kids, too.) Here are some ground rules for establishing a good roommate relationship, whether you’re virtual strangers or hoping to spend the rest of your lives together.
Vetting. Many colleges ask prospective dorm mates to fill out a survey about habits, expectations and preferences. The University of Rhode Island’s is here, as a starting point.
It’s helpful to gauge whether you’re on the same page about noise, guests and cleanliness, among other issues.
Not a good match on paper? Don’t despair. It doesn’t mean you need to find a new roommate (or significant other). Instead, take the opportunity to have some frank conversations about middle ground. Maybe you prefer a spotless house with an open door policy, while your prospective roommate likes solitude and a bit of a mess. Go in with an open mind, and be prepared to compromise. Ask if you can talk to their previous roommate (or landlord) about what they’re like to live with; offer them the same courtesy.
Ask the hard questions. It feels uncomfortable to ask for a credit check or to see bank statements, but it’s no more than any prospective landlord would expect. A refusal to comply may be a red flag. If you’re both on the lease, you’re liable if they don’t pony up the rent.
For couples moving in together, this may be the first time you’ve asked about their financial situation, or broached the question of debt. Bad credit doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, but it is worth knowing about ahead of time.
Find out the source. One junk credit card from years ago is a pain, but not the end of the world. A history of defaulting on bills or loans might give you more reason to worry. But be compassionate. If you’re lucky enough to have a sky-high credit score, you’re in the minority: 53% of Americans have been rejected for a credit card, loan, or car due to poor credit, according to data from YouGov.
Honesty is the best policy. It’s not always easy having your space invaded, even if you really love the person involved. If you know ahead of time that you require silence at the breakfast table or no guests on weekends, the onus is on you to be honest from the outset. If not, you risk feeling resentful for weeks or months, before finally snapping over something as minor as a poorly stacked dishwasher.
By being forthcoming, and asking the same of your roommate, you make it less likely that you’ll clash later. Even if you’re welcoming someone into your home, you may need to make some concessions to their idiosyncrasies, particularly if they’re contributing to the rent.
Let’s say you’ve been forced into sharing space, due to early retirement or kids with nowhere else to go. It’s OK to be upfront about not wanting this to be permanent. Suggest a three-month “lease,” and schedule a review at 90 days. You might find that you’re deliriously happy; alternatively, it might be time to encourage your spouse to take a hobby that gets them out of the house. Equally, if you’re allowing your children to live rent-free, make it clear if you need that to stop once they’re gainfully employed.
Household contracts. Once you’ve worked out where you both stand on money, cleanliness, and other key facts of cohabitation, draw up a written roommate agreement. Here’s a template.
Don’t be afraid to be specific, right down to what happens if you don’t fulfill your promises. Hopefully, you’ll find that you never need to look at it, or can get along just fine playing it by ear. But having it in writing could prove useful, if you suddenly realize that your roommate doesn’t even know how to use the vacuum.
If they baulk at your suggestion of a hard contract, or aren’t prepared to consider it, take it as an indication that, at the very least, you have some quirks to work through as a pair.