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How to Shop for a Roommate

Stefanie O'Connell

As a ten-year resident of New York City, I have had my fair share of roommates. The only way to make affordable living a possibility in this town, and many others, is to split the biggest expense, which is rent.

While cutting your rent in half, as well as your utility bills and other housing expenses, might sound like a no-brainer, a roommate can actually end up costing you more than it's worth, unless you take proper precautions. To avoid a headache and potential financial disaster, follow these guidelines when "shopping" for your next roomie.

Decide on paperwork.

Your first step is to decide whether you're going to sign the lease on your own or cosign with your roommate(s). You might need the additional stream of income to prove you can afford the apartment, but if things go sour, your roomie will have as much right to the space as you do. If you do choose to sign on your own, remember that you will be responsible for cutting the rent check to the landlord each month in full, regardless of whether or not your roommate has paid you half.

Check the background.

Not only do you want to make sure your potential roommate is not a crazy person, you'll also want to know he or she is financially dependable. Don't wait until the first of the month to find out that he actually doesn't have enough money to cover the rent and that you'll have to make the full payment until he can scrape it together.

The whole point of getting a roommate was because you couldn't afford to live on your own, so make sure you can count on them holding up their end of the expenses.

Do the same checks a landlord would do, which include a background check, credit check, proof of income, and references, even if it's a good friend. Just because you like someone personally doesn't mean they're great financially.

If your roommate is not on the apartment lease, execute a sublease with them and collect a security deposit along with the first month of rent. Be sure to define how and when they are to pay. Include specific dates and an exit clause. If the roommate decides to break the sublease before the agreed upon date, define the terms. Will there be a penalty? Perhaps you keep the security deposit? What if they provide written notice 30 days in advance? Whatever you decide, be sure to put it in writing and have it signed by both parties.

Discuss shared expenses.

Discuss all shared expenses before you sign or agree to anything so that you don't have to have any awkward conversations or uncomfortable surprises later on. In fact, put it in the lease agreement or create your own roommate contract.

For example, are you going to have cable? If so, what kind of package and how will the cost be split? What if one of you doesn't want the premium movie channels or doesn't care for cable at all? What about cleaning and paper supplies? There's nothing like the resentment of always being the one to restock the toilet paper to build tension in a rooming situation.

And finally, utilities. Seems like a straightforward 50-50 split until you find out you're living with an energy hog. One summer I was rooming with a guy who blasted the air conditioning in his room 24 hours a day. The irony of it is, he had an internship at an investment bank so he was hardly ever there. Our utility bills were through the roof, well over ten times what they had been the previous summer.

Unfortunately, the agreement was a 50-50 split. If I had been more mature, I would have had a frank conversation about his energy consumption and the utility bill, but at that point in my life I avoided confrontation at all costs, so I instead snuck into his room in the middle of the day to turn off that power sucker.


Decide who owns shared purchases.

In some ways, rooming together, particularly when you're both entering a new space, is like getting married. From couches to bathmats to pots and pans, you'll outfit your new home together. But just like a pre-nup, it's a good policy to designate ownership from the outset.

For example, when I moved in with my ex-boyfriend, we did not share any purchases. We made all the decisions together, but kept the money separate. That way, if there were ever a problem, we wouldn't have to agonize over who was going to get what. When I moved out a few years later, the actual moving out was painless.

Find a way to outfit your shared space in a way that makes sense financially while accounting for future living arrangements.



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