Mary was scared. Her elation at getting the job she wanted was dampened by her fear of finding a place to live. She knew exactly one person in the city where she would be moving and her salary wasn’t going to be enough to rent an apartment alone. She had to find a housemate, a prospect that seemed daunting and frightening. She would be living with a stranger.
Not everyone feels as uneasy as Mary at the idea of looking for a housemate. Some simply choose a new living situation based on the available room, location, rent and a good gut feeling about their future roomie. They do start out living with a stranger, but it rarely ends that way.
You don’t have to move in with a stranger. Ever. While you may start the process looking for a person you don’t yet know, by the time he moves in, the new housemate should be a known entity, someone suited to you, no longer a stranger. You are looking for your good housemate. Not just someone who also needs a place to live or has a room to spare. While complete unknowns might be okay for stopgap or temporary arrangements, you should select your housemate according to criteria you have established.
A good housemate is someone with whom you can live comfortably. You smile at each other, you chat, you engage and disengage freely with no tension. You have minimal tension because before you consented to live together you discussed how you want to share housing. You made agreements about how you would live together and are living up to them. This is key—you make these agreements before you move in.
The evolution from stranger to potential housemate should be a careful process. Each step in the process filters potential partners, weeding out those who are not a good fit until you're left with someone who suits you. Your first step is getting clear on what (and whom) you're looking for.
Most people pay attention to the physical aspects of a new home, for instance: closets, light, availability of the internet, public transportation, bathrooms, etc. In addition to thinking about the space you must also think about how you want to live day-to-day. Make a list of what you must have in a home and what you can’t live with. Whether you don't want a television or never turn off ESPN, be self-aware about it. This is a personal inventory of your non-negotiable requirements. It’s a good idea to write it down. You may think you already know what these are, but there is something helpful about seeing it in black and white. You can use this worksheet. This is your first step in the screening process.
Once you have a list of essential requirements you can start looking. In your first contact, most likely by email, find out if your applicant meets your requirements. If not, cut 'em loose. If they do, have a telephone interview. By telephone you get a better feel for the person. If it doesn’t seem right, don’t continue. If you like what you're hearing, agree to meet in the home.
Meeting in person is the third screening step. Now you talk about the nuts and bolts of sharing housing. This should be a wide-ranging conversation in which you discuss money, kitchen use, cleanliness, neatness, noise, routines, and guests. You ask every question that occurs to you. You answer the other person’s questions about you and the house honestly. As you talk, you build agreements about how you would live together. Listen to your instincts and hunches. If it doesn’t feel right, walk away. If it does, you may have met your new housemate. But you have one more screen: references.
Talk to references. Most likely, the references will validate your feelings. As you do this step you have time to consider the interview and the agreements made. If all is good, you have found your good housemate.
This process may not feel as linear as presented here. There will be disappointments and narrow escapes. But stick to your guns and expect that there is a good housemate also looking for you. When you need someone to help you move a bureau or just leave you alone once in a while, it will all have been worth it.
But your work isn't done yet! Your good housemate is a treasure, and the care that you took in finding her cost you time and energy. You want the relationship to work, to be comfortable and easy, mutually beneficial, and unstressed. A key to this is to live up to the agreements you made about how you would live when you moved in together. What follows are the most common sticking points for housemates and some harmonious practices worth following.
You pay all bills on time and hold up your end of the financial responsibilities as promised. There are no surprises here.
You keep your food items separate, combine them, or share certain supplies as was agreed on as part of the interviewing process. If your food is separate, do not eat or drink what is not yours. Nothing can be more irritating to a housemate than to find something gone. If you share food, make sure one person isn't doing all the cooking or shopping. Make sure housemates are reimbursed for collective purchases in a timely fashion. Clean up after you cook so that the next person doesn’t have to deal with your mess.
People have different ideas of what clean is and whose responsibility it is to do the cleaning. In your interview you agreed on the basics, now you should follow through. There should have a system whereby all housemates know how cleaning happens and can make a note of when they have done their bit. Some households have a chore wheel, others a chart. Some have permanently assigned tasks, while others rotate the tasks. Sometimes a home owner does all the cleaning of common rooms. Whatever your situation, do your bit cheerfully and on time.
While you certainly talked about neatness during the interview, this usually requires some fine-tuning. How much stuff left lying around in common rooms is acceptable? In general the other person’s stuff will seem messier than your own, but they may see it the same way.
Television, radio, video games, internet videos, and music are all ways that sound can travel in a home. Housemates don’t have to like the same sounds to live well together, but they do need to agree on what sounds they are willing to hear in common spaces and at what times. Someone who loves to blast hip-hop music while cooking probably shouldn’t live with someone who requires silence. A night owl with a love for death metal should probably invest in some headphones. As you live together you may discover new ways that sound is both good and annoying. Talk about it often.
You and your housemate have a set of expectations about the daily routines. While not so much a negotiated agreement, you agreed to live together in part because your daily routines were complementary. Maybe your housemate has a regular job and is out of the house all day, or is always home for dinner, or leaves every weekend to see a significant other. But life happens and routines can change. A new job, a break-up, or a close friend moving in next door will affect how you or your housemate uses the home. Sometimes the transition happens without any tension, but sometimes the new patterns of home use are significantly different and housemates become unsettled and upset. To keep your good housemate, discuss these changes and how they affect the household. Create a new agreement to make sure that the new routines are satisfactory and comfortable for all.
Some homes have friends who drop in all the time. Other homes never have visitors. You should have a basic understanding about visitors as part of the agreement you created. Since guests who visit from afar and stay overnight disturb routines, it is essential that your housemates know in advance about the guest(s). Whether you need to ask permission or simply inform depends on your agreement. A new lover who starts living in the house can be a major source of irritation, after four days you need to have a conversation about it (and it might be worth consulting the noise section above).
Agreements, not Rules
Be true to the agreements you made before you moved it. Many stories of housemate problems stem from a perceived or actual transgression of spoken and/or unspoken agreements, whether these have to do with completing chores, paying bills, or sharing food. Talk to your housemates and do it in person, not by text or email. Text and email can make a small issue much bigger through misunderstandings endemic to the media.
An agreement is not a rule and should not become one. Rules have hard edges, while agreements have soft edges. Adaptability and flexibility might be called for if an agreement needs to be changed due to changing circumstances. If so, do it consciously and in a spirit of cooperation and generosity. You want your home to be comfortable.
Your agreements are as good as gold. Guard them well.
This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. For the next piece in Share or Die, Chris Messina's "Generation Open" click here.