Roommates can be great. They can also make your life miserable.
Years ago, after moving to a new city, I needed a place to live. When I found a roommate with a steady job and furniture of her own, I thought I’d scored a great deal. But things went bad fast. My roommate was becoming increasingly possessive, angry, and strange.
One night, I was sitting on the porch with a date when my roommate came outside. As I walked in to the house to grab another drink, I heard her shout my date’s name. I turned around just in time to see her lift up her shirt. Yes, my roommate had just flashed not only my date, but everyone on the busy street below.
When I called her on it, she threw a fan against the wall and ran into her bedroom screaming. I quickly moved out, lost my security deposit, and spent the majority of my savings to get a place of my own.
After that experience, I read up on my legal rights so it wouldn’t happen again. If you’re living with roommates or planning to, here’s what you need to know.
1. Choose a mellow roommate
When you’re planning on sharing space with someone, “It’s important to look for a roommate who is ‘roommate-able,’” says Brandon Turner, a landlord and co-host of the popular real estate podcast, BiggerPockets.
“In other words, some people have a personality that’s accommodating, peaceful, and kind, which makes it very easy to be roommates with.”
Meaning that co-worker you really like as a person, or your best friend from high school, may not be an ideal choice. If you can’t live with someone, you’ll make yourself miserable and you might ruin the relationship.
And don’t forget to find a roommate with a steady source of income and a history of paying their own bills.
2. Sign the lease together
Keeping your roommate off the lease may seem like the easier route, but it can lead to problems. According to Turner, “If they’re not on the lease, and they break, burn, or destroy something, the person who’s on the lease will be responsible.” Instead, always have your roommates sign the lease with you. Then you both have an incentive to keep the place in shape.
3. Sign an operating agreement
Turner advocates “operating agreements,” which dictate everyone’s responsibilities. This isn’t the same as a lease. It’s a separate agreement spelling out everything from bill paying to dish duty.
Having this signed agreement before you move in can help you in court if your roommate causes serious damage or refuses to pay bills and things escalate. But it can also help you avoid some disagreements. Turner suggests putting “house rules” in your operating agreement. That way, you can always blame the policy later instead of arguing about problems.
4. Talk it out
When problems do creep up, find an effective way to manage them before they become all-out fights. Turner says, “Don’t be passive-aggressive and leave notes for your roommate.” Not only could those notes end up on the Internet, they cause tension between you and your roommate. Instead Turner recommends “sitting down at the kitchen table and talking until the issue is resolved.”
If you feel like you can’t live with this person anymore, don’t just pack your bags and leave — or change the locks on your roommate and hope the problem goes away. Have an honest talk, look at your finances, and decide who can afford to stay in the apartment. Once you have a plan in place, discuss it with your landlord before you make a move. “Make the landlord’s job easy, and they’ll work with you,” Turner says.
5. Be wary of subletting
Subletting your room to someone else may seem like the fastest way to get out of the apartment, but it may not even be allowed. While you hear a lot about subletting, “It’s often against the lease you sign with the landlord,” Turner says.
Subletting also turns you into a second landlord. You’ll be responsible for making sure the new tenant pays the bills on time and keeps the place clean — which means you have to keep in contact with your former roommate.
Instead, see if your roommate will agree to find a new tenant to replace you in the apartment and on the lease. Then make sure your roommate signs a new lease with your landlord, taking your name off the agreement. Otherwise, you’re legally responsible for anything that happens.
For example, “If you leave and your roommate stays, and then four months later the roommate ends up being evicted, that eviction will show up on your background check as well,” Turner says.
6. Realize the rules of flying solo
If you want to be the one who stays, you’ll have to sign a new lease with your landlord, and you may have to go through another background check. Turner says, “Most landlords will want the tenant who stays to re-qualify with proof of income.”
If you decide to take on a new roommate, make sure that roommate signs a lease with your landlord and an operations agreement with you.
I’ve followed Turner’s rules and I’m happy to say I’m no longer getting flashed or screamed at by any of my roomies.