Whom you choose to live with can have a dramatic effect on your quality of life. Here are some of the better screening tactics to head off trouble.
In this tough economy, finding people to share housing and expenses is easy. Finding a roommate you can live with is much more difficult.
Everyone's got a horror story about a seemingly nice person who turned into the "roommate from hell," trashing the place, refusing to pay his or her share of the bills and bringing home an endless parade of strangers.
Roommates like this not only can wreck your credit, they can make each day seem like an eternity. So how do you avoid these walking disasters?
In a word: Research. You need to ask a lot of hard questions before you sign on the dotted line, experts say, and make sure you both agree on the big money issues as well as the lifestyle you're looking for.
"You have to be thorough," says Marcia Stewart, co-author of Every Tenant's Legal Guide. "Take a little more time, even if it means you have to stay at your parents' house a little while longer."
Know your limits
Before you start calling on ads, hitting up your friends or posting your own ad on Craigslist, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
"You need to know what you can live with, and what you can't," says Dan Ross, manager of Roommate Express, a 20-city roommate matching service. "The compatibility issue outweighs everything."
• Do you want a quiet atmosphere at home, or are you looking to have one foot back in the frat house?The answers to these questions can help you determine the best place to look for a roommate. If, for instance, you want a quiet place with inexpensive rent and don't mind taking on a few extra errands, you might be able to find a home share with a senior in a desirable area through the National Shared Housing Resource Center.
• Do you mind if a roommate has his girlfriend spend the night several nights a week?
• Are you looking for a buddy or do you prefer more privacy?
• How will you handle drinking or drug use?
If you want a roommate with a similar lifestyle or interests, you might try roommate-matching services such as Roommate Express or Roomster.com. If you can't stand the thought of meat in your refrigerator, you could try a site such as Veggieroommate.com.
However, if you're willing to ask the tough questions and screen applicants carefully, you'll probably attract the biggest pool of qualified people by placing an ad on Craigslist.
You also can check with your alumni association or send e-mails out to all of your old college buddies. But, Stewart says, don't assume that because someone is a friend, that person will make a good roommate. "You might have shared a dorm room together, but that's a lot different and there's more money at stake" with an apartment.
Screen for reliability
Once you've narrowed your search and found people you think you can tolerate, you need to make sure you can count on them.
"The future will be dictated by the past," Ross says. "Look at their work history for the last year. If they bounce from job to job, that's bad. If they've lived in four or five places in the last year, that's bad."
• Run a credit check if you've already got a place and are looking for a roommate, advises accountant Patricia Bernero, who shares her house in the Rogers Park area of Chicago with a couple of roommates.Agree on the big stuff before you sign
• Try to substantiate their job and title by calling their current employer.
• Ask for the names and numbers of former roommates who can serve as a reference, Ross suggests. "If they don't give it to you, that's a red flag that there's something there."
• Do an Internet search for your potential roommates’ name and e-mail address. This can turn up scams or warn you about distasteful or dangerous things they do in their spare time.
• Likewise, check out their MySpace and Facebook pages. If they seem too good to be true, it will probably be revealed here, Stewart says.
Once you've picked out a roommate or two, you need to make sure everyone's on the same page with the big issues, Stewart says. Here are her suggestions for the must-ask questions that must be answered about your living arrangements before anyone signs on the dotted line.
1. Rent: What is everyone's share? Who will write the rent check if the landlord will accept only one check?How can you protect yourself?
2. Space: Who will occupy which bedrooms?
3. Household Chores: Who's responsible for cleaning, and on what schedule?
4. Food Sharing: Will food, shopping and cooking responsibilities be shared? How will you split the costs and work?
5. Noise: When should stereos or TVs be turned off or down low?
6. Overnight Guests: Is it OK for boyfriends/girlfriends to stay over every night?
7. Moving Out: If one of you decides to move, how much notice must be given? Must the departing tenant find an acceptable substitute?
Once these questions are answered to your satisfaction, you should spell them out in a roommate agreement letter that is signed by both (or all) of you sharing the house.
"It's a good way to handle problems before they come up," Stewart says, especially if you are living with someone who hates confrontation.
If you are renting a place with someone new, having both of your names on the lease and splitting the deposit is a good idea. But don't think this will keep the landlord from coming after you for the full rent if your roommate skips town. It will merely ensure that you can go after your roommate for the money owed to you.
Because so much money is at stake, most experts advise asking for a month-to-month or other short-term lease until you can be sure the situation will work out.
There are also compelling reasons for having only one name on the lease. If you're just starting out, you might want to share space with someone who already has a lease, because then your implied lease commitment is month-to-month. Longtime renter Bernero says she prefers having only her name on the lease. In her 20 years of co-habitation, it has made it easier for her to get rid of a parade of tenants who turned out to be slovenly, dangerous, addicted to drugs or simply unreliable. "It just gives me more control," she says.
Likewise, she prefers to keep the utilities in her name and build the cost into the rent, with additional money being charged if they exceed a maximum amount. This came about after one roomie left her space heaters, lights and air conditioning on around the clock, even after repeated requests to turn them off when she wasn't there.
Lastly, Ross suggests installing $10 key locks on each person's bedroom door as an additional measure of protection. That way, he says, there is no cause for suspicion about lost items or privacy.
"Communication and awareness are key. You just don't go in with your head down and eyes closed. A lot of (renters' troubles) are just naiveté on their part," he says.