How do I screen potential roommates?
January 31, 2019 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Difficulty level: Bay Area, below-market rent, but somewhat undesirable location.

I've seen questions on here about screening bad workplaces in the interview stage, but not much about how to screen roommates, and what to ask and what to look for in their answers. I did the big long form thing in the past and I'm worried that it just screens for people who are more articulate.

The last time I had to fill a room, I was in San Francisco before the housing crisis really hit; we got hundreds of replies, but instead we went with someone we knew and liked, who turned out to be an absolute disaster. I know I am very biased toward friends-of-friends, even though there may be nothing to recommend them over another person aside from being a known quantity; how do I tame this bias?

Now, I'm not in San Francisco or Oakland. Therefore, no one even wants to live where I live. Nonetheless, I'd like to help out someone who's struggling, especially in light of the Bay Area housing crisis, but not throw myself under the bus in the process. How do I be kind, avoid being discriminatory, but also have good judgment?
posted by ziggly to Human Relations (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Asking for references from prior roommates. It’ll screen out a lot of deserving people but those who are left will probably be particularly well-liked by former roommates. (I wouldn’t pass this test!)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:46 PM on January 31, 2019

Ask people which household tasks theyll do, which ones they won't. Years ago, I replied to a roommate ad, noted that I would clean the bathroom and do dishes, but hate to vacuum and take out trash. I also explained that I had a regular job and could pay rent on time. Roommate with great apartment said I was the only person who was that practical. We got along well because were nice people (she def. is, and I try) and because we didn't fight or harbor resentment about cleaning, which is a huge issue. Noise - music, tv, videogames, etc. - is another area of conflict. Ask if somebody plays an instrument, how loud they like their music and if they regularly use headphones.
posted by theora55 at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

I’m not sure exactly how you’re looking for people, but I wrote a very long, very detailed Craigslist ad, and the last sentence said to put the word “unicorn” in the subject line of an email to me. About 95% of the people who responded did not do that. I ruled them out because I didn’t want to live with anyone who hadn’t bothered to read the whole ad. I ended up with a great roommate.
posted by FencingGal at 6:55 PM on January 31, 2019 [20 favorites]

When I interview potential housemates in San Francisco for a shared apartment, both strangers and friends-of-friends, I always ask something like "What are your pet peeves when living with housemates?" or "Was there anything that really bothered you about past living situations?" People tend to be surprisingly honest in answering this. If they bring up something petty or unreasonable, it's a red flag.

I also try to find a way to learn about whether they have compassion for homeless people in SF, because that's an important indicator to me for compatibility on a social level. For example, if they're new to town, I might ask them "What do you think of San Francisco so far?", or if they work at Civic Center I might ask "How do you like working at Civic Center?", or I can ask "What do you think of this neighborhood?" Usually it comes up in some way. You might have a similar topic that can help filter out incompatible people.
posted by dreamyshade at 6:59 PM on January 31, 2019

Talk about what a typical week looks like for each of you: when are you generally in/out, when is food cooking, when are each of you sleeping, when are people planning to use the common areas.

I still don't know how you control for people who seem great and are then awful, but I think being really explicit around expectations rather than counting on someone to just be an adult in the way you think they will is a useful strategy.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:02 PM on January 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

When my housemate and I did a roommate search, the most useful questions were the ones that made our wishes clear while also allowing people to be honest. "How do you feel about a chore chart?" "How often do you cook?" "How often do you clean (the bathroom, kitchen, living room)?" "What time do you go to bed?" "How do you feel about overnight guests?" "How do you feel about noise?" "What are your roommate pet peeves?" "What have you loved about prior roommates?"

The second component was that we had repeat interviews. We gave ourselves multiple opportunities to evaluate people. Sometimes the second interview was a dealbreaker, and sometimes it sealed the deal and we got a new roommate.

We operated under the assumption that you have to ask for 100% of what you want, with the acknowledgement that you might not get that much, but you will get closer than you would have without asking for 100%. We had house meetings where we made it a safe space to ask for 100% of what you wanted, and then we came to an agreement.
posted by tooloudinhere at 8:12 PM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Bring people through the house for a tour, while you are wearing socks or bare feet. If someone removes their own shoes without asking, they get 2 points. If someone asks if it's ok to keep their shoes on, they get 1 point. Anyone who keeps their shoes on without checking with you? Absolute NO, they're inconsiderate (or maybe they have devastatingly stinky feet but that could also reasonable grounds for a "no" in my opinion).

Also- ask if they have any concerns or reservations about the unit, "or anything they'd like you to ask the landlord to have a look at or repair". Award points based on the diplomacy / entitlement evident in their answers. It's totally ok to say something like "Would the landlord consider installing a lock on the bedroom door, or reimbursing me if I installed one?" but it's not ok to say "Uhhh the bedroom door needs a lock to be up to code!" If they're already rude or entitled on day one? Run.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:47 PM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ask them what they thought was good and bad about their last roommate situation. Should help reveal some preferences/sticking points.

Bring people through the house for a tour, while you are wearing socks or bare feet. If someone removes their own shoes without asking, they get 2 points. If someone asks if it's ok to keep their shoes on, they get 1 point. Anyone who keeps their shoes on without checking with you? Absolute NO, they're inconsiderate (or maybe they have devastatingly stinky feet but that could also reasonable grounds for a "no" in my opinion).

Or they come from the Midwest, or particular U.S. subcultures, or are of a certain age, where taking your shoes off automatically in someone else's house is MUCH less of a thing and might even be considered downright weird.

"I am unfamiliar with a few arbitrary social conventions" is a poor screener.

but it's not ok to say "Uhhh the bedroom door needs a lock to be up to code!" If they're already rude or entitled on day one?

It's not rude or entitled to ask that your dwelling be up to code, for heaven's sake.
posted by praemunire at 9:02 PM on January 31, 2019 [23 favorites]

A partner of mine lives in SF and is a master tenant of their apartment. They found friends don't make good roommates, because they'll take liberties.

You want to know what hours they keep/work. If they had roommates before, ask them what chores they did, and what their roommates did. If they completely fail to mention anything regarding cleaning the bathroom, that's potentially a pain point. I'd maybe show them your room and ask them if their room is generally more messy, equally messy, or less messy.

Generally you want to exclude absolute NOs in your ad/application, and then use an interview process to determine preference. Also FYI, you are supposedly (I'm not a lawyer, not legal advice etc) not bound by restrictions fair housing. I assume you aren't an asshole so that mostly doesn't effect you, but I suppose things like relationship status or whether they have shared custody of their kid come to mind.

Diet is also a thing that can impact roommates. If you are big into fish sauce or searing tuna and they have a sensitive nose, or visa versa, you want to know.
posted by gryftir at 12:24 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Try and screen for automatic yes-ers, ask both sides of the same questions to get a sense as to whether or not they are just agreeing to anything you say/ask.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:22 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Be leery of only asking for a reference from the people they currently live with. My current roommate is awful and I've asked him to leave, and you better believe I will give a great reference to anyone who asks just to get him out of here.
posted by cakebatter at 12:47 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

This might sound extreme, but I've unfortunately found it very useful: ask where they're from and/or where they have been living recently (easy to have it come up in casual conversation) and later look up their name in the county court records for those areas. They are usually available online for free. Found out one potential roommate had a history of drunk driving (apart from some other yellow flags that came up during our meeting), had actually hit a person once, and had a current DUI court case going. Another who claimed to have gotten a new job an hour away from his home had an eviction hearing later the same day that he emailed me. Yet another potential roommate, who was a recent divorcee as he mentioned, had a history of domestic violence that I was able to identify using the biographic details he gave in his email. All three examples come from trying to find a roommate for a place in an undesirable location as well. It's a wide world out there. Don't get scammed.

Another tip in the same vein is to mention that the landlord would want to do a background check, watch their reaction, and ask if they'd be comfortable with that. If they have hesitation or get cagey, ask if there's something they're concerned about. They may or may not be honest with you. Remain objective about whatever they tell you and even if you want to think some college kid who got arrested for dealing pot just made a bad choice, they may still be just as irresponsible and untrustworthy one year later.

FWIW, the best roommate situations I've had were ones where our relationship was kept congenial but business-like and where the apartment expectations were discussed very openly in the first meeting. Go with someone who you think would be a good "business partner" in this sense and don't make the degree to which you'd want to be friends a factor.
posted by sevenofspades at 4:12 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

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