"Put blue food coloring in your milk so everyone else thinks it has spoiled"
March 23, 2006 1:27 AM   Subscribe

I'd like some advice for 3 first-time apartment dwellers.

I'm going to be sharing a 3 bedroom apartment with two others in (or around) the University District of Seattle next year (Seattlites: we are looking at the U-District, but also Ballard or Wallingford as possibilities). What advice would you have for 3 college kids who've never lived outside parents' homes or dorm rooms before? Tips on grocery shopping, cohabitation, etc. would be appreciated.

What are things that we should be looking for in potential apartments? What are the merits of a small home as opposed to an apartment? What do you think we should expect to spend on groceries every week? I'm trying to keep this question very open-ended.

posted by rossination to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sharing groceries is easiest - but only if you eat the same sort of things. Keep receipts until you divvy up who owes what for the shop. Otherwise keep separate shelves in the fridge and separate cupboards. Or you could share the cost of staple items like potatoes/tinned tomatoes/pasta/rice whatever... Don't get too worked up if your milk or whatever goes missing occasionally - it's all about give and take. Also, get some powdered milk, for emergency use...

Share the paying of bills (electricity/water/gas etc.) amongst you so noone is responsible for everything.

Apartmentwise - my advice would be not to worry too much about the size of the bedrooms. Look for a place with big communal areas (lounge/kitchen) - you'll probably find that you spend most of your time there watching TV/playing videogames/socialising whatever...

Have a house warming party...
Good luck!
posted by jonesor at 1:51 AM on March 23, 2006

The thing that will make your life very easy: a chill landlord. If there are hints they will be obsessive/crazy/whatever, try to look elsewhere.

Also, IMHO, small houses are vastly superior to apartments in Seattle (especially in the U-District). More privacy, less dealing with drunken neighbors close by, less thin wall issues, etc.
posted by piratebowling at 2:05 AM on March 23, 2006

Here's my list of things to consider when choosing an apartment. I've got 8 years of experience as a student and have lived in many apartments in four different Canadian cities, so I consider myself something of an expert. ;)

1. Laundry
Does it have laundry facilities? If so, how much do they cost? If it doesn't, how far away is the laundromat? Do you really want to walk that far with a huge basket of clothes?

2. Utilities
What utilities are included? All-inclusive is nice, especially with roommates, because it means minimal fighting over bills. If utilities aren't incuded, call the utility companies and see if they can tell you the average bill amount for the previous tenants.

3. Kitchen
Is there a dishwasher (this is probably pretty unlikely in student digs, but is nice if you can find it)? How many sinks are there? How much cupboard space. How big is the fridge/freezer?

4. Storage
If you have a bike or other large items you don't want to store in the living room/bedroom, make sure you have somewhere else to store them.

5. Transit and walkability
This is especially important if you don't have a car. Where is the closest grocery store? How late is it open? does it have reasonable prices? If not, where is the closest "reasonable" grocery store? How many transit routes are nearby? How often and how late do they run?
posted by sanitycheck at 2:16 AM on March 23, 2006

HOUSE HUNTING: Ask to see copies of the utility bills from the previous occupants. They probably won't give them to you though. Ask what the average utility bills are and then add 10-20% to that (landlords lie.). If the house has thin windows, you're going to be paying more for heat, for example.

LEASE: Go to your university's housing office for ideas on signing a lease. Having a lease in which you are responsible for others is not great, but inevitable in student housing. I once lost $300 on a security deposit because my roommate had a shitty subletter. I didn't think it was fair, but once you've parted ways, what can you do about it? Plus, the lease says that you're communially responsible.

MOVING IN: Take photos of the place before you move in - especially any damages that you may be held responsible for later.

FOOD: I think that it is much easier to NOT share food. Rather, buy little colored stickers and put them on your food that you've bought. That way no one gets angry when one roommate has drank all of the milk or ate the pizza that you were planning on having. This is especially true if any of you are vegetarians or have picky eating habits. Why should the lactose intolerant person pay for your ice cream?

STUFF: You're going to have to buy stuff - dishes, vacuum cleaner, hand towels, whatever... if it is disposable/cheap (i.e. shower curtain), split the cost evenly. If it is something that one of you will want to keep (i.e. wireless router), don't split the cost, but be fair about everyone contributing key items. Try to get as much stuff used as possible.

BILLS: Put the utility bills in a variety of people's names -- that way you all owe each other money and it makes it more difficult for people to cheat each other.

CHORES: Have an agreement about chores. As many MeFites have said before, sometimes it is better to get a cleaning service to come in rather than to try to force people to pick up after themselves. Generally it is a good idea to discuss expectations before moving in.

RELATIONSHIPS: Don't expect that your friends will continue being your friends. Once you live together (similar to a dorm) and find that so-and-so always makes a huge mess of the kitchen and doesn't clean it up, you may not be so keen to go have a drink with him/her. I think that it is easier to live with people who aren't friends.

I sound so jaded, I know. But this is after years of living with other people that I say this.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 2:27 AM on March 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

If utilities and certain other bills (cable, internet, other shared resources) aren't included, split them up amongst the three of you. Having just one person's name on every bill can breed resentment (and credit risk) over time if there are ever any payment issues, however minor.

Make sure you have a wipe board, cork board, etc., to post things like bills, intra-roommate communications, important phone numbers, various tallies or reminders, etc. Make sure this does not become a space for passive-aggressive communication - snarky notes are the fastest one-way ticket to roommate hell.

Which leads me to the most important point... communicate, communicate, communicate. Whether or not you're all currently friends, even the best of buddies will discover lifestyle quirks and habits that will drive another person crazy. Find a (metaphorical) space to raise issues with each other without turning the whole house on its head. I've moved in with best friends and ended up never speaking to them again because we had crap communication and no protocols for dealing with tensions or issues that arose. Make no assumptions that "oh, x will be cool if I do y" without raising the topic first. Respect is the best route to healthy living.
posted by mykescipark at 2:27 AM on March 23, 2006

...and on preview, everything k8t said. (Who ever said 100 WPM was fast enough?)
posted by mykescipark at 2:28 AM on March 23, 2006

Oh, and I endorse everything mykescipark said :)!

... especially the passive-agressive stuff. I have a housemate right now who is so passive-agressive.

I could copy and paste e-mails that would make you shiver/laugh. Apparently the other day, other housemates were being a bit loud with friends over. Instead of asking them to quiet down, she loudly cleaned the bathroom and used way too many cleaning products to make the air pleasant to be in, so everyone left. Effective? Yes. Annoying? Yes.

I tell my other housemates -- if she can't be direct and tell you how she is feeling about something, you can't be held responsible to acknowledge her feelings.


With the bills, I think that spreading them around is helpful because then everyone is establishing good credit (hopefully?!?!).

I'm in a student house right now in the UK and all the bills are in my name because I was the only one with the time and consistant internet access right before we moved in.

It has worked out well because I have a student loan, as opposed to my Euro housemates who don't have large amounts of money all the time. Here in the UK a lot of utilities are paid every 4 months or every 6 months, so the bills are huge.

It also makes it really easy for everyone to just remember to pay me. And I never owe anyone any money.

But it also sucks having to bug people to give me the money and to keep track of it all.

But in the USA, where you guys are all trying to establish good credit, I think that each of you getting a bill in your name is probably a good idea.
posted by k8t at 2:50 AM on March 23, 2006

OH - don't get a phone. Nowadays, everyone has cell phones anyway. At least that's one less utility that you have to be concerned about.
posted by k8t at 2:53 AM on March 23, 2006

The single biggest thing my first set of housemates and I did to make all our lives easier was to institute a chore system. Basically we had a chore wheel, dividing the house up into five parts (one for each of us) and rotating the wheel every week so that we were each responsible for cleaning a different section of the house every week. We had a deadline (Sunday night) and punishment (you contribute twenty bucks to the cleaning budget). More regular tasks like dishwashing had simple rules, like "no dishes in the sink overnight."

What system you come up with isn't important, and it doesn't have to be that formal or complicated; just so long as you all agree on it and stick to it rigorously, it'll work. The apartment/house stays clean and everyone stays happy. I didn't do this the next year when I lived with one other person, and even though informal arrangements would've been really easy for the two of us we never cleaned the place because we were lazy bums. If we weren't already relatively clean people (by college standards, anyways) our place would've been a dump.

The same goes for pretty much anything involving the household. We set aside a time to settle all the bills as well, and occasionally we'd have a meeting if weird things came up like we needed to tell the landlord about broken plumbing. It's not just communication itself that's important, but a system of discussing household issues. You can do without if you're really easygoing and such, but it's so easy to stick to a routine system that there's no real downside to implementing one.

The only other piece of advice I have is try to spend time away from home. Living with other people is so much easier if you don't have to be in the apartment all the time; distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder when it comes to roomies. Give each other space, and make sure everyone feels they can be alone whenever they like. This may sound like weird advice, but I knew some people who felt obligated to do everything with their house (especially if they held a party) and didn't like it so much. It's great if you guys are drinking buddies, but if you're not, that's okay too.
posted by chrominance at 2:59 AM on March 23, 2006

Learn to be open with your stuff, especially food. Be respectful of others' property, and try to be generous with your own. This was the hardest lesson for me, after growing up as an only child. After saying such, I think it is best to have separate food in MOST cases. Condiments, milk, eggs, etc (things that it is just silly for everyone to have their own you can split or take turns). Same for paper towels, toilet paper, etc. Take turns or throw in and go to BJ/Wal-Mart whatever.

In my current house we each have a small cabinet for our own dry food, and 2 pairs share each side of the fridge. If you want to cook dinner for everyone, great. Hopefully they will get you back next time, but I would reccomend against trying to share everything.

Another thing that has worked well for me in the past is having one set of eating stuff per person. Each person has their own mug/glass, plate, set of silverwear, etc. 1 Each. This really cuts down on dishes and it is very clear who does their cleaning up and who doesn't. Just keep an extra stash for when guests come over.

Again, take pictures when you move in and send them to yourself so that you have an unopened, dated record of what the place looked like when you moved in.

Small house: great if you are going to be having parties. You can turn the music up, you will have more parking, you will have a yard to entertain etc.

Apartment: more practical, probably cheaper, better chance of meeting random people, possible apartment amenities.

Do NOT get a furnished place. Ugh. The biggest mistake I made in my first place. You might be freaked out by not having furniture and stuff right now, but if you keep a careful eye out you can stock a house with much better stuff for free/cheap and the last thing you want to worry about is your landlord's furniture.

It should take a while to get into a situation where you will be totally comfortable and trust everyone, at least in my experience. Just because someone is your best friend, living with them is quite different. Do not expect too much. I have had better experiences living with people that were NOT my best friends.
posted by sophist at 3:09 AM on March 23, 2006

Everyone has to try like hell not to get in anyone's way. Keep the noise down, don't leave a mess (no "I'll get it later" stuff -- clean it up when you make the mess), don't bring lots of other people in all the time, no unofficial but eternal housemates, etc.

Do not assume that a precedent makes it forever OK. Everybody might have been cool when you had Wanda stay over for the weekend, but that doesn't mean they want it all the time or even ever again. Every time you are thinking of doing something that affects the way the others live, think about it and ask about it. (Visitors are a potentially big problem -- you sign up for living with two other people and you end up with four other people because they both have an everchanging bedmate using your toilet and kitchen every morning. Set limits to this before you sign anything. Maybe set an overnight guest fee of X dollars payable to each of the other housemates -- if everyone has a guest, it cancels out.)

The best strategy is to get everyone to agree that what they do in their rooms is their business but that everything that goes beyond their rooms (including noise) is a joint problem that can never be solved by "That's none of your business" or the like. It is everyone's business if it comes out of your room.

And always be ready to get out. You might find yourself incompatible with the others. If that happens, leave. (If it's one person bothering everyone else, help him or her move out.)
posted by pracowity at 3:12 AM on March 23, 2006

For keeping things neat, my personal POV is: keep your own shit in your own room. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR STUFF IN THE LIVING ROOM, KITCHEN OR ANY OTHER COMMON ROOM.

This is a perpetual annoyance for all housemates.


Furnished vs. unfurnished... I prefer furnished. That way YOU don't have to move beds, couches, etc. into the house. How annoying.


Guest fee? Woah. What I usually do if someone is staying and I know about it ahead of time is send an e-mail to the entire house saying "Hey, my friend so-and-so is coming to town in April. Is it cool if he's on the couch upstairs from April 2-8 or does anyone else have someone coming into town?" -- that way we don't have too many guests at once and you've made it known that you are going to have someone there. Although a few times we had too many people in the house and people had to share beds...

But then you have the surprise visitors... hookups, boyfriends/girlfriends... this is generally cool but does get annoying. Why should you be paying for more hot water for someone's significant other to take a shower (although they could take a shower together - ew)? In my opinion, it isn't worth getting into a battle about it... but others may disagree. It sounds like pracowity has had some bad experiences with this.
posted by k8t at 3:26 AM on March 23, 2006

OH! Don't forget -- they'll likely run a credit check on all of you and may even require that your parents co-sign (is that the right word?) the lease. This is typical if you're going for a big property management company.

If you have a mom 'n' pop type landlord, they may not require any of that.
posted by k8t at 3:51 AM on March 23, 2006

But then you have the surprise visitors... hookups, boyfriends/girlfriends... this is generally cool but does get annoying.

Exactly. But a fee helps to make up for the annoyance and helps to cut down on people taking advantage of you and your other housemates. If people want to treat the place like a hotel, dag nabbit, they ought to pay like it's a hotel.

I figure the nightly fee for a visitor should be about equal to a regular housemate's daily share of the rent. (Though maybe everyone should get one or two free ones a month.) If you had a visitor every night of the month, your rent would double that month. If you had two housemates, that extra rent would be divided between them, so their rent would be halved. Your bedmate would be paying his or her way (or you would be paying it for your bedmate) and the other two would get something in return for always having the unofficial fourth housemate there. Of course, if all three had regular visitors, everyone would pay about the normal rent, or if two out of three had constant visitors and the third had none, the third would actually get paid to live there, which perhaps is as it should be. ("You couldn't pay me to live there... well, on second thought, maybe you could...")

Come to think of it, this scheme could work out well for the homely housemate -- either in cash, or in the other housemates always finding someone for the homely one to take home from the party.
posted by pracowity at 3:53 AM on March 23, 2006

I didn't see anyone else mention it - but it deserves emphasizing if they did. GET RENTERS' INSURANCE. Things go missing. Things happen. I wish I'd had it - didn't get it until after I'd learned a hard lesson. Your landlord is responsible for the apartment, but you're responsible for what's in it.
posted by clarkstonian at 4:24 AM on March 23, 2006

On the renters' insurance note -- sometimes your parents can add to their own insurance policy to cover your stuff. This is cheaper, sometimes, than getting your own renters' insurance.
posted by k8t at 4:27 AM on March 23, 2006

Based on ~7 years in various appartments (tenemnts) in Edinburgh (don't know how much of this will be applicable), with people I like...

When you're going out looking for a place, try to make sure everyone can be there at the same time; that way, when you find a place you like, you don't have to spend time getting everyone's agreement. You stand a better chance of getting an good place if you can view it in the morning and phone up the landlord and say 'yes' by the afternoon.

Make sure you take a look at the windows when you're viewing a place; they make a big difference to how easy it is to keep a room warm.

If possible, take a walk down a road/area where you're thinking of renting on a friday/saturday night. Some areas can get quite rowdy; if this happens on a weekly basis it can get very anoying. On the other hand, that might be what you want.
posted by primer_dimer at 5:12 AM on March 23, 2006

Yes - Get renters insurance! Don't believe for a second that your landlord has insurance that covers your belongings. Don't let your roommates tell you that it's expensive or not needed. Just do it!!!
posted by DieHipsterDie at 5:39 AM on March 23, 2006

MOVING IN: Take photos of the place before you move in - especially any damages that you may be held responsible for later.

This is VERY good advice, I learned this one the hard way.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:08 AM on March 23, 2006

My patented trick question for potential landlords: "When was the last time you sprayed the place?"

Any answer but "Never!" and a shocked look was the wrong one.
posted by bonehead at 6:09 AM on March 23, 2006

As someone who lived in the U district during his undergrad days, I would say that the main difference between houses and apartments there is a matter of condition. I've been in many houses and found them all to be in very, very mediocre condition. There will be shady apartments, too, but also nicer ones. On the plus side, it's far easier to have parties when you don't need to worry about neighbors. You'll be hard pressed to get hardwood floors in an apartment, too, and you might even wind up with a basement that can be used.

The one tip I have about living with people is, if you want things to ever be clean, the key is to make sure everyone is willing to clean up at least a little bit that isn't theirs. If you just clean up what you think you did, you miss 5% that no one will then do. Accumulation happens, and everyone thinks it's someone else's job.

Good luck with finding a good place.
posted by Schismatic at 6:26 AM on March 23, 2006

Bills. The only way to do this well is to have complete transparency.

When you pay a bill, write PAID on it, and whoever's name. Save all the bills in their own folder, in case someone has a dispute later on (save all the folders in a plastic file folder box, and keep it in a public area).

Immediately, start a spreadsheet. First column is the bill name (electric, gas), second column is the amount. Next, a pair of columns for each person - how much they owed (a formula to split the bill amount 3 ways, or a set amount if you've agreed on them), and how much they paid. Total each column, and then give a net amount for each person.

I set each month on its own page in the spreadsheet, and carried over the net amount from the previous month to the first row on the next month. That way, we had a continuous tally of who had paid more than their share, and who had paid less. When someone was way behind, they paid the rent. At the end of the lease-year, we would settle up by saying, "X owes $50.12, Y has overpaid $30.08, and Z has overpaid $20.04. X, write Y and Z checks for those amounts." If you do this right, everybody's net amount should balance to zero.

After you get the system up and running, it's pretty self-sufficient. It's nice because it does all the math for you, you just tell it what you've paid. Also, you don't have to constantly "settle up" with the roommate who never pays bills - you just make that guy/gal pay rent next month. You can keep the spreadsheet on a computer network accessible by all, or on somebody's PC who is home frequently. It also will help avoid payment disputes. If it sounds confusing, shoot me an email and I can email you a copy of my file.

Also, don't split food. Or, just split the basics (bread, milk, sliced cheese). If your kitchen is large enough, give each person a shelf or cabinet that is theirs-only. Nothing annoyed me more than seeing my roommates girlfriend annihilate a bag of my favorite chips and know that he would replace them with a different brand.
posted by MrZero at 7:04 AM on March 23, 2006

Oh, you might want to consider putting more than one person's name on every bill. That way, if somebody moves out, the utility company won't treat you as if you are "signing up for new service" (and charge you a connection fee). They'll just take that person's name off the bill. Also, the utility company won't speak to you if your name is not on the account - which is very tough in case you have a bill problem and you are relying on some slacker to do the legwork.
posted by MrZero at 7:08 AM on March 23, 2006

Look for an apartment with as many bathrooms as possible. A three-bedroom apartment should have at least 2 bathrooms, and more if it's a house. My first post-college house had 4 bedrooms and one bathroom, and negotiating the morning schedule became a source of friction. Plus there's simply not enough room in one bathroom for three people's stuff. Your home should feel comfortable, not like a dorm where you have to carry your shampoo in a wire basket every time you want to take a shower.
posted by hsoltz at 7:23 AM on March 23, 2006

Some previous info on living with roomies here.
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2006

SEX. Never sleep with your roommate. Let me repeat that: NEVER sleep with your roomate. This is a lesson that pretty much everyone has to learn the hard way, however -- it's something that can be learned but cannot be taught. So you (or your other roommates) will probably not be able to listen to me. Or you'll be able to read these words, but you won't be able to heed the advice.

It will feel right in the moment. It will be convenient. But it will be bad. Oh, so bad. This is a rite of passage, I guess.

Other than that though, living with roommates is great.
posted by zpousman at 9:07 AM on March 23, 2006

The happiest roommate situation I had was where we committed to one dinner a week together, no matter what. We rotated who cooked (and the cook the food). Others did the dishes afterwards.

This gave us a set time every week where we could bring up problems or concerns. The addition of food calmed everyone down. It also gave us all time to catch up a bit on everyone else.
posted by QIbHom at 11:29 AM on March 23, 2006

Bugger all. The cook *bought* the food.
posted by QIbHom at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2006

With regards to your neighbors (in the building and in adjacent buildings), be CONSIDERATE. There is almost nothing worse than living among fellow tenants who have never been away from home and do not know when they are disturbing other people. So err on the side of caution and be extra-considerate of noise in your apartment, garbage, hallway noise, and keeping your guests quiet.
posted by yellowcandy at 3:13 PM on March 23, 2006

I didn't the comments, so read past this if it has already been mentioned.

One great system for doing the dishes involves having a hook above the sink with 3 cards -- each card has one housemate's name on it (or a little flip book, or whatever's easy). The person whose name is at the front has the task of cleaning all of the dishes in the sink at the time. Once they've cleaned all of the dishes, they move their name card to the back. This keeps the kitchen sink clean, since people will take any opportunity to clean up so they're not the one to get shafted with a huge backlog of dishes.

If you're living with sensible, rational people, this could help. If you're not... best of luck.
posted by teem at 7:56 AM on March 29, 2006

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