What to look for in a house share situation
January 22, 2008 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Young (24) single female looking to sublet a room or share a house with strangers in a large US city. What things should I look for/insist on to maximize my chances of having a pleasant, safe, experience?

(I've left the city unnamed because I don't know yet; right now I'm considering the Bay area but I may end up going someplace totally different.)

I've seen lots of nightmare roommate/housemate/rental situations on AskMe. I'm hoping to avoid falling into one of those situations. I'm not entirely naive (if anything, I'm overcautious and slightly terrified about the idea in general) but I'm sure there are things I wouldn't think of on my own. [Example: Previously, I rented a room in a house and the landlord--older man who did not live there--came over to watch TV and drink beer in the living room. I didn't expect that, but the signs were probably there, since he lived next door and still had much of his own furniture/stuff in the house's common areas when I signed the lease. Since the rooms were rented out individually by the landlord, there was nothing in the lease to prevent him from hanging out in the common areas like that. Now I know to be careful about that, but I'd like to avoid having to learn about everything like that by direct experience.]

Ideally I'd like to live in a housemate situation where people talk to each other and hang out in common areas rather than renting a room and not assimilating into the group. At minimum it's important to me that roommates don't steal my stuff, don't do hard drugs or have really unsavory guests, and don't flake out on their bills regularly.

What things are red flags? What things should I make sure to have (like lease specs) or ask about? I realize there are no guarantees in this sort of situation, but I'm sure there are rules of thumb. I'm worried that being too uptight and distrustful will make it hard to get along with roommates, but I also don't want to be overly trusting and then get really, really screwed. I'm open to any sort of advice about this.
posted by needs more cowbell to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
While weighing people as potential friends is important during interviews, don't get so swept up in liking someone or being liked that you forget to ask all the relevant questions about the nuts and bolts of the arrangement. Remember, at that point it is easier to ask direct questions than it ever will be later when people's feelings have to be considered.

When are these people home? How long have they lived there? Do they have significant others? Ask who you'll be responsible for getting money to every month, ask how they found themself with a vacancy, ask ask ask. When dazzled while meeting someone you immediately like, you're more likely to softpedal your questions, and a lot of crucial information can fall through the cracks.

Also, spend enough time talking to them for the initial rush and awkwardness to wear off a little, so that you can think clearly. The first few minutes I'm meeting someone, I'm thoroughly wrapped up in being polite, so if all I got was a tour of the place and five minutes of introduction, suffice to say my concept of the situation will be very limited, possibly completely erroneous. For that reason, I recommend meeting them and/or seeing the place at least twice before the decision is final.
posted by hermitosis at 10:45 AM on January 22, 2008

I've known most my roommates before moving in, so this wasn't a problem.

But one of my exroommates had to do this from the other side - she had a bedroom she needed to get a roommate for. She ended up having extensive telephone interviews with people long before they were even in the city. And the woman she chose ended up being the one who was also most interested in getting to know her.

I would look for one or at most two other people looking for a roommate, as opposed to a landlord renting out a room or a larger situation (which could be too boardning house-like). Try to talk on the telephone a lot. If you have things in common, that might help. If you can't talk to them now, will you have much to say when you are in common areas together? The only roommate I didn't have anything in common with was a perfectly lovely woman, but rooming with her was no where near as nice as rooming with people who I could talk to (even if I argued with them more).
posted by jb at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2008

Listen to your gut while you're interviewing and pay special attention to those little things it points out that we tend to ignore. They are often right. Write them down so you can remember them later when you can think objectively. We're too good at ignoring these.

Make sure you install locks on your bedroom door(s) so you can sleep safely at night. It's better to feel foolish about doing something like that than be wrong. It doesn't need to be anything more than one of those sliding bolts.

My best renting situation came from a professional who was doing this on the side for extra cash. Really nice guy. He let my friend and I repair whatever we found wrong and deduct it from the rent, or he'd do it. No biggie either way. We found him in the classifieds. The apartment complex type places I've rented from, for the most part, have all been bad. Forest City so far is the only one bucking that trend. A large factor in this is the larger places seem to have to offer Section 8 housing, while the odd ball professional doing this on the side ones don't.

Also, consider the economics and feel of the neighborhood. That apartment I mention above was across from a grade school and in a good, albeit crash strapped, neighborhood. It makes a difference. Everyone kept an eye out for the safety of the kids all the time, even on weekends if they were just playing or whatever.
posted by jwells at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2008

It should be relatively easy to find a townhouse where it's a couple of girls splitting the rent, near a university for example. Should be safer, possibly less likely to require a lease, and if they're around your age more likely to result in your hanging-out in common areas.

Ensure there's some house rules in place, especially for things like not having boyfriends become unofficial roommates, and shared responsibilities/expenses.

Remember to have patience, looking back on my roommate experiences, there was things that were very frustrating at the time, but they were really actually minor and could have easily been resolved by raising the issue.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:57 AM on January 22, 2008

The best thing I ever did was see if a prospective roomate wanted to get a beer. He did. But he was a dork. We went to a bar, he didn't have a drink but we had a great time talking. He's still one of my best friends 7 years later.
posted by sully75 at 11:28 AM on January 22, 2008

i live in the bay area, and the housing market here (especially for good deals) is ridiculous. we recently found a new roommate through craigslist. within the first hour of posting, we had over 60 respondents. just due to sheer numbers we automatically cut people who weren't able to make it to an open house in person, face to face contact will be a lot more insightful than a phone call or email exchange. some people tried to bribe us, which was funny but weird- they did not get the apartment. advice for finding housing in this area may be anomalistic relative to other parts of the country, because it's more likely that you are being chosen, not doing the choosing.

things people commonly brought to our open house included a credit report, pay stub, tax return, resume, references, transcripts, and offers from cosigners (usually parents). if you offer these materials, i think it's fair game to request them from the current tenants too. we only considered women in our age range who had college degrees and brought proof of employment or enrollment in school. These may be prejudicial factors, but we figured that would help screen out less stable applicants.

most people want to live with others who share compatible lifestyles, so if you are upfront about the fact that you are a late sleeper/cleanfreak/animal hater/drummer for your band etc, hopefully the roomates will let you know whether that's congruent with what they are looking for. if you're unsure, just ask.

other questions to consider: does the landlord live in the building, how accessible are they, have the current tennants had problems with the landlord, what utilities are included, is the apartment rent stabilized, when do the current tenants plan on moving out, how does a subletter's rights differ from a tenant's rights, does a subletter need to sign the lease or be approved by the landlord, why is the room available, how do the current tenants know each other, how do they feel about guests, can you cook meat in the kitchen (this is a touchy subject in SF), what furniture will you need to supply, are there any dealbreakers or zero tolerance policies.

an omnibus question at the end covers you legally in case you discover the building is being demolished the day after you move in, or something crazy like that. something simple like, "Is there anything else I need to know about the apartment that I haven't ask you about, or you haven't told me about yet?"
posted by flaneuse at 12:43 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: *rereading my own question: I don't have a problem with people drinking beer in living rooms, just that my landlord and I had already had some discord over things like my right to put a lock on my door and something I felt was a fire hazard, so having him tipsy and in "my" living room really sucked, especially since he clearly had the upper hand in any situation.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:44 PM on January 22, 2008

Here's my experience. I'm a 29 year old make grad student living with a 24 year old woman. We didn't know anyone in common and the whole thing started off as an email from me. I wrote a clear email explaining what I was looking for in a house mate and I outlined my expectations. I also wrote up what I do, how I feel about common space, cleaning etc. I sent this around to a bunch of close friends to pass on. One of those emails ended up on the list for a writing program and that's how she got in touch with me. She got a clear idea of who I was, what I did (both for work and in my free time) and liked the idea of sharing a place. She flew down, met me and my current house mate. Nothing seemed creepy or out of place. She said ok and drove down from NY.

Lessons: Make sure you know what the other person does for work and what their expectations of a housemate are. Also helps to ask them how the intend to use the common space (I clearly said that I like to cook, host friends over for dinner frequently and prefer eating local food; She felt the same way).

Visit the house and talk with current housemates (if possible). Find out how they felt about living there. Try to involve food or coffee as part of the interview so that you get a better opportunity to rule out creepiness. I took my visiting housemate to dinner and had current housemate come along. We talked about stuff to do around town and what we do in general. That gave me a much better sense of what it would be like living with her.

That was it. We both share a CSA basket, cook together when possible, never lock our doors (rooms) and have a peaceful living situation. I do have to say that things have become easier as I have gotten older. When I was 24, roommate situations were always hit or miss. Good luck.
posted by special-k at 1:49 PM on January 22, 2008

make = male
posted by special-k at 1:49 PM on January 22, 2008

Is there any particular reason why you're looking for this type of arrangement? My experience in shopping around (just Chicago) is that roommate scenarios aren't necessarily cheaper than just getting a studio or garden apartment. Yeah, for the same money you maybe able to swing a better neighborhood or an awesome house... but if you wind up resenting your roommates then suddenly those features may not be all that great.

That said, during the interview process you should try and find someone who's background generally matches yours - that includes education, part of the country they are from, etc, etc.
posted by wfrgms at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2008

Response by poster: wfrgms: I've lived in (relatively large) studios before and I think I'm better off, psychologically, having a bedroom space that's separate from my living/dining/cooking space. I also would rather have people around, even they're not going to be my BFFs. And in my experience looking in a few cities, it's tough to find a studio for the the same price as a house share/roommate situation.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:41 PM on January 22, 2008

Kitchen and bathroom - if you see filth on your first visit you are guaranteed to see a lot more. If something seems off - it is. If everything seems completely perfect - it's not.

Trust no one and be blunt about the fact that you would like to ensure you're not about to get screwed somehow... Normal people will smile, roll their eyes and whole heartedly agree. It may even settle their reservations a little towards you - now that it's out in the open and been said.

If you say it in a normal way and they react in a manner that seems off or just a little too smooth - it is.

Always have an escape plan (concerning cash, legal, security and safety ect ect ect) because that's just smart. The more of those you have the better. That's possibly the most important? The old cut and run.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 7:16 PM on January 23, 2008

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