Live Through This

Your First Roommate

Don’t be scared. Just refer to this handy guide.

Collage by Beth

Imagine, if you will, two nearly touching beds squeezed into a cement-walled room the size of your rich friend’s mom’s closet. Sound like a room in a prison? Actually, I was describing your average dorm room, but if you and your roommate aren’t respectful of each other, that space can quickly turn into a jail cell. While many of us, myself included, grew up sharing bedrooms with siblings, it’s very different to live with a stranger, an acquaintance, or even a close friend.

A lot of you are getting ready to move out of your parents’ house for the first time, and that move often comes with your first roommate situation. And you’re scared, right? Don’t be. While I’m sure we’ve all heard plenty of horror stories about terrible roommates who, like, collect their own hair (or worse, the other person’s—shudder), this isn’t the reality that most people deal with in co-habitating. Instead, most discomfort comes from things that can be overcome simply by being assertive and open with your roommate. It doesn’t have to suck to live with someone else! In fact, it can be really, really awesome, so long as you take active steps to make it that way. I’ve had all kinds of roommates, both in dorms and in off-campus apartments, and they’ve all taught me things about how to treat other people with understanding, and how to teach other people to do the same for you.

In my first semester of college, I thought I had gotten super lucky—the girl who was supposed to dorm with me ended up getting a place off-campus, so for the first month or so, I had a double all to myself. I strode around naked 98% of the time, blasted classic ’80s dance tracks at will, and turned the empty bed into a couch, making my room the place to be after my new friends got out of class and wanted to set up shop with a six-pack. I was like a mini version of Van Wilder, if he weren’t an utter shithead.

This collegiate fantasy life soon came to an end when my very first roommate, a stranger named Lindsay,* moved in after a dispute with her old one. Although I mourned the loss of freedom and resented having to put on actual clothing in my living space, I tried to adapt. The same cannot be said for Lindsay, who was sweet at first, if a little odd, and then quickly devolved into a holy terror, insisting on doing things like keeping a package of dried squid on the radiator for months, which she occasionally picked at when she was hungry. Despite my disgust, I kept my cool and wrote it off as a cultural difference, since she was not originally from the United States. However, that same line of reasoning didn’t fly when she started locking me out of our room, referring to me not as “Amy Rose,” but instead by the charming nickname “Piggy,” and throwing keys at my sleeping body for no clear reason at all. When you’re dealing with this variety of roommate, like the hair collectors and other mythical demons described to you by your siblings and friends in college, there’s not a lot you can do. Suck it up and move, even if it’s a hassle, or, like me, you were there first! That kind of playground entitlement isn’t going to be of much help to you here, which sucks, but what actually sucks worse is living with someone who throws things at you in your sleep.

Alternatively, you could talk to your RA and see if the severity of your roommate’s behavior is grounds to have her removed, which, it turns out, Lindsay’s was, since she was often inappropriately physical with me. You’re going to want to let your RA know what’s going on in any case, actually, since your roommate might need some kind of special supervision or psychological help. As much as this person might drive you insane, try to have a little sympathy—what crazy shit must have been going on in this person’s brain that she felt a need to whip keys at my snoozing head? Although it’s horrible to be on the receiving end of that in the short term, it’s probably worse to live in the mind of the person who’s behaving so unreasonably. At least you can comfort yourself with that thought while you’re figuring out how to get out of your living situation, fast.

I’m lucky that I got my awful-roommate arrangement out of the way first. The next year, I lived with a sweet, cool girl named Marni whom I knew a little bit through mutual friends. She contacted me over the summer because she didn’t want a random roommate, and despite our not really knowing each other that well, she thought we might get along. She was right! Before we moved in, we took the opportunity to discuss a few important things with each other via Facebook messages. If your school lets you know your roommate’s name beforehand, as most do, or if you find the person through a Facebook group of people going to college with you, it’s a good idea to bring up a few key points with her well before move-in day to make sure you’re a good match. It’s also good to have these things in writing, so that you can refer to them if someone goes back on their word. Include a short description of yourself and what you’re into, and make this stuff clear:

  • The hours you keep, like when you go to bed normally, and whether or not you’re a light sleeper who needs total darkness and quiet.
  • Whether you’re cool with each other’s having private time with significant others (or insignificant others…remember, it’s COLLEGE), and how often. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, could he or she come visit for an occasional weekend? Is the person OK with you bringing home hookups, within reason?
  • Does this person like to party? How often? Do they drink, or smoke, or use drugs? Are you cool with that?
  • How neat is she or he? Note: if someone says they’re “kind of messy,” they usually mean “I will leave dirty dishes on BOTH of our desks for upwards of a week,” so proceed with caution. If they say “super, super neat,” they mean “Get your fucking sock off the floor, NOW.”
  • How active is your lifestyle? Will you be spending a lot of time outside the room, or are you more of a homebody?
  • Are you OK with having friends come over to out a lot, or are you more private?

Marni and I got all this boring-but-essential logistical stuff out of the way early, so it was smooth sailing once we did move in. We had a great year—it was one of those cool roommate situations where we shared food, clothing, and the kinds of inside jokes that can only come out of living with someone. Although you always have to ask before doing the first two (even if the person says you don’t), the last one happens on its own. I don’t think we ever fought, and this is because we were always careful about making sure our messes weren’t out of hand and asking each other before having guests or pulling lamp-lit all-nighters. I think another reason it was so great is because we were friendly, but not friends, before we moved in. This meant that while we often went out together, we never felt obligated to invite each other along to every little thing, as close friends sometimes do when they’re roommates. That can result in being too close for comfort, in my experience, unless you’re willing to be really honest about your limitations in terms of how much time you can spend with the same person.

That sort of honesty is possible, as I learned with my first off-campus roommate, Michael.* We were best friends when I moved into his apartment, and even though moving in with your best friend is often a good way to lose your best friend, we made it work for two years. The stereotypes about living with guys sometimes rang true—Mike was a little messier and a little louder than my female roommates—but those things are also true of me, so it worked out really well at first. We let each other know that as long as the dishes got done eventually, we didn’t care if there were plates in the sink. It was great to come home to a person whom I genuinely loved to be around, but we were also good about giving each other space. Being a good roommate has a lot to do with knowing that some nights are for throwing popcorn at each other while you watch a terrible movie in bed; and others are for letting your roommate close their door and study in peace, no matter how close you are. Since Mike and I were best buddies, we were good at being able to tell—and to tell each other—when those times were.

Unfortunately, unlike dorm rooms, rental apartments come with other factors to consider besides just getting along: you’re responsible for paying rent and electricity bills, for one thing. After a while, Mike started lagging in this department, which was really disappointing. As much fun as I had with him, I couldn’t afford to live with someone who was going to screw me on the rent. This is another reason that it can be tough to live with close friends: money becomes part of your friendship, which rarely works out well. Mike and I decided in the end that it would be best for both of us if he moved somewhere more affordable.

I kept the apartment, which I still live in now, and began the hunt for a new roommate. If you prefer to live with someone you already know at least vaguely, the best way to find a willing party is by crowd-sourcing: make a Facebook status that mentions the general neighborhood you live in (but NOT your specific address, doy), the share of rent a person would pay, and any other essential details, and, if you’re comfortable doing so, let your friends know to tell anyone who might be interested. If you prefer to live with people you don’t know at all, print up flyers and post them around your college or neighborhood, or go the Craigslist route. Make sure to email extensively with any candidates before you have them come check out your place, and when they do, have a friend or two there to fend off potential weirdos or creeps. Good old-fashioned word of mouth still goes a long way, too—that’s how I met my current roommate, Gideon, aka the king of all roommates. We’ve known each other since we were tiny, but we were never really friends. We ran into each other at a mutual friend’s comedy show in New York, where I live, and where he was looking to move. Lucky for us, it was a month before I had to find a new roommate, so we had plenty of time to cover the basic stuff we needed to know about each other and for him to check out my apartment. After we established that we were a good fit, he moved in, and it’s been a great year. He pays the rent, we love each other’s friends, we’re comfortable going out and staying in together but don’t stress if we don’t spend time for a busy week or two, we have the same threshold of messiness. We have great joint parties every so often, but otherwise keep things low-key and let each other know when people are coming by. Basically, it’s awesome, and we keep it that way by respecting the hell out of each other.

Don’t be scared about having a roommate. While it definitely takes some adjusting, it’s pretty easy to navigate with most reasonable human beings. As long as you can talk things over with your roommate and reach compromises that you’re both cool with, you can have the same great relationship that Gideon and I do. And you know what? Even if you do get stuck with someone crazy for a little while, bad-roommate stories are comedy gold. Even if it was awful at the time, I promise you there will come a day where you have someone doubling up with laughter over the fact that your freshman roommate turned your dorm into a seedy gambling parlor for her friends, who played dice all night and smoked cigarettes with the windows closed (true story). ♦

* This name has been changed, for privacy’s sake.

38 Comments

  • KinuKinu May 3rd, 2012 3:17 PM

    GRIMESSSSSS!!!!
    I watched Buffy a couple days ago.The episode where her new college roommate was a super control freak and I got all freaked out….But this is so helpful! I share a room with my sister, so I thought having a roommate would be cool. That episode ruined me. Also,Buffy’s room was spacious and the beds were big……..my actual room will be a PRISON?
    That’s ok, I’ll decorate it with BIG BANG posters :D

    • Abby May 3rd, 2012 4:16 PM

      GAHHH I LOOOOVE Big Bang…

      • KinuKinu May 3rd, 2012 5:26 PM

        Really?!?!
        That’s awesome…I’m a total FAN-GIRL.
        V.I.P FOREVERRRRRRRRRRRRR

    • Antionette May 4th, 2012 12:09 AM

      I totally watched that Buffy episode yesterday! It even got me a little freaked out, even if my roommate wont most likely be a demon rebelling as all teenage demons do. But, you never know…

    • LittleMissE May 5th, 2012 2:04 PM

      That Buffy episode was hilarious. Her roommate was crazy! I hope I don’t get stuck with a roommate who labels their hard-boiled eggs individually….!

  • missblack May 3rd, 2012 3:22 PM

    THANK GOD FOR THIS! Rookie is my hero.

    Little&Trivial

  • Susann May 3rd, 2012 3:51 PM

    This is really helpful!

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Lucy23 May 3rd, 2012 3:55 PM

    I used to be at a boarding school, and my roommate and I literally NEVER TALKED when we were in the room, which was weird because I would always see her and hang out with her outside the dorm. It was kind of hilarious. It wasn’t an awkward situation at all, we just didn’t talk in the dorm.

  • Juniper May 3rd, 2012 4:04 PM

    I really needed this article!

  • PearlFog May 3rd, 2012 4:08 PM

    The idea of college roommates has always fascinated me in American films since, as far as I know, it doesn’t happen much in the UK. Thank goodness, I think I would really struggle to share space with anyone that closely, let alone a stranger. Sharing a kitchen with twenty or so other girls at college was a nightmare – there was a lot of posh folk there and I’m not sure any of them had ever had to learn to clean up after themselves and it could get really disgusting.

    As a single adult I now live with my older brother, which works surprisingly well. We’re used to each other and live pretty separate lives, but it’s nice to know that he’s just across the hall if I need him. Plus he changes the cat litter tray and brings me home sweets when he goes to the shop, not a bad arrangement all in all ;o)

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/PearlFog

  • Abby May 3rd, 2012 4:19 PM

    My stupid sister who is at college (not as an exchange student–actually going there) in stupid Scotland doesn’t even HAVE a stupid roommate. She gets her stupid room all to her stupid self. I love her, but it’s still stupid that I’LL have to have a roommate and she DOESN’T.

    Anyway, thank you for this, because I’m not quite sure if I’ll survive a roommate next year.

    • lorobird May 4th, 2012 9:11 AM

      Student rights. Universities should look after their students, and should run mainly on government funding rather than students’ fees. That way, they invest in things that are truly important instead of being businesses.

      Scottish students don’t pay for tuition because it’s all paid through taxes. It’s a pretty good system.

      • Runaway May 5th, 2012 1:18 PM

        Yeah! That’s absolutely true and great, but she’s talking about dorms, not fees. And the halls of residence…I had to endure the fact that right next to my block there was a hall the university used for all kinds of parties: wedding receptions, church services, cèilidhean…Many of us complained ’cause it wasn’t nice waking up to a not very well trained choir on the weekends, trying to write essays with blasting folk music on the background, or having to listen to bagpipes when you’re suffering from a very bad case of migraine and wishing to be dead. They answered that they had to do those things so that our rent was cheaper than it would normally be, and if that was affecting our studies for the worse, well, we had the library (but what if I like studying late at night? what if I’m ill? I was paying for a room for a reason!). I honestly don’t think my rent was cheaper than it should be; in fact, it was the same they were paying in a fancier part of the halls of residence. Only in that part everything was better and prettier and they didn’t have to put up with the noise. Besides, the very first day a Spanish friend of mine moved in to our house there was a homeless person sleeping in the building. Imagine leaving home for the first time to go to a foreign country and finding out that your supposedly safe building isn’t so safe after all, ’cause anybody could get in.

        Don’t be jealous of your sister. She’s just going to face different problems; that’s all. And I have to say that in spite of all my complaints, my year living in the halls was great. Not perfect, but great.

    • NotReallyChristian May 7th, 2012 9:02 AM

      Ooh, whereabouts in Scotland? My brother’s at Edinburgh uni and his halls were really nice.
      But yeah, roommates are not very common here in the UK. I’m at Cambridge university, and it’s unheard-of to share a room. A set, sometimes (i.e. you share a living room and have separate bedrooms) but never a room. Some of my (richer) friends even have individual sets with their own living room and bathroom!

  • PearlFog May 3rd, 2012 4:27 PM

    Wahay, mon Scotland! :o) I’m from Scotland although I studied in England, but yeah, in Britain it seems that roommates is really not the done thing. Do you think we’ve missed out? Generally having your own space seems like a good thing to me.

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/PearlFog

  • lize May 3rd, 2012 4:28 PM

    This is amazing!
    I have had my share of annoying and disturbing roommates. (Luckily I didn’t share a bedroom with those creeps, only a kitchen and bathroom.) One girl decided it would be OK to not do her dishes for more than 2 months, it resulted in a mouldy mess. She also collected soda cans, simply because she was too lazy to throw them away. Another girl was a scary stalker, she eavesdropped on my phone calls and took pictures of my dirty dishes and stuff.
    Most people tend to have better luck though…

  • poppunkgurrrlx May 3rd, 2012 4:35 PM

    I so wish I would’ve had this last summer before school started! I ended up with a crazy roommate too and I was also the one that ended up moving out. Sometimes I feel like my whole freshman year would have been better if she would have moved out rather than me. But in a way, living in single dorms made me more independent than before.

  • Ribba May 3rd, 2012 5:03 PM

    (non-American here). I always wonder how people masturbate when they live like this. It seems like you have no private space at all.

    • Abby May 4th, 2012 9:32 AM

      Um…. Yeah. I’m going to college next year (in America), and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks about this… I’m going to have to learn my roommate’s schedule so I can do that ha.

  • Shayna May 3rd, 2012 5:49 PM

    If they say “super, super neat,” they mean “Get your fucking sock off the floor, NOW.”
    This is hilarious!

  • Calgary May 3rd, 2012 6:19 PM

    “Respect the hell out of each other,” is probably the best advice I’ve heard in a long time! Thanks for the great article!

  • Rae0320 May 3rd, 2012 6:29 PM

    Yeah in England we really don’t have the roommate thing. At university, you get your own bedroom, and if you’re lucky, en suite. You just share a kitchen with like, 5-10 ish other people. It’s pretty sweet, because you really are totally free to do as you please. Like me, you can potentially sleep all day then stay awake all night, watching the hannah montana movie and high school musical and even sharpays goddamn musical adventure (or whatever its called) because thats more interesting than doing work, yknow, and no ones gonna be ragging on you for it.

    On another note, in second and third year students generally move into rented STUDENT HOUSES with their friends/flat mates from the year before. It means the added pressure of rent and bills and a much more confined space. These houses are NOT ALWAYS GREAT in terms of living standards. My house has mice. But its cool because we just give them names or whatever…

    • Runaway May 5th, 2012 1:28 PM

      Hehe! You were lucky! I’m a night person, but I couldn’t do that at all. There was a cleaning service coming in every morning, even if they didn’t really do much cleaning. The lady that was in charge of my corridor came into my room hundreds of times to caught me sleeping, in the loo, or naked ’cause I had just come out of the shower.

    • NotReallyChristian May 7th, 2012 9:09 AM

      I’m SO GLAD I’ve never had to live in a student house! This is one of the major major perks of Cambridge. My brother had to do it in Edinburgh (not anymore because he and I bought a flat there, long story involving surprisingly rich dead relative) and it sounded so stressful, like there’d be big viewing days where loads of people would go off to see the same house and then have to race each other (literally) across the city to sign the lease at the estate agent’s. Apparently the people who came on bikes usually won; the taxis were too slow.

      Anyway he was only going to be sharing with one other guy, and he was told that they didn’t have to flat-hunt till August because two-bedrooom places weren’t really in demand. So August comes around and he goes up to Scotland to meet the other guy … who tells him he’s decided to leave uni. Fin managed to stay in other people’s flats where they were on semesters abroad, but it wasn’t a great year!

  • chasen May 3rd, 2012 6:52 PM

    I’ve been lucky enough to live alone, but have seen enough of my friends’ room mate situations to know the following:

    1. Like the article says, it’s all about respect. You’re not living with your family, so your roommate isn’t obligated to love you or put up with your crap or let you act like the child they remember you as. My parents let three of my brother’s friends move into one of their houses with him and they proceeded to wreck a PERFECT deal by treating the place like they were still living with their parents. If you’re an adult, you need to act like it. Similarly, pay rent and bills on time. Building goodwill with punctuality will be important if you ever need leeway in an emergency.

    2. Make it as official as possible. I’ve seen too many friends get into situations where they move in with someone, don’t get their name on the lease or any kind of official recognition that they’re living there, before being completely shafted. Make sure any increase in rent requires appropriate notice and if someone tries to get you to sign something saying you’re paying more rent than you are (for “tax purposes” apparently), do NOT do it (ugh). Try not to get into a situation where your roommate is the only one who is able to communicate with the landlord. This puts you at a distinct disadvantage if there are any problems.

    3. Don’t burn your bridges. Chances are at least one of your rental arrangements will fall through at some point in your life and when it does, you’re going to need a support base to get you through it.

  • lylsoy May 3rd, 2012 7:00 PM

    My bf and I just moved into an apartment and are looking for a housemate and it’s soooo hard to find someone suitable! We had a few interviews with people, but they were mostly unemployed, couldn’t pay bond and looked like lazy hippies. Sometimes just a single conversation with someone is enough to know if you’ll get along.! :)

  • tinklebot5000 May 3rd, 2012 7:01 PM

    omigosh. this was soooo helpful! I’m going to college in the fall. thank youuu :)

  • hellorose May 3rd, 2012 7:31 PM

    I think a good thing to do as well is to write down the things you have learnt after each room/housemate experience, both good and bad. Importantly write down the things you did wrong as well as the things your housemate did.

    Also I’d say that if you can help it, try not to move into privately rented housing during a year where your grades really really matter. It is stressful to navigate all the bits and pieces with bills and landlords and though it’s valuable experience, it can be quite consuming. I was lucky enough to do it in my second year, where i had to do okay to continue with my course, but nothing went towards my actual degree (all that business is going down in three weeks time with finals, woohoo! three years of study boiling down to 4 exams and a dissertation. yay!).

  • Rea May 3rd, 2012 11:41 PM

    My first roommate was great. She’s not perfect – she watches movies / music videos with full speakers, during which I would just room hop to my other friends’ room, to keep my sanity in tact. But I think it’s just healthy. Differences in your personalities and backgrounds make your stay fun and exciting. You get to learn new cultures and ideas, and you grow as a person by learning how to compromise.

    My second set of roommates, three of them, I learned a lot… the hard way. It IS important to have a room rule, which we didn’t. ._. I have this roommate who is just annoying when she studies. She likes to ask us things about whatever she is studying (which we are either also taking up or have taken up), which always leads to her saying that she is right!!! Good for her, she gets the high grades in our room. How could we, if every time we study, it’s either she’s watching YouTube videos (no earphones) or bugging us with her questions.

    I’m consider being roommates with my best friend next. Or maybe a resident assistant. :|

    http://thetwosyllablegirl.wordpress.com/

  • megantron May 4th, 2012 3:30 AM

    I was lucky and got great roommates/suitemates freshman year –I liked them enough to room with them on-and-off over the years. Two of my suitemates became some of my best friends in college (as for the collecting hair part, one of them thought it’d be HILARIOUS to leave the other’s 10-inch-long cut braid on my biochemistry textbook one day). Just make sure you don’t become codependent on your roommate– you don’t want to end up doing EVERYTHING together.

    In general, I’ve always had thoughtful roommates. Subleasees on the other hand…

  • FossilisedUnicorn May 4th, 2012 5:35 AM

    Non-USA person here. I love my personal space and I’m already worrying about sharing a kitchen next year!

  • Caden May 4th, 2012 6:57 AM

    I’m about to move out for the first time, but my roommate will be my new husband :P. I still sent him this article though!

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

  • Reoka May 4th, 2012 4:07 PM

    Having a roomate is kind of unusual here in Germany,as dorms usually offer single bed rooms.
    I don’t think that many students live in dorms though, because most prefer to rent an entire apartment and share it with 3-5 other students.That way it’s less “intimate” and in case somebody in your apartment drives you crazy the entire community helps you sort it out.
    I’m generally fascinated by the american education system&everything around it because, it’s just so different compared to the German system.
    For example a German student will probably never experience the ups and downs of high school life,as middle school+high school are not seperated from each other here.Everyone is just kind of meh about school and there is no real competition or “spirit” because nobody puts any effort into things like the students council or any sports team.
    There is also no homecoming or prom.
    Sometimes I’m feeling kind of sentimental about it because I never experienced what the people in my favourite movies experience in high school.

    • Annelalala May 7th, 2012 3:08 PM

      See, that right there was the whole reason I decided to be an exchange student in America this year. I’m a junior in High School and I have to say that I’ve experienced more this year alone than in my other 16 years on earth… And, if not all, A LOT of the sterotypical stuff is true.
      Just saying, DO it :)

  • VanyaTheDinosaur May 5th, 2012 6:00 PM

    Roommates are generally OK as long as they don’t start shooting the wall out of boredom and keeping body parts in the fridge.

  • airplanes.books May 7th, 2012 6:51 PM

    The latter half of my freshman year I had no roommate in a double, which was fantastic.

    My sophomore year however, was spent with a girl I had NOTHING in common with. We would barely talk in the room together, and when I had headphones in (NOT LOUD) she would think I couldn’t hear anything, and proceed to have phone sex with what I overheard to be a married man.

    Now I live with my boyfriend, and he’s the greatest roommate.

    Yay for growing up and not having to live in ridiculous dorms anymore!

  • lelelikeukulele May 18th, 2012 3:16 AM

    Gah, roommates! I love hearing about other peoples’ roommate stories, mostly because I had THE WORST living situation this year. It was my first year in college and I was put into a triple room with two girls who became best friends and talked about me behind my back about all the little things I did that bothered them. As a result, they were talking to our RA about making me move out before I even had an inkling anything was wrong, and when they finally told me all their problems with me, it was pretty awful to hear (especially since they were mostly misunderstandings). It was funny, because I hadn’t complained about their habit of having booze-filled legitimate PARTIES in our room without asking me first because I wanted to keep the peace.
    I ended up moving out, since neither of them really seemed to want to solve things and/or give me a chance to right my so-called wrongs. At first, my new roommate seemed super nice and we got along insanely well. But although we still get along just fine, and she is perfectly nice to me, I now know that she sleeps with anyone that moves (sometimes while I am trying to sleep in the other bed the night before a big job interview), likes to roll joints in the room (I am extremely sensitive to…odors such as that), and talked shit about me the entire first week that I moved in. All my friends seem to agree that I’ve had the absolute worst experience with roommates.

    But you know what? It can only get better from here! If your living situation sucks, just remember: IT WILL END. YOU CAN GET THROUGH IT. :)

  • ohmytuesday June 21st, 2012 2:20 AM

    You guys are so lucky :’D

    School is absolutely boring here in Singapore. I’ve always wanted to know if all the high school stereotypes were true, and experience all the crazy shit everyone in American movies seems to be doing in high school and college… Here it seems like the only thing everyone is supposed to be concerned about is grades ):

    I’d love the chance to live with a crazy roommate, just for experience’s sake. In Singapore we (the locals attending local universities) mostly just live with our parents. Because Singapore is so tiny.