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A cartoon of three people enjoying cooking a meal at home. Denis Novikov/Vox

Living with roommates doesn’t have to suck

Here’s how to survive — and thrive — while sharing a home with others.

Rents are rising. Even outside of the costliest American urban centers like New York and San Francisco, it can be difficult to find an affordable deal on an apartment. Unfortunately, there aren’t many signs to suggest things are going to get much easier anytime soon — in May, the median monthly rent in the US was $2,002, up by nearly 15 percent from the same time last year. This is also the first time the median rent has crossed $2,000 nationwide — a milestone some experts didn’t anticipate until August of this year.

For many, living with other people — whether that’s their parents or a group of strangers they found on a Facebook group for local renters — has become one of the only viable options to find affordable housing. Now more than ever, people are living in “doubled-up” households, meaning they’re sharing a home with someone they aren’t in a romantic relationship with. While doubling up is by far most common among 20-somethings, the percentage of older adults doing so has risen steadily for all age groups since 2005, though this data also includes adults living with family.

Despite its prevalence, living with roommates gets a bad rap. You’ve probably heard about the roommate from hell: somebody who blasts loud music late at night or turns every minor conflict into a dramatic confrontation. It’s a stale trope that media frequently inundates us with, from television series to BuzzFeed articles. Even when it’s not the roommate from hell, living with roommates is often portrayed as a last resort — a sacrifice to save money or gain a bit of independence from our family.

When I was growing up, my father often regaled me and my family with stories from when he lived alone in an apartment during the 1980s. As I neared financial independence from my parents, these anecdotes of urban life seemed like lore from a bygone era. My dad’s stories were surely tinged with nostalgia, but they still felt fairly detached from my reality — it seemed extremely unlikely that I’d ever afford the kind of solo living my dad did in his mid-20s.

So far, that prediction’s proven correct. But it hasn’t been nearly as bad as all those roommate-from-hell stories make it seem. In fact, it’s been really nice. Having somebody else around the apartment to gossip or do chores with has made the place feel livelier and more homey, particularly when I moved to a completely new city for the first time.

Humans are social animals. While living with strangers might not be ideal, it’s arguably a more natural arrangement than living alone in a tiny studio. Research suggests that during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, people who lived with others fared better than those who lived alone, mental health-wise. Sharing a home has strong potential to mitigate the rising levels of loneliness and combat the atomization of modern life. If you’re as skeptical of the roommate relationship as I once was, try to have an open mind: It’s probably better than you’re expecting.

Finding the right person (or people!)

For many people, their first time living with roommates is when they enter college. The summer before college, I picked up a copy of advice columnist Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College to prepare myself for dorm living. Six years after first reading his book, I spoke with Cohen over Zoom to learn about navigating life with roommates, post-college.

While colleges often have methodical roommate-matchmaking practices to take the weight of finding a roommate off students’ shoulders, life after college isn’t so easy. You may feel inclined to live with a close friend to simplify the search process, but Cohen’s a bit leery of this.

Getting along with somebody in your social circle doesn’t necessarily mean that the dynamic will be the same while living together. Cohen adds that friends may take advantage of their preexisting relationship, putting in less effort to get along with each other as roommates.

“Friendship’s a bonus — it’d be great to be friends and we may like to be friends, but it’s okay if we’re not,” he says.

It may be better to find somebody you don’t know that well — a friend of a friend or even a stranger. Obviously, you’ll want to vet any roommates-to-be to ensure they’re a good match. Asking prospective roommates the right questions is a key preventive measure for common conflicts like a messy common area or clashing sleep schedules. Someone’s answers to questions like “What time do you usually go to bed?” and “What are some problems you’ve had with past roommates?” can shed light on your compatibility.

Online roommate-matching services like Roommates or RoomieMatch can filter out some of the basics, but you should find out more information about your roommate through an honest and forthright conversation with them before you agree to move in together. Identify what’s critical to you in your living space; knowing a potential roommate’s perspectives on cleanliness, quiet time, and other boundaries is key to an understanding roommate relationship.

Most importantly, go into the roommate search with a positive attitude. Researchers have found that people with negative attitudes about living with others may experience increased dysfunction when living with roommates, while those with a positive attitude going in may experience improved mental health.

“I find that the people who are most concerned about living with a roommate from hell are often the most difficult people to live with,” Cohen says. “They’re so worried and have so much fear and anxiety coming into their relationship that it creates challenges when living together.”

Finding the right space

As the old saying goes, “a house does not a home make.” It turns out that any old two-bedroom apartment doesn’t necessarily, either.

Finding the right place is difficult, but it’s an important part of making sure you and your roommates feel comfortable together. After all, you don’t want resentment to build up because you and your roommate rushed to sign a lease on a unit that hardly has any closet space.

Moreover, some roommates may require specific accessibility accommodations that you’ll have to take into account during the housing search. Your individual budgets will also inevitably factor into the search, and you’ll want to split the rent fairly according to factors like monthly income and the relative size of your private spaces (i.e., bedrooms and bathrooms).

It’s helpful to come up with a list of priorities — things like location, size, specific amenities, etc. — that you and your roommates can rank together in order of importance. Not only will this give you a starting point in what to look for as you search for housing, but this will also be a useful exercise in the art of compromise.

If you’re open to sacrificing a little privacy and living with a slightly larger group of people, co-living spaces may be worth considering. As Scott Corfe defines them, co-living spaces like The Collective or the now-defunct WeLive are “a system of housing in which individuals have access to a range of shared, communal facilities,” such as gyms, co-working spaces, and even movie lounges.

Corfe, the research director at the Social Market Foundation, tells me that co-living developments could be a creative solution to the affordable housing crisis, in spite of their flaws. By uniting a community under one (fairly affordable) roof, he says these spaces intuitively have the potential to reduce loneliness among their inhabitants.

“This is clearly not the silver bullet solution with all the issues in the housing market,” he says, adding that it’s a much-needed innovation.

Corfe admits that co-living isn’t for everyone, but you can still create community in an apartment setting. Living with a roommate or two is an interesting way to gain a deeper understanding of how other people navigate the world. While you don’t necessarily have to be best friends, putting in extra effort to be friendly and spend time together will help you feel at home.

Finding the right rules

While gearing up to live in a three-person dorm room for my freshman year of college, I was a bit nervous. I’d heard so many bad stories that the roommate from hell seemed inevitable.

Of course, there were some kinks the three of us had to work out — like our clashing sleep schedules, for instance — but all in all, it was a fairly pleasant experience.

Part of what made living together so easy was the fact that our hall’s resident adviser mediated a brief rule-setting conversation at the beginning of our first quarter. Setting boundaries early on is crucial, Cohen says, even if you don’t have an RA to nag you into setting these rules like I did.

In a TikTok he posted a few weeks before our meeting, Cohen proposed a rule that he calls the “Uncomfortable Rule” — a sort of golden rule that aims to nip inter-roommate conflicts in the bud. “The Uncomfortable Rule says that if either of us is uncomfortable with something that is happening, we need to share it within 24 to 48 hours, or we won’t share it,” Cohen tells me. “You can’t hold someone responsible for something you aren’t sharing.”

In addition to Cohen’s Uncomfortable Rule, try discussing responsibilities like household chores and what’s acceptable when it comes to alcohol consumption or overnight guests. When conflicts do arise — and they likely will — you and your roommates can come back to this conversation to discuss the best course of action.

Devising these rules will allow you and your roommates to, once again, practice negotiation and compromise — chances are, you won’t agree on everything, and that’s perfectly fine. By working to find a middle ground, you’re honing skills that will benefit you in other interpersonal relationships, like cohabitating with a romantic partner.

These rules create a framework for a fairly unique relationship that could blossom into friendship, something that’s particularly valuable in a society where people often begin losing friends after their third decade of life. From gaining opportunities to learning more about another culture to trying new food, Cohen says the perks of living with a roommate are innumerable.

“With a roommate, you have someone who you can spend time with — if it’s someone who enjoys spending time with you, you can gain a friend,” Cohen says. “And if it’s someone you don’t enjoy spending time with, you can benefit from figuring out how to get comfortable with an uncomfortable situation.”

Andrew Warner is a New York City-based reporter covering education and culture.


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