When you can't afford an apartment alone, you'll have to share that precious space with a roommate -- or roommates. Sometimes this works out wonderfully and you become best friends with these Craigslist strangers, but more often than not, it's just a polite residential relationship with people you barely know (or at the very least, aren't super close with). But despite most people's dreams of living with their best friend, that's OK! You don't need to be perfect buddies with your roommates to keep a happy household.
Having spent most of my post-college adult life in San Francisco and New York, I've often had to find a bedroom on Craigslist in an apartment with people I'd never met before. It's a stressful situation. You have to sell yourself as "normal" and reliable while also judging the people you are going to potentially live with. It feels like some ridiculous platonic speed dating when all you want is a roof over your head. This is especially true for young professionals like me who can be more focused on their career than establishing a nest. And as much as I appreciate the nice people I've lived with, I just haven't always had the time or interest to invest in our friendship when I'm spending all my energy elsewhere. I'm not unfriendly, just busy!
So, with that in mind, here's what I've learned about living with strangers in the most stressful urban housing markets in America.
Trust Your Gut When Meeting Potential Roommates
First of all, deciding whether to join a group of people in an apartment or to bring someone into yours requires you make a big judgement based on a brief interaction. Of course the details of their situation matter -- whether they're employed, why they had to leave their previous place, what kind of schedule they keep -- but the broader judgement of whether you'll be happy living with them is largely an instinctual feeling based on chemistry. You aren't trying to make friends. You're trying to ascertain if you trust them and you'll be comfortable living with them, and that isn't always quantifiable.
Personally, I find that if we share just a little bit of the same sense of humour, then I know we'll be able to communicate well. (But that's because I never progressed beyond the stilted communication skills of a sarcastic teenager.)
I also try to give people the benefit of the doubt if they just seem socially awkward. Someone who seems shy might mind their own business and be a rarely seen feature of your apartment, but I also suspect they might be a more reliable person than a gregarious troubadour who brings home half a dozen friends at 2am. That depends on what sort of household you want, of course (I'm obviously biased towards a quiet nest rather than a den of activity). Ultimately you can and should ask a variety of questions about their responsibility and personality, but your decision will likely be based on simply how comfortable you are with a person, and how much you trust them.
Be as Respectful as You Can Without Being a Pushover
I get along great with my current roommate -- and we barely know anything about each other beyond the basics. We neither avoid each other nor do we really "hang out", and it's a useful arrangement for two professionals living in a stupidly expensive city. How'd we work it out? By communicating directly and honestly and giving each other the benefit of the doubt if we do something dumb, like forgetting to pay a bill or leaving a mess in the kitchen.
I try to be optimistic in assuming that most people are decent human beings, and their foibles are usually harmless annoyances. Perhaps the sink might be filled with dishes a few days longer than you'd like or they play their music a little too late at night, but it's rarely worth blowing your top over something so inconsequential. If you're not particularly close with your roommate, you probably don't know about whatever issues in their life that they're currently dealing with. They might have a reason for putting off a chore; everyone is dealing with their own issues in their lives and you shouldn't take dirty dishes as a personal affront. Give the benefit of the doubt as much as you can.
Problems that recur are more frustrating, in which case you need to talk directly and plainly. I've had some mediocre roommates with some annoying habits, and I tried to talk directly with them without being confrontational. You don't want to upset them, but you do want them to understand what's wrong and why it affects you. If your schedules don't really overlap and you rarely actually see the person, you might end up texting them. And that's fine! But don't nag them like an annoying parent and don't be passive-aggressive about it. Just speak to the point.
Again, it's rarely an intentional personal affront if someone doesn't take out the trash and you shouldn't treat it as such.
Try and Crack a Beer Together Once in a While
Even though I'm not really trying to be besties with my roommate, I do try and occasionally catch up with her. Going a long time without talking with someone can make them feel like you might be avoiding them, which can cause your roomie to reciprocate by avoiding you too, as if to delay an awkward, forced conversation.
They don't know what's going on in your life, and if they never see you, your roommate might assume that you're going through some drama or just a weird phase. When our roommate relationship has felt tense or strange, I stop and ask myself, "Am I causing this? Am I the weirdo in this situation?" Because yes, if I disappeared to my bedroom for 72 hours to watch the entire run of Dragon Ball, it's entirely reasonable my roommate might think I've gone a little unhinged.
As such, it's good to take a second just to say hi once in a while, as if only to demonstrate that, hey, I'm OK, you're OK, we are OK. Just touch base on occasion to make sure that everything's fine.
There will always be moments of tension when you live with someone, whether or not you're old friends; being in a small apartment together for a long time can make even the most innocuous quirks seem like glaring character flaws. You just to communicate clearly and treat your roommates with the same respect that you desire from them.
Picture: Sentavio (Shutterstock)