Sharing an apartment or a house can be a very smart financial move: You’ll probably get more space than you would by yourself, you might be able to afford a nicer part of town, and it may give you room in your budget for extra saving. All the same, living with other people is tough, and the savings aren’t worth it if you end up taking an axe to your roommates.
So it’s worth it to discuss a number of issues and set up guidelines—a sort of roommate contract—about how your house or apartment is going to work. There’s generally no “right” answer as to how to handle everything, but anticipating issues will help you run a happy share. As a landlady who has seen a number of shares, I’ll go over some of the top issues to think about:
If one roommate finds the place, is that the person who will be on the lease? If you all sign the lease, then you are “jointly and severally liable,” which is a fancy legal way of saying that you’re all on the hook for the total rent, not just your share. Does the roommate who found the place (or the person with the financial responsibility) take the largest bedroom? Will you split the rent according to room size?
Many roommates will split the different burdens: One roomie pays cable, another pays gas. That keeps one person from having all the responsibility of being the “mom” of the house, and ending up with a couple of roomies who can’t call the plumber when the sink leaks. Similarly, try to keep your name off the stuff the other person is paying for, if you can—especially if you fear she’s going to be a flake. If your roomie is late on the cable bill, you don’t want it to drag down your credit score. If you’re planning to be out of town for a few months for any reason, make sure to switch the bills over to someone else’s name before you leave.
Corollary: Establish guidelines for the temperature in the summer and winter. Especially if you’re paying for the electricity to run the air conditioner in the summer or gas heat in the winter, establish house rules for what the temperature should be.
Food is one of the most regular expenses that you’re going to have, so talk about a grocery policy. Whether you decline to share food or make a weekly grocery run and split the cost, make sure that you’re on the same page as your roommates.
It’s great if you want to haul soda cans and beer bottles back to the store to get your deposit money back and help the environment. Just remember to lay out expectations for who will do what. Make sure to rinse recyclables so you don’t get an ick factor, and don’t let the collection of cans and bottles mount up for a month. Also, just in case my husband is reading this, whoever brings a magazine or newspaper into the house should make sure it eventually goes out again.
If you’re only going to make one rule, I’d suggest setting up a guest policy before you need it. A lot of roommate situations start out comfortably…until a new boyfriend or girlfriend causes friction, or a roommate’s extended family crashes in your living room for a week. Talk about time (and occupancy) limits for guests, and how often someone can stay over before he or she needs to chip in for beer money and rent.
You’ll obviously need to adhere to the provisions of your lease (“no dogs” really does mean “no dogs”). Beyond that, if there’s a pet, who will pay to feed it? What about extra cleaning costs if there’s an accident involving a sofa or a rug? Although the simple answer may seem that the pet owner takes care of everything, sometimes one person’s cat can become the house cat. It’s always better to talk about these situations before they happen.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your property only includes inside space. Parking and bike storage are valuable commodities, so decide if it’s going to be first-come, first-served or if you’re going to come up with a different system.