It’s easy to concentrate on the upside when you make the big decision to share housing and you start looking for a roommate. And it’s perhaps even easier to fantasize about all the benefits of living with a roommate and gloss over the possible pitfalls. As the founder of Roommates4Boomers, I applaud women who make this important decision – but I also want to see these women enter into their new phase of life with smooth sailing ensured. The best way to do this is to employ careful planning and then follow a set number of steps to screen potential roommates. If you weed out those who could cause problems in your life and narrow the field to one or more women with whom you will be truly compatible, you’re on your way to a happy new phase in your life.
You can do this by laying out, first, a very clear description of just what type of person you want to live with; someone whose habits parallel or complement yours, whose style of living is very similar to yours, and whose preferences for quiet, solitude, cleanliness, and other factors sit well with you naturally. The best way to make sure you cover all the bases is to sit down before you even begin the search process, and make a detailed checklist of what you want and need in a roommate.
Your own checklist might be different from mine, but here’s my suggestion for the 6 most important characteristics you’ll want to consider when interviewing a prospective roommate:
- Do you smoke?
I won’t even dignify this question with a number on the list. This is a very basic and fundamental inquiry, but you might be surprised to hear how many would-be roommates forget to ask it. Or if they do, they don’t get specific enough. As in, “Do you ever smoke?” Once-in-a-while smoking might be deemed “not smoking” by a smoker, but be justifiably interpreted as “yes, dammit, it is smoking” by a non-smoker. “Never, like never?” should be the question. And also you need to define smoking: “Do you smoke cigarettes? An occasional ‘I’m eccentric’ cigar or pipe? Marijuana? (Many regular marijuana users sincerely characterize themselves as nonsmokers.) E-cigarettes?” Be very specific about e-cigarettes if you’re sensitive to perfumes, air fresheners, and other artificial scents. To you, the smell of e-cigarettes may be the most repugnant of all. So as regards smoking, ask about any activity that involves inhaling and exhaling something other than the ambient air.
- Define “clean”
Most likely every person you’ll talk to will think she is clean. After all, she wouldn’t be happy living in a home she thought was dirty, would she? Presumably she’s fine with her home as she keeps it and thinks it’s perfectly clean. The trick is to define “clean.” So how about these questions:
- Do you start each day by making your bed or do you regard that exercise as a waste of your time on earth?
- Do you like to have the kitchen cleaned up at night before you go to bed or are you just as OK with leaving the dishes until the morning?
- Do you vacuum once a week, once a month, or only when people are coming over?
- Do you like to keep counters clear with the mixer, blender, etc. put away in cabinets or do you prefer to keep all of your appliances out, set up, and ready to use?
- Do you like to use living room shelves to showcase a few pieces of art or books, or do you like to have as many important keepsakes and pictures in view as possible?
- If your couch has a set of pillows and a throw and you’re leaving the room for the time being, are you OK leaving the pillows scrunched in the corner where you were reading and the throw tossed aside, or do you feel happier if you plump the pillows and fold the throw neatly over the back of the couch before leaving the room?
- How much do you watch television and/or listen to music?
I.e., how much of the time will my home be filled with sounds of your choosing if you lived exactly as you like? This personal preference constitutes a huge difference among people. Some prefer absolute silence most of the time; some want music on all day; some want the television going no matter what. And whatever the choice, if it’s not your preferred way of being, chances are another’s way of creating and using sound will drive you crazy, and vice versa. You should also be specific about types of music your potential roommate favors and what television shows she likes to watch. If there’s great incompatibility in this area but much that you like about her otherwise, talk frankly about whether compromises or schedules might work for you. For example, she might be a TV-a-holic but be willing to wear personal earphones when she watches, leaving the TV silent in the room so you don’t have to listen to the inane dialogue or incessant gunfire and explosions of her favorite shows.
- Do you work at home, outside the home, or not at all?
In other words, how much of the time will you actually be in the house? Some people would just as soon have someone in the house at all times, for comfort, or safety, or simply not to feel alone. Others crave many long stretches of absolute solitude per day. Be honest with yourself about what you really need in order to keep your sanity and feel that all is right with your world. Determine how much of what you need you will get in the way of alone time or companionability if you live with this person.
- Do you like to have people over at your house or do you prefer to go out to socialize?
This is hugely important in determining how quiet or fun-filled your home will be, depending upon how you view visitors; how often your kitchen, bathrooms, and common living areas will be occupied by other people, and how easy it will be to stick to, or not be stuck in the rut of, routine – depending upon your outlook. If you’d rather your roommate not have friends over, be up-front about this in your initial discussions.
- How often do you cook, and do you expect that we’ll share meals or eat independently?
Some people’s idea of roommate-heaven would be alternating nights or weeks of cooking, with each roommate preparing meals for the household when she cooks. Another person might prefer having no overlap whatsoever; I’ll eat what I want, when I want, and I do not want to engage in discussions about what to buy or what to have for dinner. Another scenario that might work could be one roommate cooking almost all the time and the other doing all of the clean-up – an arrangement that can result in delicious healthy meals for all and the avoidance of ones’ most hated chores in the process. Talk about what you each expect.
- And then there’s the issue of money.
Money is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps it should be number 1 in your list of questions. Be as blunt as you need to be. Ask questions like What is your annual income? Is your income stream steady, seasonal, or variable? Do you anticipate it remaining the same for the foreseeable future or is there an upcoming time when it will change dramatically? This last question is especially significant when a potential roommate is depending upon alimony for her living needs, and that alimony is scheduled to end at a defined date in the future. Sometimes in the shock and adjustment period following a divorce, a woman will brush that date under the carpet in order to deal with her new reality, telling herself that something else will come up before that dreaded end-of-alimony rolls around. Don’t let that “something else” be you, being stuck for her share of expenses in maintaining your household.
Shared expenses are another potential point of friction between roommates: coffee, toilet paper, utility bills, housekeeper, etc. Read an earlier article I wrote in my blog on Roommates4Boomers, “Don’t Let Money Be The Root of Evil Feelings” for some specific suggestions on how to deal with this hotspot ahead of time.
This post originally appeared on Sixty and Me.