Roommates aren’t just for college students. As rents soar, more adults are joining households to share the burden. By the end of 2019, nearly a third of U.S. adults over 18 lived in a shared household, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from roughly one in five adults in 2005.
But living with a roommate isn’t always how “Friends” made it out to be. Yes, you can lower your rent payments and save money on utility bills, but you can also find yourself living with a narcissistic jerk.
Before signing a long-term lease contract with a roommate – even a friend you think you know well – ask these questions of both your prospective roommate and yourself, and be prepared to share the answers openly. Yes, some of these questions feel personal, but living with another adult is personal, and you need to know the answers before committing to live together.
If your roommate can’t pay the rent, it’s not just their problem. It’s your problem too, putting you in a position to either cover their rent payment or face eviction and rent judgments.
Now isn’t the time to protect your financial pride. Get ready to open up.
1. What’s Your Occupation? How Long Have You Done It? Are Any Changes Planned?
A person’s occupation tells you something about their life choices and personality. Even more importantly, you can also glean insights into the stability of their employment. It doesn’t matter if your prospective roommate earns $20,000 per month if they earn it by money laundering. You need to know what they do for a living before going further.
Keep in mind that what they do today may not be what they’ll be doing next month. Ask them about where they see their career going and the stability of their current job. If they’re thinking about making a career change, that can pose a risk to their income.
2. What’s Your Net Monthly Income? Does It Ever Vary?
Yes, it’s a personal question. It’s also a necessary one to share before making a joint financial commitment.
Not everyone earns a steady paycheck. If your prospective roommate is self-employed or paid on commission, their income may vary wildly from month to month. Be sure to ask about the stability, not just the amount, of their income as it can be tricky to budget on an irregular income.
3. Do You Have Enough Cash Right Now to Cover First and Last Months’ Rent Plus a Security Deposit?
If your prospective housemate doesn’t have enough cash to actually sign the lease, consider it a giant red flag. Financial stability doesn’t end at income. Everyone needs operating capital and some cash set aside as an emergency fund.
As a landlord, I ask prospective renters this question. It’s a simple one because there’s no middle ground or ambiguity. Either they have the cash, or they have excuses and promises about when they will have it.
Don’t sign a lease with someone who has excuses rather than cash.
4. What’s Your Approximate Credit Score?
The landlord will – or at least should – run both of your credit reports before signing a lease with you. What will they find?
You don’t want to take on someone else’s bad credit; among the negative effects of a bad credit score is that landlords don’t want to rent to you. If your prospective roomie doesn’t know their score, or if you don’t know yours, use one of these options to check your credit score.
If after a credit check you find that you’re actually the weaker link, start working on improving your credit score right away. It doesn’t happen overnight, so the sooner you start, the better. You can get a head start by signing up for Experian Boost. They will factor in payment history from things like your phone and utility bills.
5. How Long Do You Plan on Staying?
You may be looking to settle in for several years, while your potential roommate may only want a temporary crash pad for a few months or vice versa.
Get a sense for your prospective housemate’s long-term housing plans, because you don’t want to find yourself looking for a new roommate halfway through the lease. Be aware that thorough lease agreements hold each tenant separately liable, so you’re on the hook for your roommate’s half of the rent if they don’t pay.
6. How Do You Foresee Splitting the Rent & Utility Bills?
A 50/50 split is not always fair. One bedroom could be clearly superior to another, or one person could want a cable subscription while the other doesn’t.
Don’t assume that you will – or should – split every cost 50/50. Leave room for negotiation and be prepared to push for what you feel is fair.
Money matters, but it’s far from the only concern. You don’t want to find yourself stuck sharing a home with someone you loathe, even if they have no trouble making the rent.
Ask these questions to make sure your personalities are compatible so you’re not tempted to strangle your roommate in their sleep.
7. What Are You Looking For in a Roommate?
Some people like to be friends with their roommates – to cook meals together, watch movies together, share drinks and laughs and otherwise make merry. Others just want to be left alone in peace and quiet.
There’s no right or wrong approach to cohabitation, but you need to make sure that your and your potential roommate’s visions are aligned. Otherwise, you’re likely to annoy each other.
8. What Are Your Pet Peeves?
My old roommate hated it when I left the sponge in the kitchen sink rather than on the ledge. He reasoned that sponges left in the sink remain soaked with water and grow bacteria faster. I rolled my eyes for a while, but eventually, I started leaving the sponge on the ledge just to shut him up. Now it bothers me when my wife leaves the sponge in the sink.
People have weird pet peeves, which may or may not be compatible with your own. If you hate scented candles and your prospective roommate litters her house with them, consider finding a better fit.
9. How Close Are You With Your Old Roommates?
How someone reacts to this question tells you a great deal about them as a roommate. Good answers include “We’re good friends to this day” and “We aren’t close, but we parted on good terms.” Bad answers include “We aren’t on great terms” or “That psycho should be committed.”
Roommates don’t have to be best friends, but how they feel about each other after moving out proves telling.
10. Do You Have Personal References? Who?
The best personal reference for a roommate is, of course, an ex-roommate. Coworkers and friends can also be acceptable references. Make sure you actually call them, and ask probing questions about their personality, friendliness, and lifestyle as well. It will help you determine if a prospective roommate will be a good fit for your personality, friendliness, and lifestyle.
Your roommate could pay rent on time and be an affable enough person, but their lifestyle must be compatible with yours for the arrangement to work. Ask these lifestyle questions to make sure you can live under the same roof without constantly stepping on each other’s toes.
11. How Often Do You Clean?
Clean freak or slob, you need an accurate sense of their cleanliness habits. Get specific about different types of cleaning. Tidying up strewn clothes and other items lying around the house is a completely different type of cleaning from mopping floors and scrubbing toilets.
Talk about a cleaning schedule – who will do what cleaning chores and how often. Remember that you aren’t the only possible candidates for cleaning, and you can hire a home cleaning service through Handy.com if neither of you wants to clean.
Make sure you agree on consequences if one roommate fails to live up to their side of the agreement. One possibility is that if they don’t clean when they’re supposed to, the maid comes in and the bill falls to the neglectful party.
12. What Do You Do on Weekends?
How someone chooses to spend their leisure time says something about them. Do they love to party? To sit on the couch and watch TV? To go on day trips? If they’re a homebody who never leaves the apartment, don’t expect much alone time or privacy at home.
13. How Often Do You Like to Host Friends at Home? What About Out-of-Town Guests?
There are party animals who do all their partying at clubs, bars, and other people’s houses, and then there are party animals who invite 75 of their closest friends over every weekend.
And while someone may not invite local friends over often, frequent out-of-town guests is a different issue. Someone who just moved from a nearby city may not have any local friends yet, but they may receive visitors every other weekend.
Get specific about how often you each expect to invite home friends, both local and otherwise. If one or both of you like to throw parties, be mindful of damage when it comes time to request your security deposit refund. Remember, you’re both equally on the hook for the deposit.
14. What Is Your Dating Life Like?
There’s a lot to be wary of here. You don’t want a tagalong boyfriend or girlfriend unofficially moving in and spending most nights at the house. They occupy space, both physically and psychologically, without paying rent, and they use utilities without paying the bills. It’s just not fair to the other roommate.
Of course, the reverse could be true. Your roommate could just as easily spend most of their nights at their significant other’s house, which is your gain. Your prospective roommate could be aggressively single, bringing home strangers every weekend, or they could be disinterested in dating and annoyed with your dating choices.
Talk this topic through, and be honest. Now is not the time for prudishness, embarrassment, or judgment. You each need to know what you’re getting yourselves into so there are no surprises after committing to live together.
15. How Often Do You Drink? How Often Do You Drink at Home?
Do yourself a favor and only move in with someone whose drinking habits mirror your own. If you’re a teetotaler, nothing will irritate you more than being woken up at 2am when your roommate stumbles in drunk. And if you drink, nothing will ruin your buzz faster than icy, judgmental looks from your roommate.
Again, be honest with yourself and your potential roommate. No one likes to think of themselves as drinking too much or as being judgmental about others’ drinking, but lying to yourself and prospective roommates is a recipe for mutual contempt.
16. Do you Smoke Tobacco or Marijuana?
Different smoking habits doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. After all, the smoking roommate can agree to only smoke outside. Still, if one roommate smokes, you need to agree on ground rules, such as where and how they’ll dispose of butts and where they can and can’t smoke.
Be sure to inquire about both tobacco and marijuana. The question “Do you smoke?” implies cigarettes, so ask about marijuana, cigars, vaping, hookah, and other smoking habits as well. Again, it may not prove fatal to your cohabitating, but you should establish the ground rules for smoking before you commit.
If you’re the one who smokes, now may be a great time to break the habit. Beyond the health benefits, the financial benefits of quitting smoking go far beyond the cost to buy cigarettes.
17. What Time Do You Go to Bed & What Time Do You Get Up?
Keeping different hours than your roommate can be a blessing or a curse.
On the bright side, you get the apartment to yourself while your roommate sleeps. You can take long showers, cook a leisurely breakfast, or indulge in your favorite TV show late at night with no one to argue over the remote.
But if the walls are thin, watch out. There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep at midnight and being kept up by your night owl roommate’s TV, or being jarred awake at 5am when their alarm sounds.
18. What Are Your Normal Working Hours?
A related but not identical question concerns your working hours. I lived with a bartender once who got home between 2am and 4am every night, and it was great. We rarely saw each other, and we were each respectful of each other’s hours. But it did mean that I tiptoed in the mornings and he tiptoed when he got home after a long night’s work.
If you share a shower, pay particular attention to when the other person typically showers. Even if you each have your own shower, water pressure or hot water capacity can impose limits on showering simultaneously.
19. Do You Ever Work From Home?
When one housemate works from home, it changes the dynamic entirely. They may need quiet for conference calls, like to have financial tickers running along the TV while they’re working, or any number of other work-related quirks. And while a person may be genial and relaxed in their leisure time, they often shift to a very different personality while working.
There are plenty of misconceptions about working from home, so don’t make any assumptions. If your prospective roommate sometimes works from home, ask for more details and lay down some ground rules.
20. Do You Have Any Pets? Are You Interested in Getting Any?
Pets are a lot of work. Caring for them takes work, and cleaning up after them takes even more work. It’s a rare pet owner’s home where you don’t see a single pet hair on the furniture. There’s also the possibility of allergies. Finally, pets affect where you can apply, as many landlords and property managers don’t allow them.
You need to agree in advance on any pets that may enter the household. Just because your prospective roommate doesn’t own a pet today doesn’t mean they’re not itching to adopt a dog from an animal shelter. Talk it through now because people tend to get emotional quickly when talking about pets.
21. How Often Do You Cook? When Do You Typically Clean Up After Cooking?
I love cooking. Cooking your own food lets you eat healthier food for less money. Food is the third highest expense in most Americans’ budgets, so cooking at home has a high potential for helping you maximize your savings rate. But cooking also leaves a mess, which somebody needs to clean. And two roommates who both love cooking will have a hard time cooking simultaneously.
Discuss the ground rules for cooking and cleanup. If you both love cooking, decide how you’ll divvy up your kitchen time. Ideally, coordinate your efforts – perhaps alternating meals or putting one person in charge of the salad while the other person grills the steaks.
Commit to cleaning up within a specific time frame as well. No one wants to feel rushed through their meal to get back to the kitchen and scrub every pot, just as no one wants to see last week’s pots piled in the sink and gathering flies.
Two perfectly nice, reasonable people can make terrible roommates. Finding the right roommate is not an exercise in looking for perfection, but for compatibility. The bartender roommate I mentioned? He and I never became friends. But he was also much easier to live with than some of the friends I’ve lived with, who drove me crazy.
As you set about finding a compatible roommate, remember that their behavior will determine whether you get your security deposit back. It will also impact your sanity and happiness over the next year of your life. Choose wisely, and invest the time to get it right.
What questions do you ask potential roommates? What are the most important traits for you in a roommate?