Roommates aren’t just for college students. As rents soar, more adults are combining 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 1 in 5 adults in 2005.
But living with a roommate isn’t always how “Friends” made it out to be. You can lower your rent payments and save money on utility bills, but you can also find yourself living with someone who isn’t a good match.
Before signing a long-term lease contract with a roommate — even a friend or co-worker you think you know well — ask your prospective roommate plenty of financial questions, and be prepared to share your answers openly. Some questions during a roommate interview may feel personal, but living with another adult is personal, and you need to know the answers before committing to live together.
Financial and Work Questions
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.
Most lease agreements include a “joint and several liability” clause. That means each roommate is individually responsible for the entire rent, not just their portion or share of it. If you move in with a deadbeat who doesn’t pay, the property owner can pursue each of you separately until they get their money.
You and your roommate need to establish financial trust, and fast. Now isn’t the time to protect your pride or respect others’ boundaries. Get ready to open up as you ask each other these crucial questions.
1. What Are Your Occupation, Work History, and Plans?
A person’s occupation tells you something about their life choices and personality. Even more important, you can 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. Ask how long they’ve worked at their current job and what they did before it. If they just started a new career, consider it a risk factor.
Likewise, if they work for themselves, that poses an added layer of risk as well. Get more details about how long they’ve been self-employed, how much their income varies from month to month, and what kind of capital reserves they keep.
Whether they’re employed full time or freelancing, what they do today may not be what they’ll be doing next month. So 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 poses a risk to their income as well.
2. What’s Your Net Monthly Income? Does It Ever Vary?
It’s a personal question, but it’s necessary 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. Ask about the stability, not just the amount, of their income, as it can be tricky to budget on an irregular income.
3. What Are Your Typical 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 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.
It also impacted my social life. I could invite friends over for dinner but not during the day for, say, football games.
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.
Your housemate’s work schedule affects you, so ensure you can live with that impact. It’s not a deal-breaker for a morning bird and night owl to live together as long as they can avoid stepping on each other’s toes or compromising the other’s ability to earn a living.
4. 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 during the workday, or any number of 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.
5. Do You Have Enough Cash Right Now to Cover First and Last Months’ Rent Plus a Security Deposit?
When you rent a house or apartment, you usually have to pay a security deposit and the first and last months’ rent upfront. If your prospective housemate doesn’t have enough cash to sign the lease, it’s a giant red flag. Financial stability doesn’t end at income. It doesn’t matter how much you earn if you spend every penny each month.
As a property owner, 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 don’t.
They may be a perfectly nice person, but if they don’t have the cash needed, they can’t move into a property with you. And you certainly don’t want to start your lease by lending them money — consider it a giant red flag.
6. Do You Have Emergency Savings? How Many Months of Expenses?
Everyone needs monthly operating money plus cash set aside as an emergency fund because you never know when disaster will strike or how.
You don’t want to sign a legal contract alongside someone who doesn’t have the same level of financial stability you do. One hiccup and they won’t be able to afford the rent, which puts you in the awful position of either failing to pay rent or lending them money.
Ideally, look for housemates who maintain a deep emergency fund that can cover their living expenses for at least a couple of months and build a similar fund for yourself if you don’t already have one. You want that level of financial security when you sign a legal contract with a housemate.
7. What’s Your Credit Score?
Most property owners run credit reports on all prospective tenants before signing a lease. 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 property owners don’t want to rent to you. If your potential roomie doesn’t know their score or you don’t know yours, you can check your credit score for free with services like Credit Karma.
If you find you’re 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. It factors in payment history from things like your phone and utility bills.
Excellent credit on the part of all housemates helps you negotiate a lower rent or security deposit or beat out other applicants for a competitive apartment. Don’t underestimate it, and don’t pay the price for a roommate’s bad credit.
8. How Long Do You Plan to Stay?
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 of what your roommate plans in the future because you don’t want to find yourself looking for a new roommate halfway through the lease. Remember 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 move out and stop paying.
9. What Are You Willing to Pay for the Best Room?
Bedrooms aren’t all created equal — quite the opposite, as most homes and apartments are designed with a master bedroom.
That means you shouldn’t necessarily split the rent equally.
The last time I moved into a house with roommates, we bid for the best bedroom. When the high bid became clear, the two remaining roommates bid over the second-best room. The housemate with the best bedroom paid around $400 more each month than the housemate with the smallest room.
That’s the beauty of capitalism. Bid for bedrooms to ensure each roommate pays “market value” for the best real estate in your living situation. More living space should equal a higher share of the rent.
10. How Do You Foresee Splitting the Utility Bills?
A 50-50 split isn’t always fair for utilities, either. One person could want a cable subscription while the other doesn’t. Or maybe one roommate wants to crank the heat in the winter while the other is just as happy to put on a sweater.
It may seem strange to ask a potential roomie about their preferred thermostat settings. But it’s better to have these conversations now rather than in February when you get a utility bill double the price you were expecting because your roommate keeps the house at a balmy 75 while the snow falls outside.
Don’t assume that you will or should split every cost equally. Leave room for negotiation and be prepared to push for what you think is fair.
11. How Do You Foresee Splitting the Cost of Household Products?
You don’t need two bottles of bleach cluttering your storage space. Nor do you need two vacuum cleaners, brooms, or bathroom tile cleaners.
But if your housemate compulsively runs a tiny load of laundry every single day, wasting water and detergent, you may not want to share the cost of detergent with them.
Talk through which products you’ll buy together and split evenly, including goods like paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and even potentially maid service, and which you’d rather buy and maintain separately. There aren’t necessarily clear-cut roommate money rules regarding household products, but you should both agree in advance and stick to the plan.
12. What Furniture and Decorations Do You Plan to Bring?
If you each have two couches, don’t expect to fit four couches in one living room.
Similarly, you each probably have some artwork and decorations. You might feel quite strongly about some pieces, but it’s possible they clash with your prospective roommate’s sense of style.
It seems silly, but you need to know what you each plan to bring into the common areas. And you both need to sign off on it with no lingering bitterness about how it looks.
13. What Furniture Do You Want to Buy?
The opposite problem also arises. You might not have any couches or other living area furniture between the two of you.
In that case, come up with a list of what you need, and then decide who’s going to buy what. When you move out, you’ll each take your own furniture and decor with you.
But don’t share furniture. You can’t exactly saw it in half when one of you suddenly needs to move out of state for a new job.
14. Have You Ever Paid Rent Late Before?
Some people are fundamentally responsible with money. They take pride in it and would be absolutely mortified to make a payment late. That’s the kind of person you want as a housemate.
Ask them point-blank if they’ve ever made a late rent payment before. If they say no, pay attention to exactly how they answer. Honest people will probably answer directly. Watch out for vague or casual answers like, “Yeah, sure, of course,” and ask for a definitive, truthful answer before moving on.
If they say yes, probe deeper. Was it one time, or has it happened more than once? What caused it? Keep asking until you get a sense of how fundamentally responsible they are about paying their bills on time.
15. How Do You Foresee Making Rent Payments?
You never want to find yourself in the position of paying the rent on behalf of your roommate.
Talk through the mechanics of transferring rent money to the property owner each month. Do you plan to mail a check? Pay electronically? A combined payment or separate payments? If the latter, how will each of you know the other paid?
Whatever you come up with, don’t volunteer to collect money from the other housemate and submit the entire rent on their behalf. That forces you to play the role of bill collector and potentially having to harass and nag your housemate for rent each month. It also leaves you to collect the debt if their check to you bounces.
16. Can I Contact Your Current Apartment’s Owner for a Reference?
As they say, trust but verify.
Ask for the name and phone number of the owner of their current and past rentals. Their current apartment complex might say anything to get them out, but people who are rid of them will tell you the truth.
17. Do You Have Any Pets? Are You Interested in Getting Any?
Pets come with costs and headaches for everyone sharing a household with them.
Even if you don’t have allergies, that could include a higher security deposit, a one-time nonrefundable pet fee, or ongoing monthly pet rent. It could also mean money withheld from the security deposit upon move-out to cover pet damage like scratched floors, scuffed walls, duct cleaning, and carpet deep-clean.
Plus, pets require work that housemates often ask for help with, such as walking or feeding a pet when they’re working late.
Pets could also ruin your furniture with all the fur, dander, odor, and potential stains and messes.
But pets also affect where you can apply, as many property managers and owners don’t allow them.
None of that means you shouldn’t have a pet or live with someone who owns one. But your housemate’s pets affect you in extremely tangible ways.
Agree in advance on any pets that may enter the household, now and forever. Just because your prospective roommate doesn’t own a pet today doesn’t mean they’re not itching to adopt from an animal shelter. Talk it through now because people tend to get emotional quickly when talking about pets.
Personality and Lifestyle Questions
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 additional questions to ensure your personalities and lifestyles are compatible.
- What are your pet peeves with current or past roommates?
- How close are you to your old roommates?
- What are your cleaning habits? What type of cleaning do you not mind, and what tasks do you hate doing?
- What do you do on the weekends for fun? Do you require a certain amount of alone time?
- How often do you like to host friends at the house? What about out-of-town guests who stay over?
- What’s your dating life like? Does your significant other ever spend the night? What about other overnight guests? How many nights each week on average?
- How often do you drink? How often is that at home versus somewhere else?
- Do you smoke? Tobacco, marijuana, or both? How often?
- What time do you go to bed normally, and when do you wake up?
- How often do you cook? How quickly do you typically clean up after cooking?
You need to get to know someone quickly and deeply before agreeing to sign a lease with them. Don’t hold back.
Two perfectly nice, reasonable people can make terrible roommates. Rather than looking for perfection, look for compatibility. The bartender roommate I mentioned 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.
By the same token, some of the strangers I’ve moved in with grew to become some of my best friends. Regardless, you need a foundation of trust, transparency, and openness for your roommate relationship to work.
Consider drafting a simple roommate agreement that lays out each person’s responsibilities. It should include both financial obligations and tasks like housework in addition to any other house rules. If one housemate fails to do what they promised, you have it in crystal-clear writing to reference.
As you set about finding a compatible roommate, remember 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.