By Allison Bisbey Colter
Special to Relocation.com
Have you ever had roommates who helped themselves to your food, clothes or car? Who refused to clean up after themselves? Ever moved in with someone only to find out you were also moving in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend?
Sometimes there's no avoiding sharing a dorm room or an apartment. If you need someone to split the bills, and you don't want to end up with the roommate from hell, you need to ask some tough questions up front.
Just ask anyone who's had a bad experience.
It's not enough to ask, "Do you have a microwave? Great, I have a couch," says Susan Fee, a counselor and the author of "My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy."
Fee says the most important things you need to know about potential roommates concern lifestyles. Are they early risers? If so, exactly what time would that be? If you're going to be sharing a bathroom, you'll need to know when the other person will be using it.
Things like smoking and pets are obvious concerns, but it may be less obvious how your roommate wants to share the expenses, beyond the rent. For example, if you're splitting the grocery bill, does that mean your roommates can help themselves to whatever's in the fridge, or do you expect them to buy certain things each week?
If someone is a vegetarian, they obviously shouldn't be expected to subsidize your hamburger meat. But would they be offended even if you cook meat in the house?
If your prospective roommate is dating, do they plan on having sleepovers, or is this person going to be hanging out in the apartment all of the time? "One of the biggest complaints I get is about intimate relationships -- sex in the room," Fee says. "You can imagine how uncomfortable that can be in a dorm room, but (it can be in) an apartment as well."
Less intimate relationships can be a problem as well, Fee says. "Sometimes you get a roommate and end up with five people who are there all the time."
She recommends broaching the topic casually; ask, "How do you like to socialize?"
Women, in particular, may see their roommates as a kind of social crutch. They think, "If you're going to be my roommate you're going to hang out with me."
Men, on the other hand, need to define what "clean" means to them. "Usually there's one guy who's cleaner than the other," Fee says. "So you need to ask, 'do you do the dishes within two weeks, when they're overflowing onto the counter, or what.' "
Because you can't anticipate every potential problem up front, it's also important to talk to prospective roommates about how they would prefer to resolve conflicts.
* Don't assume your best friend is going to make a good roommate; you need to ask this person the same questions you would any other prospective roomy. And remember: If you have a falling out with your best friend over the dishes or the rent, you won't have anyone to turn to -- and you might lose a friend as well as a roommate.
* The most common way to find a roommate is online; there are lots of websites dedicated to this kind of matchmaking. But Fee says it's a good idea to meet a prospective roommate in person, or at least speak with him or her on the phone before sealing the deal. It's too easy for candidates to put their best foot forward online. It's harder to do that face to face.
* As with dating, one of the safest things to do is go out for lunch so you won't feel too committed. Don't meet at a bar where you won't be able to hear each other. Fee says gut reactions are important. For example, "If I'm asking questions about you and you don't ask any about me, it may not be a 50-50 relationship."
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Allison Bisbey Colter is a freelance writer in New Jersey whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and American Banker. She is a former editor at TheStreet.com and a former reporter for Dow Jones Newswires.