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Tips on Surviving an Awful Roommate

No matter how well you screen potential roommates, you may get stuck with someone who's a bad fit. People can mislead you when you're looking for a compatible roommate, or they can simply change their minds about things that are important to you.

It happened to me my freshman year in college, when I wound up with a roommate who was a heavy smoker. She had planned to quit smoking and figured it would be tough to do if she lived with someone else who smoked. So when she filled out the dorm application, she checked the box that said "non-smoker."  

That non-smoker was me. The problem was, she never got around to quitting.

Susan Fee, a counselor and the author of "My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy," says this is a common thing.  "I can't tell you how many roommates I've heard about who don't have pets but they have big heart and they take in a stray cat," she says.

Another problem, according to Fee, is that potential roommates don't always anticipate the kinds of things that will bother them. "People borrow clothes or makeup and that ends up being a big deal," she says.

Another potential pitfall to screening potential roommates, at least in college, is that their parents may have filled out the application for them, or stood over their shoulders, while they were filling it out.  Who would want to admit to their parents how much they really drink or that they take illegal substances?

So what can you do if your roommate is driving you crazy?

Fortunately, if you have made some kind of an effort to screen potentially bad roommates, any issues you have are likely to be minor. And if you discuss them with your roommate early, rather than let them fester, nearly all of them can be worked out, Fee says.

When you have that conversation, focus on the issue -- don't make the person the issue. Rather than saying, ''You're a slob and you don't respect me,' say, 'I'd like to talk about how we keep the apartment,' she advises. And be prepared to compromise.

In my case, my roommate's smoking didn't really bother me that much -- I'm not particularly sensitive to smoke and she really made an effort to light up outside. But my roommate thought it bothered me, and she was sure I was seething with resentment, so she started avoiding me, which was uncomfortable.  I didn't find out why for some time, and I had to hear it from another classmate. In retrospect, we should have aired our differences much sooner.

If you've had the conversation and it became overly confrontational or you were outright ignored, be careful about making threats to move out. Do you have another place to go to? Will leaving cost you money? Will it hurt your credit rating?

But if you start to notice things are being stolen or damaged or if you are abused or the roommate is engaging in some kind of illegal activity; you have to end the relationship.

And remember, if you had three or four bad roommate relationships, that's called a pattern. "There's something about you that's creating it," Fee says. Either you're not asking enough good questions up front -- or are holding back something about yourself.

Your Next Move:

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.

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