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May 01

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How to avoid being a bad roommate

By Jason Alderman

For many people, having roommates is a natural transition between leaving their parent’s house and buying their own home. It can be a great way to trim expenses and save for the future. But if you’re not careful, cohabitating can also devolve into constant bickering over finances and dirty dishes.

Roommate tensions are not limited to strangers. When cash-strapped young adults return to the nest, or older parents move in with grown kids for financial or caregiver assistance, long-suppressed family grievances can erupt if you’re not careful.

The key to living amicably with others is open communication. All parties must feel free to ask candid questions about their roommate’s financial situation and living preferences. Schedule regular meetings to discuss household issues and air any complaints or perceived inequities before they magnify and sour the relationship.

Try to agree on living arrangement details before moving in together. If you’re moving into an established household, make sure you understand and agree with how financial obligations and tasks will be divided. A few considerations:

  • Whoever signs the lease is responsible for paying rent and meeting other legal obligations, so you may want to have all roommates sign the lease if possible.
  • You may need the landlord’s permission for a new roommate to move in. The landlord may want to run a credit check and may even ask that a new lease be signed.
  • If one bedroom is more spacious or has a private bath, a 50/50 split may not seem fair. The same goes if assigned parking or other amenities aren’t equitable. Calculate rent amounts together so no one feels slighted later on.
  • Find out which utilities are paid by the landlord and which you’ll split. Consider usage levels: Say one roommate works from home and runs the heat all day, or another never watches TV or uses the Internet.
  • Some people are territorial about their food, especially when budgets are tight. Decide whether you’ll go in together on groceries, cleaning supplies and other household items or each buy your own, and set rules for replacing used items.
  • Many landlords (and utilities) will only accept a single check, so it’s up to everyone to settle up and pay each monthly bill on time. Spread the risk by putting each utility in a different person’s name.
  • Each roommate should carry their own renters insurance; otherwise your possessions and liability aren’t covered in case of theft or accident.
  • If your place needs common area furniture or appliances, it may be simpler to buy pieces individually – and keep the receipts – so when you move there’s no question of ownership.
  • Inevitably, your possessions will get mixed in together. To make it easier when your household eventually disbands, make an inventory of who owns what.

You may want to draft a roommate agreement that establishes household rules and duties. In addition to the billing and cost-sharing information outlined above, also include details such as:

  • Rules for recovering your share of the security deposit.
  • Rules governing pets, houseguests, parties, noise, smoking, alcohol and other potential disagreements.
  • Housecleaning schedule and responsibilities.
  • Agreement about how to handle damages caused by roommates or their guests.
  • Move-out procedures, including how much notice is required and who is responsible for finding the new tenant.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. To participate in a free, online Financial Literacy and Education Summit on April 23, 2012, go to www.practicalmoneyskills.com/summit2012.

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