How do you pick a good roommate?

Choosing a good rommate can mak or break your year.

The following is an excerpt from a longer work on college life, and I would love to get your comments or feedback

The quality of your roommates is the most important consideration by far for choosing a place to live. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how I didn’t think to consider that in looking for a place to live. When I was looking for a place in the dormitories for my second year of college, I made sure I was next door to some friends and that we had a good view. Later, we found out that the other people on that floor were filthy, loud, lazy and belligerent. But the view was nice.

In shared housing, all that matters is the quality of the people

The quality of people on the floor should have been our top priority when we were touring the dorms. We could have passively observed during the semester which floors were quiet and clean. It would have been easy to talk to the Resident Advisors about how rowdy their floors were. We just did not think about it. We assumed it was pretty much random and homogeneous. We were very wrong.

Roommates are like dictators: good ones are great but bad ones are horrific.

Living alone may or may not be an option financially. But consider this first: living alone may be better than a bad roommate, but it is not as good as a good roommate. At one point I was living in a house with six other people. Out of those six, one was a contemptible, rude, thieving, self-righteous and entitled little folk singer. The rest were really nice people.

When the fiddle-playing, meatless embezzler left, the whole atmosphere changed. The kitchen was suddenly clean. The living room was filled with laughing voices. We hosted dinner parties and stayed up late sipping cheap wine. It was a great time. Even though I was less focused and it probably extended my time in grad school by a few months, having a great group of friends to come home to helped me learn that being social is a big part of a life well lived.

The difference is what a bad roommate can do: turn an enriching, life changing experience into a stressful, embittering battle. That is why picking good roommates is the most important part of picking a place to live. Living in a run-down, half finished cabin with good roommates is a lot more fun than living in a plush condo with whiny, lazy or irresponsible miscreants.

Some considerations to help pick good roommates:

Whether or not you know your prospective roommates well, consider these carefully. If you are just meeting them, observe or ask about these points well before you sign the lease.

Cleanliness – is their level of cleanliness compatible with yours?

Think of it on a scale of 1 to 10. If you’re a 5, you do not want to live with anybody who is a 3 or below. If you do, they will never clean up after themselves. Why? You will be overwhelmed by filth and clean up before they even notice it needs cleaning. It is not even that they are being lazy. It is just that people have different standard for what counts as dirty.

It is harder to tell if your prospective roommates are cleaner than you. If you are a 5 on the clean scale, everything from 6 to 10 just looks “clean.” Look at the dust on your shelves and the crud in the corners of your kitchen floor. How does that compare to theirs? Is theirs cleaner? Even though it may look exactly the same to you, there is a lot of difference in terms effort to keep a cleanliness level 7 vs. level 9. If you are a 5, and your roommate is a 7, you will either be regarded as very lazy or you will need to force yourself to clean whenever your roommate does, even though it looks fine to you. Be honest with yourself: can you do that?

Noise level – is your noise level compatible with theirs?

If you are a noisy person, do you mind headphones? Do your prospective roommates mind headphones? If you visit, is there a lot of noise? It’s all relative. They probably do not consider themselves noisy (nobody does). Ask if they have ever had noise complaints. Test to see if loud music is audible through the walls.

Habits (drugs, tobacco, alcohol) – can you tolerate theirs and can they handle yours?

A frank discussion of smoking (tobacco or otherwise) is really smart. I had a roommate who had to endure a very thorough search of his person and baggage at a border crossing because a drug sniffing dog caught a whiff of something. What did the dog smell? I suppose there is no way to be sure, but my roommate was sharing a closet with an occasional pot-smoker. So that seems like the likely culprit – his luggage had residual smell from being near a stash. The whole thing worked out, no jail was involved, but it was still stressful. Think carefully about what you can handle living with. It need not be a harsh moral judgment to opt out of living with someone who smokes.