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Survival Guide to Roomatehood: Keeping the Peace

By Claudia G. Martinez

Movies like Animal House are based on the parties and the good times of college life. But there are also less glorious aspects of being a student, like ending up with a sweater thief or a sexaholic for a roommate. Unfortunately, picking is not an option for everyone-especially if you're coming from faraway and don't know anybody yet. So to avoid a mess-no matter who your roommate is--follow our guide to roommatehood.


The most important thing is to communicate openly. This doesn't mean share everything, but it does require that you at least talk actively. Listen as well. Doing both will help you understand and appreciate each other. This, in turn, will help minimize or avoid problems later.

Responsibilities and rules

Remember that there are legal, financial, and personal implications affecting members living together. The following are common areas of conflict. Discuss them with each other. Amend them if you need to.

Bills and rent (Off-Campus): First, decide how the rent will be paid, how this money will be collected, and what the repercussions are for lateness. Also decide who pays how much on deposits for the telephone and other utilities, whose name they will be listed under, and who will be responsible for collecting and paying the bills. Finally, before you even sign the lease, remember: Most leases bind roommates to Joint and Several Liability. Under this clause, if one roommate moves out, the others must pay that share of the rent and assume responsibility for damages. If your agreement is different, write it down. It is your insurance that everyone understands and accepts the living situation. Otherwise you might end up like some roommates who have filed suits in Small Claims Court against each other over 27 dollar water bills.

Food (Off-Campus): Decide if you will buy groceries collectively or individually, if you will eat meals together or separately. If you decide on a collective setup, divide the cooking and other duties beforehand. Budget food and other items together as well. If food is purchased and owned separately, decide on storage areas in the refrigerator and cabinets, and a means of identifying who bought what.

Living with the opposite sex: Many schools allow male and female students to share bathrooms, suites, and even individual rooms. And, off campus you can live any way you like. However, there are two major drawbacks to co-ed living. Primarily, it forces everyone to be sensitive to hygiene and cleanliness issues. Even leaving the toilet seat up can spark a war. Secondly, some students choose to live with a significant other and end up breaking-up. To avoid the first, use signs to remind others to remove hair from the drain, or pick up their pantyhose from the shower-- although it's really just common sense. Signals-- like a door handle decoration-also work to request privacy. As for living with a significant other, if an argument erupts deal with it. It's probably best to confront the situation and work out a truce, unless you'd prefer coming home to a nightmare the whole year or having the residential life department ship one of you out.

General cleaning: This is a huge issue. So before you even settle in, outline standards of cleanliness and cleaning responsibilities. It is wise to make up a weekly schedule. Rotate it or designate specific tasks like taking out the garbage, watering the plants, washing the dishes, etc.,.

Living with sex: You return to your dorm room and find your roommate in a position you'd rather not. A good source of advice on how to deal with this is an upperclassman. They can help you, minus the political correctness of the school administration. You can also simply avoid this situation by working out a system at the beginning of the year. There are plenty of ways of letting a roommate know to stay out - and there's no need to be obvious. It can be as basic as a symbol on the dry-erase board, but not so simple that you'll forget. And, if you're the one getting lucky in your room, there's another solution: Be creative and considerate by finding somewhere else to do your business.

Visitors and guests: Unless you want to end up living with more people than you bargained for, work out an overnight guest policy with your roommate. Decide the number of guests allowed, length of permissible stay, sleeping arrangements, and house rules regarding guests' food, drink, and who will clean up afterwards. Also discuss the difference between guests and boyfriends/girlfriends staying the night.

Sharing: It's not pleasant when you walk into Econ, and discover that your favorite sweater has found a new owner. So, talk to your roommate about sharing and borrowing personal items such as clothes, music, etc.,. You also need to decide if items such as stereos, TVs, and kitchen appliances are off limits or okay for mutual use.

Do not disturb: Some of us are really private individuals. Talk about how your needs for privacy may be different from your roommate's needs. Another issue is noise. Discuss what's too loud. If you have to, set up a period of quiet hours to study or sleep.

Other stuff like pets and messages: If you want a pet, figure out if they are allowed by the lease and by your roommate. If they are, assign responsibility for them and draw out off-limits areas. Discussing smoking and drinking is also important. Some people are okay with it and others are not. Figure out if it's off limits, or if it needs to be confined to private areas. As for security, decide when the doors should be locked, where the extra key should be, and whether anyone else should have access. Finally, there's the ever-important issue of message taking. Discuss how you are to respond to a roommate's calls. Pick a place to keep the messages.

Conflict resolution

Your roommates aren't talking to you. They leave the room whenever you enter, complain to their friends about you, or get angry with you over little things. You have obviously had a break down of communication. The best thing to do is take the first step in confronting your roommate to try to understand what is wrong. It may be something simple that can be easily cleared up, or everyone may have to work on the issue together. After all, the key to successful conflict management is communication. Helpful conflict resolution steps:

  • Get everyone together at one time.
  • Have each roommate describe his/her perception of the situation, share how they feel about it, and what they want.
  • If you cannot agree among yourselves, be fair. Bring in a third party to mediate if necessary.
  • Have everyone at least agree to compromise and help develop a solution.
  • Talk about what changes are needed to resolve the problem.
  • Make a plan of action and set a time frame for these changes.
  • Have everyone commit to the plan and implementing any personal changes.
  • Set a future date to evaluate the situation and renegotiate if necessary.
  • Calling it quits

    These tips can help you avoid a mess if you just keep communication, flexibility and accountability in mind. But remember, even the closest friends may find that they can't live together. Roommates who have made an honest but unsuccessful effort may need to realize that they simply can't live together. In that case, it's better to part than to continue in an uncomfortable situation that interferes with schoolwork and makes everyone unhappy.

    Source: Colorado State University.

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