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Living with roommates, like any relationship, needs to be handled with care and respect. For those who are transitioning from life in a traditional dorm to a suite or apartment, there are added responsibilities and issues to address. Whether you room with good friends or total strangers, it’s best to learn how to make decisions together and prevent disagreements from arising.

To Start Things Off

“[Roommates] have to make sure they’re honest with each other and aren’t afraid to talk about their responsibilities and living styles,” says Lindsey R.*, a junior at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Start by discussing your needs and set boundaries early in the relationship.

Get to know your roommates, even if you’re already friends with them, suggests Rose Del Vecchio, a residential assistant at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “Just because you might work in other settings doesn’t mean you’ll work living together.”

Consider holding a meeting before or right after everyone moves in. Speaking face-to-face will facilitate the discussion. At the end, draft a written contract of everything agreed upon in the meeting and make sure all roommates sign it. You can always  revisit the contract; sometimes things come up after you’ve been living together for a while.

Shared Responsibilities

Bills: Decide as a group how you’ll split payments each month and appoint someone to write the checks, but don’t establish all services in one person’s name. Set clear deadlines for everyone’s financial contributions.

Furniture: Decide who will bring shared furniture or kitchen supplies. Before making any large purchases, consult your roommates.

Groceries: If you agree to share food, discuss how often the shopping will be done and how to split the grocery bill.

If you’ll buy your own food, determine how you’ll keep track of whose stuff is whose in the refrigerator and cabinets. You may want to come up with a labeling system and also a way to tell roommates if something can be shared or not. Also set out plans if an item is borrowed.

Expenses: Keep a written record of money owed to each roommate in a common area visible to everyone, such as the refrigerator door. For your own peace of mind, you may want to keep copies of receipts.

Shared expenses to consider

Every living situation is slightly different, but here is a list of commonly shared expenses:
  • Rent and security deposit
  • Gas
  • Water
  • Electric
  • Phone
  • Cable
  • Internet
  • Groceries
You can also check with your school’s housing office to see if there are any charges specific to your town or neighborhood, such as trash collection fees.

Chores: Come up with a system for dividing cleaning responsibilities and other household chores. Many roommates use a chore chart or “chore wheel” so that what needs to be done rotates; no one wants to be stuck cleaning the bathroom every week.

This is a strategy Mike G.*, a senior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, employs. “Everyone knows what needs to be done and we don’t have to bug each other [about chores] too often,” he says.

Successful Sharing

Susan Fee, a counselor and the author of My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy!, explains that it helps to clearly define exactly what and how items and space will be shared. Explicitly define your conditions or give examples. She says, “You want to talk about the specifics.” This way, you and your roommates can come to a mutual understanding and avoid confusion over set terms.

A major area of concern for most roommates is how common areas will be used and at what times. For example:

  • If you’re sharing a bathroom or kitchen, compare schedules to make sure they won’t clash.
  • If one of you wants to host a party or have guests, get permission from all roommates and determine who’ll be responsible for cleaning up afterward.
  • Decide if you’ll allow overnight guests and, if the answer is yes, where and how long they can stay. Don’t forget to agree on a policy regarding romantic partners, too.
  • How long can dirty dishes be left in the sink? How long can you leave clean dishes on a drying rack or in the dishwasher?
  • Are roommates expected to clean up after themselves, or will that be taken care of by the roommate with cleaning duty?
  • Will you have “quiet hours?” Should everyone wear headphones if watching TV or listening to music-at any time of day?

Resolving Conflict

Some misunderstandings and disagreements are unavoidable. If a conflict comes up, here are steps to take:

  • Consult your contract.
  • Talk it out. Can you find a compromise?
  • Use a mediator. If you can’t resolve the conflict yourselves, ask someone from the residential life office for help. They’re often available even if you live off campus. Your school may also have a student or staff mediation program, or find a mutual and unbiased friend.

Sample Roommate Contract

Your school may provide roommate agreement forms, or you can draft one on your own. For a sample agreement.

“We try to handle [disagreements] as soon as possible,” says Lee F.*, a sophomore at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “We’ve seen friends in other suites ignore them, thinking they’ll go away, but that only worsens the problem.”

Living in shared housing comes with more responsibilities than a standard dorm room. With planning and good communication, it can be a stress-free and rewarding experience.

*Name changed for privacy.

Take Action

  • Make a contract so everyone is on the same page.
  • Split all bills appropriately between your roommates.
  • Delegate responsibilities so chores are shared.
  • Set expectations about shared items and common area usage.
  • Handle disagreements respectfully as soon as they come up.

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