THE BLOG
06/26/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Roommate Roulette: Tips for Moving In With a Stranger

Whether it's out of financial necessity or the desire to have a new experience, people at any stage of life may find themselves moving in with a stranger. Who is this roommate, this person you've chosen to share your space and your life? Hopefully, you won't wake up in the middle of the night to find him staring down at you with a pair of scissors poised over your head.

This is just one of the crazy roommate tales I've heard recently. The person who shared this story wished to remain anonymous, even 20 years later, for the safety of himself and his family. The first red flag showed up when he walked in to find his roommate teaching a math course to an empty dorm room.

"My roommate was an education major, but it was only the first semester of our first year," he related. "I said 'Hello,' and he told me never to interrupt him when he was teaching. Shortly after that, I overheard him plotting ways to kill the college president. I made it through the year living with him, because I was afraid if I tried to change rooms he would go after me. But I slept with my back to the wall after that."

Tree Frogs and Flying Telephones
I'm not saying all college roommates are potentially delusional psychopaths. Yours might have an innocent quirk. Danielle Myers, an accountant near Albany, N.Y., says, "My first college roommate had a ridiculous obsession with tree frogs and had pictures of them plastered all over her side of the room."

Myers's second roommate threw the telephone in fits of rage; such is college life. If it gets bad enough, talk to your resident advisor about switching rooms, or request a different roommate the next year. As you get into the real world, though, it may be harder to get out of a lease to ditch freaky roomies.

Getting Along
Fortunately, most infractions short of attempted homicide can be worked out if both parties are willing. When you first move in with someone, advises My Move's resident relocation coach Allegra Stein, "Figure out a general set of shared values."

A friendly discussion can lead to a set of guidelines for both parties to follow. Stein recommends the following questions as a starting point:

  • Are we cool with a 50/50 split of fridge and pantry space?
  • Can we agree not to play music loudly after 9 p.m.?
  • Are you an early bird or night owl?
  • Do you like to leave your stuff out, or put it away right away?

"Any time you live with someone there is a balance between making sure your expectations are clear and accepting that we are all individuals," says Stein. "It's wise to agree to some shared expectations, but at the end of the day, you get to choose how you want to react to other people's behaviors. It's no one else's job to make sure you're happy."

An Ever-Changing Cast of Characters
Sometimes, you just have to accept a roommate's odd behavior until the lease is up. P.J. Gach, Editor of Spa Week Daily and social media coordinator for SpaWeek.com, has been through 13 years' worth of roommates, good and bad, in her Manhattan apartment.

The strangest? A roommate she never saw. "In the mornings, she would run out the door, scurrying like a mouse, like she was afraid I was going to see her," she says. This invisible roommate kept living room furniture, along with a bed and dresser, in her bedroom, even though she never had people over.

Gach says she had signed a two-year lease with the woman, whom she had known from work and who seemed completely normal at the office. "I don't think I spoke to her more than once the entire two years we shared the apartment. I'd be watching a movie in the living room with my friends, and we never knew if my roommate was home or not."

Stolen Identity
In retrospect, the disappearing roommate was better than the roommate who took a page out of the script of "Single White Female" to try to steal Gach's identity. "She started wearing her hair like mine, stole my business cards and was running around New York trying to get free meals and drinks at restaurants and bars. I don't know why she thought she would get free stuff that way. I don't do that!"

When this roommate moved out, Gach discovered she had been using Gach's closet as her own personal store, even though she was at least three sizes bigger than Gach. Add the expensive habit of leaving the air conditioner on when she wasn't home, and it's enough to make anyone quit the roommate game for good.

How to Choose a Roommate
With a pattern over the years of "one good roommate, one bad," Gach says she's learned how to spot the red flags when choosing someone to move in with. Comparing the process to dating or hiring employees, she says, "Everyone interviews beautifully and everyone has the right answers. You don't know what a roommate is really like until you are living with him or her."

Knowing the right questions to ask prospective roommates can help. Here are some I suggest asking:

  • Are they employed?
  • How long have they been at their current job?
  • How long do they plan to stay?
  • Do they have friends in the area?
  • What do they like to do to socialize?
  • Why are they leaving their current living arrangement?

Gach cautions, "If you start hearing how horrible someone's last roommate was, take it with a grain of salt. It's like dealing with someone who broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The other person is always wrong."

Two Most Important Tools for Choosing a Roommate
There are two "almost-never-fail" resources to use when choosing a roommate: social media and your gut instincts. Gach says, "You definitely want to get references, but also look at what people are posting on Facebook and read their Twitter stream."

While social media offers valuable insight, don't rely on the internet to find out the whole truth. Face-to-face meetings are critical. "People might say we live in the internet age, but if someone doesn't want to talk on the phone, don't show her the apartment. And if you ever get a weird feeling in your gut, even when you're showing the apartment, just get her out quickly."

"When you have a roommate, that person shares your home," says Gach. "You should never put yourself in a position where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in your own home."

Have you ever moved in with a stranger?

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