Living with a roommate is a rite of passage for many people at various points of their life, whether it’s your freshman year of college or you’re living away from your family.
Learning how to communicate with a person you are going to be sharing space with can be high stakes. It only takes reading through roommate horror stories of unclean dishes and stolen baked goods to learn how quickly assumptions and presumptions can turn your own home or dorm into a living nightmare.
“Knowing what to expect beforehand, even if it doesn’t coincide with your own particular personality, makes it easier when you are not surprised. Roommates will always have to compromise ― so you don’t have to be exactly the same, but there should be no surprises,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.
We asked experts and people with roommates to share the one question they think is vital to ask before living with someone. Here’s what they said:
“Do you foresee any time during our lease that you will have trouble paying your share?”
“If you do not ask this question, you may subject yourself to being trapped in a lease with an individual who may abandon their responsibilities,” said Jackie Vernon-Thompson, founder of From the Inside-Out School of Etiquette. That’s why she finds this finance question “extremely important” to ask upfront.
Not being able to pay rent on time can cause you mental and financial stress later on.
Vernon-Thompson knows this firsthand from a roommate situation she had in her early 30s. At first, she thought the other roommate understood that they needed to pay their portion of the rent and utilities.
But “within no time, this person stopped paying their rent and thought nothing of it. I consistently pleaded with them to make the payments because it was a financial strain on me,” Vernon-Thompson recalled. “However, they pretended as if they were entitled to live there rent-free. This behavior lasted for the duration of the one-year lease, which was multiple months.”
“I realized if I had done my research on their financial status and asked the question seeking an honest answer, I would have been spared the stress, upset, hurt and disappointment,” she continued. “There are times when tough questions must be asked to have peace of mind. This is one of those times!”
“There are times when tough questions must be asked to have peace of mind. This is one of those times!”
– etiquette expert Jackie Vernon-Thompson
Beyond rent, it helps to know if your roommate believes in a “what’s mine is yours” approach to splitting expenses or if you are going to be needing to buy your own toilet paper and pantry foods. That’s why Gottsman recommends asking new roommates, “Will you split the cost of food, or will you both be responsible for purchasing your own?”
“There is always a money issue involved, when splitting expenses, and it’s important to know expectations beforehand to make sure it’s going to be a good fit for your personal budget,” she said.
Anything related to timing like, “How much time do you like to be in shared spaces?” or “What’s your preferred sleep schedule?”
“Timing is everything, so the most important questions have to do with a potential roommate’s schedule and sense of time to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast.
That’s why he suggested the following types of questions to suss out whether you are going to be able to peacefully coexist with your new roommate:
- Do you rise early or late?
- How much time do you like to tie up the bathroom in the morning while getting ready?
- How important is paying the rent and other bills on time to you?
- Are you likely to spend time tidying up the kitchen after cooking?
- Do you like to spend a lot of time on the common-area couch with friends day and night?
“How often do you clean and what do you clean?”
What one roommate may consider unhygienic and messy, another may consider creatively maximalist. It can save you a lot of frustration and resentment later on to talk about what you each believe must be cleaned, how regularly, and by whom upfront.
Asking about home cleaning preferences “is important because if one person is a neat freak and doesn’t like one dish in the sink and the other one is messy, the two will not be able to live together, at least not for long,” said Pattie Ehsaei, a senior vice president of mergers and acquisitions lending at a major bank who runs the TikTok account Duchess of Decorum.
Having a tidy home can be key to having your home feel like a sanctuary. “In my personal experience living with roommates for the past nine years, I like to ask questions centered around cleanliness and lifestyle habits in order to find easygoing roommates who, like myself, value a clean home ― bonus points if they’re a neat freak like myself ― and will treat our shared space as a peaceful retreat rather than a party environment,” said Los Angeles-based marketer Jasmin Ayala.
That’s why her roommate questionnaire includes two of the questions she considers most important to ask upfront: “Are you OK with abiding by our strict shoes-off house rule?” and “Are you OK with participating in a weekly chore wheel for the common areas as well as the shared bathroom?”
“If we don’t ask these, it’s possible we might end up in a toxic situation where our values don’t align and roommate tensions build,” Ayala said. “It’s better to be explicitly clear and honest about roommate expectations.“
For Ayala, green flags for these kind of answers include comments about regularly cleaning while red flags are answers that are less committed to her values like, “I’m not used to a cleaning schedule but am willing to contribute. I will honestly probably need to be reminded” and “If my friends happen to wear their shoes inside, I don’t feel comfortable telling them. I will just clean the floors the next day.”
“How often do you want to have your friends or significant others over? Are they going to sleep over?”
Having people you don’t know over too frequently can be a roommate deal breaker for many people.
Ayala said asking about visitors is one of the most important questions you can ask a potential roommate. For her, if a roomie says they plan to “often have people over for pregame before we go out,” that’s a red flag.
“Some people are social butterflies and love a house full of people, others the exact opposite,” Ehsaei said. “You have to make sure that your comfort level with [guests] are fairly similar since you will be sharing a space.“
Many of us prefer our own company for our peace of mind. As actor and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg famously said about marriage: “I’m much happier on my own…I don’t want somebody in my house.”
Ultimately, before you move in with a new roommate, you want to make the differences between your personal preferences and your absolute hard limits completely clear.
Here are additional questions the etiquette and roomie experts shared that can prompt reflection on what’s a deal breaker for you and what’s not:
- Do you think you’ll want to bring in a pet in the future? Are you allergic to pets?
- How do you decompress after a long work week?
How do you feel about borrowing each other’s clothes?
What is your modesty level? Do you mind if someone stays in their pajamas all day or walks around in a robe? Or less?
- What temperature do you like best in the home?
You may have your own kind of important question that’s not listed above. Make sure to ask it! Asking these hard questions upfront can be awkward in the moment, but it’s necessary if you want your home to actually feel like home.