Strangers With Vacancy

Moving in with someone you don’t know can have unexpected upsides

November 2, 2012

Sharon Rosenblatt started off as a stranger to her former roommates, Brock Cline, left, and Alex Orr, right, but they became friends and are still in touch.

Sharon Rosenblatt wanted a fresh start. So when she graduated from the University of Maryland in 2010, she opted not to live with a fellow classmate. Instead, she searched places like Craigslist for a sublet in a rental house.

She found one very close to her paid internship in Silver Spring ­— in a house inhabited by two men in their mid-30s. Not exactly the roommates you’d expect for a young woman fresh out of college.

“It was a bit unconventional,” says Rosenblatt, who works in IT support services. “But I went with my gut, despite protests from my friends that it was weird for a 22-year-old woman to move into a frat house.”

For Rosenblatt, becoming roommates with two people who started off as strangers was a way to break free from college and begin forging her own path. Plenty of renters end up living with people they don’t know out of simple financial necessity, as living on your own in this area comes with a high price tag.

It’s especially common for those who are new to the city to find themselves in this living arrangement.

While finding a good home —with a good roommate — is a challenge, there are ways to ensure you’ll be getting into a good situation.

Sites such as Craigslist.org, Roommates.com and Roomster.com can help connect you with a potential living partner. But before you start searching, you should determine what you can live with and what you can’t. That means taking into account your preferences about such things as noise, cleanliness and guests. Can you handle dirty dishes in the sink or a boyfriend who’s a fixture on the living-room couch?

When you find someone who seems like a good match, don’t rush into things. Start off with a phone call to get a feel for the other person and what they’re looking for in a roommate. If you’re not liking what you’re hearing, you can wrap things up without wasting a lot of time.

If the partnership has potential, move on to a face-to-face meeting where you have an honest conversation about the realities of living together.

“Don’t hide the fact that you’ve got a significant other who spends three nights a week with you,” says Annamarie Pluhar, author of “Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates” (Bauhan Publishing, $16.50) and its companion blog. “This is not a good way to start a relationship.”

Ask a lot of questions, and watch the way the other person responds. If you’re considering a room in a rental house, check to see if the common areas truly feel like shared spaces, and observe how the current roommates interact with each other.

It also doesn’t hurt to do a little research on this unknown person or people you’ll be letting into your life. Ask for references, or do some Internet research. Rosenblatt made sure her potential roommates had stable employment and they weren’t hiding any disturbing secrets. “I Googled them,” she says.

Don’t ignore any nagging doubts you might have.

“People usually have regrets when they don’t follow their instincts,” says Toni Coleman, a McLean-based psychotherapist (703-847-1768, Consum-mate.com) who has helped clients through changes in living situations. “You just get vibes from people, and you need to pay attention to those. It doesn’t mean that the person is a serial killer; they just might not be the right person for you.”

Sharing an apartment with a stranger comes with upsides. If they’ve discussed things such as housework and guest policies ahead of time, strangers-turned-roommates often find it easier to deal with conflicts than two friends, who might assume they’ll share the same views on vacuuming frequency or musical preferences. “It’s easier to bring up an issue,” Pluhar says.

No matter how careful you are, there’s always the chance that a stranger could turn out to be the roommate from hell. But for every horror story, there’s a situation where a new roommate turns into a true friend.

Rosenblatt got along so well with her new roommates, Clyde Gillam and Alex Orr, that the three renewed their lease for another year. When Gillam decided to move back home, Rosenblatt and Orr found another guy, Brock Cline, who fit right in.

“Even though we’ve all gone our separate ways,” says Rosenblatt, who now lives with a college buddy in Silver Spring, “I still talk to them on a weekly basis.”

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Jennifer Barger · November 2, 2012