Learn how to share housing in order to save on rent — and save your sanity

Michelle Singletary
Columnist June 11, 2011

Annamarie Pluhar has lived most of her adult life in shared housing.

In these difficult times, it makes sense to get financial relief by sharing your space, says Pluhar, who has 21 years of experience living with people who were strangers when she moved in with them.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Yet for lots of folks, sharing an apartment or opening up their home to a renter or multiple renters — even when they know they can’t afford their rent or mortgage on their own — is met with fear or a resolute “I don’t want anybody living with me.”

Well, you know what? Get over your issues. Tough times call for getting rid of the fear or your sense of entitlement — or both. If you’re spending more than a third of your net monthly income on housing and can’t cut your expenses any more, you need a roommate. If you have lost your job and you’re struggling to make your mortgage payment, you need a roommate. If you’re coming out of college with loads of student loans, you probably will need a roommate.

So how do you go about finding sane, safe people to live with?

It takes time. It takes work.

“Like finding a job, finding a good housemate is a process with definite steps and decisions,” writes Pluhar in her book, “Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates”($16.95, Bauhan Publishing).

This month, I’ve selected Pluhar’s book for the Color of Money Book Club. While offering the typical advice on finding a roommate, getting a rental agreement and running a credit and reference check, Pluhar also provides an immensely helpful guide on the many things people don’t think about in a roommate situation that can eventually drive them crazy.

I’ve had my share of bad roommates. Twice, I had boarders whom I had to kick out because they stopped paying their rent. I walked in on a college roommate going through my personal papers to find my grades. Without asking, that same roommate ate some cookies my grandmother had sent to me. I wouldn’t have been so irate about the cookies had I not gone to the store on the way home to get milk for them.

I get it. I know it’s not easy finding a good roommate. So before you look, Pluhar says, list what you want in a roommate and what you’re most worried about in sharing a home. Here are some typical objections she’s heard:

l I can’t imagine living with a stranger.

l I don’t want to lose my privacy.

l I’m too sloppy.

l I’m too neat.

l I’m too set in my ways.

“Once you understand the process of finding and keeping good housemates, you will see that you can manage most of the particular concerns about sharing housing that you have,” she writes.

The process is the key. You’ll need to think about more than how much to charge in rent. This is where her book is the most helpful. Pluhar walks through a number of house-sharing issues that you probably wouldn’t consider because you’re just focused on the economic necessity of getting a housemate.

Here are Pluhar’s guidelines for a happy household:

l Follow the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So don’t eat somebody’s cookies if you wouldn’t like them eating your food without asking.

l Don’t let small annoyances go unaddressed until they become big issues.

l Your room is your own. “Whatever you do in your room is your business unless it is bothering someone else,” Pluhar writes.

l Don’t take in a boarder if there is a romantic attraction.

Finally, and the most important guideline, don’t come up with so many rules that people won’t feel comfortable in the home, Pluhar says.

To complement her book, Pluhar has a Web site, www.sharinghousing.com , where you will find downloadable versions of the worksheets from her book and blogs with tips to deal with common roommate issues.

The recession has left in its wake many people who need to let go of their trepidation about shared housing. If that’s you, get this book. The book and the site will help you avoid a hellacious housemate situation.

I’ll be hosting a live online chat with Pluhar at noon Eastern on July 7 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book or books, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of “Sharing Housing,” e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mai: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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