Imagine meeting someone online, going to coffee once and then moving in together the next day. While that scenario would be a clear-cut dating don't, it happens regularly in Washington's roommate scene.
"When strangers move in together, they will always make assumptions that other people are like them and then find out later on that people are very different," says Lori Stephens, author of "House Mates: A Guide to Cooperative Shared Housing" (Verbatim Publishing, $12.95). But while sharing a bathroom with someone you just met inevitably involves a certain degree of seat-up/seat-down adjustment, it doesn't have to spell "Real World"-style drama. Here are some tips to help you find a lasting roommate in this transient city.
RENTER, KNOW THYSELF. Looking for domestic harmony with your new roomie? Begin with a self-assessment. Don't assume that just because you love the smell of bacon in the morning that the rest of the world does too. Rather, create a list of your preferences for living: Veggies or veal? 50 Cent or Beethoven? Tucker Carlson or Jon Stewart? Then when interviewing potential roommates, make your likes and dislikes known.
Michael Rios, 56, a computer consultant and self-described social radical, knows something about finding roommates. Having lived in shared housing in Ballston for 10 years, Rios has had "too many roommates to count." He seeks out other social activists for the household and recommends being as explicit as possible when describing yourself to potential housemates. "If you like a six pack every night, say that and you'll find someone similar," he says. "You're not offering just square footage, you're offering a context for living."
PUT IT IN WRITING. Once you find the right person, consider writing a roommate contract, an informal agreement that Stephens likens to a pre-nup for shared living. The roommate contract outlines each party's expectations for the household, from dish duty to bill payment, and it has the added advantage of creating a dialogue about potential problems -- say, the mystery green stuff lurking at the back of the fridge -- before they start festering. "Getting it all down on a piece of paper helps to formalize the relationship and can help resolve conflicts before they arise," says Stephens.
PROTECT YOURSELF. Your roommate contract may not be legally-binding, but a lease is. If one person defaults on rent, both parties are responsible. To protect yourself from deadbeats, ask for references, both personal and professional, and trust your impressions during your first meeting. "If a person acts goofy and shows up late that's how they'll be when they pay the rent," says Amy Riesner, a 33-year-old human resources professional who has shared a three-bedroom Bethesda apartment for six years.
Roommates should also consider putting household bills in different names, so that no single person is responsible for everything. In a group house, it might be tempting to not sign a lease, but remember that if you don't, you have no legal right to live there. Nolo, a publishing company specializing in legal DIY, posts a summary of issues affecting roommates on the Rights & Disputes section of its website, www.nolo.com.
Bridget Bentz Sizer
Surfing for Roommates
Sites like these make looking for a roommate a lot easier than trudging from apartment to group house just to see what the place looks like.
Craigslist.org. With more than 300 daily posts to the "rooms & shares" section of its D.C. site, Craigslist is a favorite of local room hunters. The service is free and word count is unlimited, so you can describe in full your reality-TV viewing habits (though you might want to wait until after move-in to share your ABBA box set).
Roommateclick.com. This site boasts more than 200,000 active searchers each month in the United States, Canada and Europe. Users can search for housing by Zip code and view pictures and reference lists. Browsing is free, but full access comes with a fee: from $5.95 for a single day to $99.95 for 180-day service.
Roommates.com. With more than 50,000 daily visitors nationwide, this is one of the most popular roommate matching services on the Web. The site allows users to arrange roomie profiles according to recent activity, so you can avoid contacting folks who are off the market. Once you've met your perfect match, the "resources" area of the site will help you plan every step of your move, from finding a sturdy rental truck to informing the post office of your new address. Basic membership is free, and full access costs from $5.99 for a three-day trial to $29.99 for a 60-day subscription
Roomster.net. Users create profiles describing themselves and their living preferences, including party habits and favorite music, then search for compatible matches within the Roomster database, which has more than 1,900 active members in this area. Pictures, testimonials and instant messaging are part of the package, and users can choose between a limited free membership and full membership, which costs $5.95 for four days or $29.95 for four weeks.
Send us your story about a roomie- gone-wrong for a second part to this story. E-mail sundaysource @washpost.com