For many Americans these days, living alone isn’t an option. Finding one or more roommates is a necessary reality.

Delayed marriage rates among millennials, college loan debt, job uncertainty and cost of living are among the key contributing factors, in addition to the mental health effects of living alone during a prolonged period of social isolation as a result of the coronavirus.

However, living with someone — whether it’s a romantic partner, a friend or a stranger — is a serious commitment. A difficult roommate dynamic can make or break your living experience and affect your quality of life.

The adage, “Start in the way you mean to go” rings especially true when approaching a new roommate situation. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the tensions and joys of co-living.

Your must-have lists

Remember, you may have different ideas of your dream apartment. When searching for a new place to live, everyone has priorities based on previous living situations, work and lifestyle.

When looking for a place with a roommate, it’s important to understand what their “non-negotiables” are — whether it’s location, price, a large kitchen and entertaining space, a home office, separate bathrooms, parking, an in-unit washer and dryer or a high-tech fitness center.

One helpful exercise is to have each person make a list of “must-have” and “nice-to-have” features. Once you’ve made your lists, compare them and have a conversation about where you are — and aren’t — willing to compromise in your search. Then, tailor your search to communities that line up with your joint priorities.

If you’re moving in with someone you don’t know or have spent minimal time with, it’s also important to ask questions such as: What is your typical schedule? How often do you work from home? Do you smoke? What’s your standard for cleanliness? Do you cook often? Do you have a pet or are you planning on getting one? Do you expect to have guests often? The answers to these questions may influence some of your priorities, too.

It’s okay and even inevitable that some of your preferences will differ, but it’s important to set expectations and determine if your preferences are compatible.

How to approach touring

Before the pandemic, it was rare to rent an apartment without seeing it first. But now, even though many communities have reintroduced in-person tours, residents are still finding that virtual, 3-D or self-guided tours are strong options, especially when touring with a roommate. Virtual tours allow both parties to quickly see and share a wide range of options.

Before you start touring, it’s helpful to talk ahead of time about what questions you have for the property manager, such as: Are pets allowed? Are there any additional fees? What’s allowed in terms of painting and decorating? What’s the payment structure if you have more than one individual on the lease?

Whether you opt for an in-person or virtual tour, you’ll also need to decide if you want to take the tour individually or together. You may choose to take individual tours in the beginning to accommodate schedules and keep the process moving, but when you get down to the final two or three choices, it’s helpful to take the final tour together so you can be sure to address any lingering questions or concerns. These experiences will also help prepare you for living together and spark important conversations. For example, one roommate might be willing to pay more in rent because one of the bedrooms is larger than the others.

Splitting expenses

Regardless of whether you have a history with one another, financial conversations can be some of the most difficult to have. Be proactive and have those conversations early on to ensure everyone is pulling their weight on the shared expenses. Decide who will be in charge of what costs, fees and bills. Because many bills are in one person’s name, make sure the other roommates make it a priority to get their money to the account holder as soon as the charge lands. Set a reminder on your phone once a month to pay the bills. Apps such as SplitWise, Venmo, PayPal and Cash App make transferring money for bills easy, timely and convenient.

You should also discuss if there are other items you plan to share, such as kitchenware or even certain groceries. Even if you plan to share some things, keeping certain purchases separate might be best in the long run. Avoid splitting the cost of bigger-ticket items such as furniture — it may seem like a good idea in the short-term, but it can create complications when someone moves out. Instead, find items that are similar in value and agree to divide those purchases among yourselves.

If you’re concerned about accountability, establish systems or processes upfront to address any issues. For example, you can create a shared spreadsheet that lists all your expenses and who is responsible, or you can have monthly roommate meetings to balance bills and receipts.

Now more than ever, creating a safe space for open dialogue is key to a healthy living environment. It’s important to discuss covid-19 guidelines, any protocols for guests and even your comfort level with going to indoor events or restaurants.

Living with another person can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, especially today, when many people are craving in-person engagement. Because roommate relationships are often born out of necessity or convenience, people can forget that they should be treated with the same level of care and intentionality as any other relationship. Setting clear expectations, prioritizing communication and honest dialogue and practicing compromise are critical to a successful roommate dynamic.

Robert Pinnegar is president and CEO of the National Apartment Association.

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