Culture

Living with roommates for the first time? Here's what you need to know

Students and recent grads from across Canada share their experiences and advice.

Students and recent grads from across Canada share their experiences and advice

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If you're a university or college student, there's a good chance that you've left the (hopefully benevolent) authority of the parental home to move in with your peers. This usually brings a lot more personal freedom. As Drew, 27, a recent graduate of Concordia University put it, "When you live your folks, you can't be a complete barbarian. But when you move out, you're pretty much unchecked." This period can be a lot of fun, but living with peers presents its own particular challenges that not everyone is prepared for. 

We spoke to students and recent graduates from schools across Canada about the most common "roommate problems", the best strategies they've learned for getting along and getting the most out of your roommate experience.

Who should I live with?

There's no clear consensus on this question. Some prefer living with friends because having a foundational relationship can help them get through the tensions that arise from living together. Others find it easier to live with people who they have some social distance from. It might be worth trying both.

However, you may not have a choice. Most student housing departments assign roommates and you may wind up with someone you don't have much in common with. Meghan, 24, a recent graduate of McGill University describes herself as "outgoing and extroverted," whereas her first roommate was more of an introvert. They bonded and lived together for three more years but Meghan thinks, "If we weren't forced together for a year in the same room we would have never been friends." Meghan isn't alone. Stories of superficially mismatched roommates becoming fast-friends are very common.

Emily, 23, a student at the University of Saskatchewan, had a tougher time. "My roommates and I didn't get along well…. They weren't nice to me at all and…. I was miserable." If it turns out that you and your roommates can't get along, remember that moving out is an option. "I didn't even make it to the end of the semester…. I moved in with a family friend who was looking to rent out her extra bedrooms. That was a much better fit and I stayed there for two years."

How many people should I live with?

Even if you can't tell what living with any particular person will be like, our interviewees recommend limiting the number of people you live with. There seems to be a general rule of student living that as members of a household increase, order decreases. David, 28, a recent graduate of Dalhousie, who lived in a shared house with eight other men told us that "The place was straight out of Animal House and that made it hard to get anything done…. There was an open door policy so at any time any day there'd be 20-30 people in the house. There were dishes in the hallway, people partying every night. It was out of control." Sharing can often save money, but there's a trade-off. 

Darian, 25, a recent graduate of Ryerson University, said, "I know sometimes you have to make exceptions given your individual financial situation but from my experience the savings aren't always worth the negotiation and compromise."

Discuss expectations from the beginning

People come to school with very different personal histories, habits, needs, and preferences. In order to avoid conflicts, or at least make them more manageable, it's a good idea to sit down and have a conversation about your mutual expectations for living together. "Set expectations before signing your lease. Groundwork is so important," said Chantelle, 23, a recent graduate of Ryerson. Think about your own needs and desires for the year so you can let your roommates know up front. How clean do you want to keep the common spaces? How can all of you use them? How will you divide chores? When do people want to go to bed? You should talk through all of these things as early as possible. While a simple discussion may be easiest, a lot of our respondents find it helpful to write these things down to help keep everyone on the (literal) same page.

The three most common roommate battlegrounds

It's one thing to say "discuss expectations" but if it's your first time living with others, it's not obvious what kinds of expectations you should be discussing. While each living situation is different, some problems come up again and again and generally involve the respectful use of shared spaces. So look out for these three common sources of roommate strife.

The kitchen: As Emily put it, "Every roommate problem I've ever had could have been solved by installing a dishwasher." It's really easy not to do the dishes. It's also really annoying to a lot of people to come to use the kitchen and find the sink full and the pots in the fridge holding leftovers. Discuss ahead of time how long you're all comfortable leaving dishes unwashed and divide duties for clean-up. Also, someone's going to eat someone else's food. Figure out how you're going to deal with that.

The bathroom: Cleaning it, occupying it for too long, and failing to replace the supplies are all common sources of friction. Decide on a schedule for keeping it clean and well-stocked. As Drew explained, a Sunday hangover is the last time you want to find out you're out of toilet paper.

The significant others: One of the great things about not living with your parents is that you can invite your partner to stay at your place more often. One of the worst things about living with roommates is that you often wind up living with their partners as well. When Chantelle was living in the common room behind a curtained partition, her roommate's boyfriend virtually moved in. "He would just sit in the living room and watch a game streaming channel. Even when she went to work, he would just be there…. It gets to the point where you're tiptoeing around in your own house." Raise this issue in your expectation-setting discussion, even if you're all currently single. Chantelle recommends a "two sleepovers per week maximum."

How to raise an issue

No matter how clear and well-intentioned you all are at the outset, issues will arise. When this happens, said Darian, "Communication is key. People can't change anything unless they know what they're doing and how that affects you. People often are just too busy to notice how their behaviour affects others." Living with others isn't just about avoiding conflict, it's about working through it.

That said, asking a peer to change their behaviour can be uncomfortable. As Chantelle put it: "Most people don't anticipate how hard it is to nag someone who is not your child." Yet if you avoid confrontation, you wind up living with whatever's bothering you or expressing your discontent passive-aggressively, which the others will notice and resent.

"You have to address things before they become an issue rather than waiting till they do it five times," said Chantelle, "because at that point it's not just something they did, it's a pattern of behaviour you are shaming them for." 

Meghan recommended using really friendly language to bring up tough subjects, which makes it feel less aggressive. "Don't assume the worst, and don't do it in front of others."

Meghan also recommends having regular check-ins with your roommates to establish a venue for anyone to raise any grievances or concerns so they don't sit festering for too long. 

Last tip: "Pick your battles," said Gabe, 26, a recent graduate of UBC, "don't nitpick everything, roommates are temporary."

Your roommates will teach you more than we can

Living with roommates isn't always easy, but everyone we asked agreed they learned a lot. Some lessons were specific to their own experience. Meghan told us she learned "how to get stains out." Drew learned that "it's not a good idea to tell someone else how to go to the bathroom." Other lessons are nearly universal. Emily did a good job of summing them up: "The biggest thing I've learned is how to be responsible, to both myself and others. I learned how to take other people's needs into consideration and how my actions can affect others. I learned how to stand up for myself. I learned how to do the dishes right after I've used them. I've learned how to have sex in almost complete silence. You never stop learning."


Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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