What is a Roommate Agreement and Should I Have One?

If you are taking cues from Friends on what it’s like to rent with roommates in NYC, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. Imagine this: You’re living with a new human in your life — could be a friend or a stranger — and all of a sudden, they do something that just seems… off. Maybe your roommate is suddenly spending significant time naked in the living room, or maybe it’s something less glaring but equally annoying, like they never buy toilet paper. Yup, renting with roommates in NYC is hard regardless of whether you’re cohabitating with a best friend, an acquaintance, or a complete stranger. A proactive way to avoid at least some of the drama that is bound to occur is to create a roommate agreement, which is an understanding about expected behaviors related to your living environment.

A roommate agreement can be as formal or informal as you want it to be. It can be just a verbal conversation, or it can be something you both write up and sign. Although the latter will likely hold more weight, feel free to approach a roommate agreement however you feel most comfortable. Consider taking the following steps regarding what your roommate agreement should include and how to broach the conversation with your roomie.

  1. Make sure an agreement is right for you. Although formal documentation can curtail undesirable roommate behavior and preempt arguments, it’s not for everyone. Perhaps you and your roommate are pretty casual people and not much ruffles your feathers. In that case, you might not need an agreement. Or, maybe you’ve lived with them before and know what to expect. That said, it doesn’t ever hurt to be proactive. For example, just because someone is your best friend doesn’t mean they’re going to be the best roommate. Formalizing house rules is a great way to make sure they stay your best friend, even after you two are no longer living together.
  2. Consider your priorities. So you’ve decided a roommate agreement is right for you? Before you start writing down rules willy-nilly, spend some time thinking about your biggest priorities regarding your living space. Is it making sure the rent is always paid in full and on time? (This should be a priority for everyone!) If so, you’ll likely want to formally clarify who will be responsible for collecting rent and getting it to the landlord. Is cleanliness an essential? If so, what does cleanliness mean to you? How do you feel about overnight guests? Will significant others have keys? Are you willing to compromise on anything? Carefully consider your priorities and preferences in advance of any roommate agreement conversation. Jot them down if you need to! This will allow you to approach the conversation with clarity and thoroughness.
  3. Talk to your roommate. Let your roommate know you’re interested in coming up with a roommate agreement. It may feel awkward, but broach the topic casually. Suggest that it’s in both of your best interests. Encourage your roommate to think of it as a collaborative project. Be sure not to spring the convo on your roommate and to give him or her time to think about their own priorities and preferences before really diving in.
  4. Draw up your agreement together. The best agreements are collaborative. When you both feel they have a stake in the final product, you’ll all be more likely to comply with the agreement. You and your roommate can decide together how formal you want the agreement to be and how certain aspects will be enacted. For example, if you’re rotating bathroom cleaning duties, how will you keep track of who’s turn it is? Lastly, decide the consequences for noncompliance.
  5. Be flexible. Finally, I suggest concluding the agreement with an understanding that issues can be added, removed, or renegotiated at any time, as long as the two of you make such changes together. The point of an agreement is to get the two of you comfortable talking about roommate things that may be awkward and uncomfortable. Now that you’ve had practice and a concrete way to go about addressing roommate things, the door to future conversations is more easily opened.