5 Hidden Costs of Having Roommates

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Living with roommates is commonly touted as a way to save money. But sharing an apartment and a utility bill doesn't automatically cut your bills in half.

Just ask Walter G. Meyer, a writer in Southern California who's had roommates for much of his adult life. "On the whole, it's worth it, but I have experienced just about all the bad things one could with roommates," he says.

Since Meyer typically takes the lead on paying bills, he once got stuck with a larger-than-usual electric bill for his last month in an apartment, which his roommates refused to pay. Other times, roommates broke the microwave or stole his CD player when they moved out. "I guess I'm a little too trusting and a little too quick to refund people's security deposits," he admits. "Now I would take steps to check and make sure the final bills are final."

Here's a look at some of the most common financial sticking points for roommates as well as strategies and apps for handling them.

1. Utilities. If one roommate likes to crank up the heat, while the other prefers to conserve energy and save money, that can lead to tension over utility bills. Living in an apartment where some utilities are included can remove this issue from discussion.

If utilities aren't included, Annamarie Pluhar, author of Sharing Housing, A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates (Bauhan, 2011), recommends discussing temperature levels and energy use with prospective roommates before signing a lease together. "I have a friend who rents a group house, and she makes it really clear upfront that the house is kept at 55 degrees in the wintertime," adds Pluhar. "People should be prepared for that and wear sweaters. If that's a problem, don't move in."

Ditto on discussions about cable TV or internet. If one person insists on getting premium cable to watch HBO or HGTV and the other doesn't want to pay for it, those issues should be hashed out upfront. The person who wants cable or the ability to blast the AC should be prepared to pay more, adds Pluhar.

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There's an app for that: Monitor your household energy and water usage using the Meter Readings app (iOS, $1.99). Plot graphs of usage over time and calculate costs per day, week, and month to show that new roommate how much his or her AC use is actually costing.

2. Food. In theory, splitting the grocery bill with roommates could save money. In practice, it's not that simple. "We have different tastes, we eat different amounts," points out Pluhar. "If you just take away shared food, you remove a lot of problems."

In some cases, roommates or housemates might take turns doing the grocery shopping and cooking dinner for each other. "But in situations where people are busy professionals and it's largely city living and they're going out with their friends, it creates all kinds of tension," adds Pluhar. "I think it is nice when people decide occasionally to have a meal together, but they need to talk ahead of time about who's supplying what." She suggests creating separate areas in the fridge and cupboard for each person's food so there's no confusion over who bought what. Boxes labeled with each person's name can also help avoid mix-ups.

There's an app for that: Sadly, no app can prevent roommates from drinking your booze or eating your leftover pizza. But if you're dining out with friends or roommates, the Billr app (iOS, $0.99) can help you determine what each person owes, split shared items like appetizers or wine and calculate the tip.

3. Furniture. Furnishing common spaces can be another point of contention. After finishing college, Shay Olivarria, now a financial education speaker and author, moved in with a roommate in Burbank, Calif. Olivarria didn't see a need for furniture in the common areas, because she didn't plan to have guests over. Yet when her roommate insisted upon furniture for the living room, Oliverria reluctantly agreed.

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"I bought furniture I didn't want and then was tortured by having to have small conversations about movies I could care less about, because he was set up in the living room," she says. Olivarria no longer lives with roommates but says if she did, she would sign a roommate agreement and discuss furniture with prospective roommates before they moved in.

Because of the often-transient nature of roommate or housemate relationships, Pluhar warns against buying furniture or kitchen gadgets jointly. "Instead what should happen is one person spends her money on the couch, the other person spends her money on an easy chair," she says. "That way it's so much easier to be clear about who owns what, but that doesn't mean they can't be cooperative in sharing things."

There's an app for that: To pre-empt any ownership disputes when you move out, keep an inventory of your furniture, electronics, and more with Nest Egg (iOS, $2.99). The app lets you store photos and receipts, keep track of warranties and list items you've leant to other people.

4. Guests. Roommates also bicker about overnight guests, especially when a boyfriend or girlfriend starts staying over several nights per week, becoming an unofficial extra roommate. "Even if this person is liked, by the time you realize that that person has been around and has taken 10 to 15 showers, you begin to think, 'Wait a second, I'm paying for the hot water,'" says Pluhar. Guests also sometimes consume other people's food or contribute to nonmonetary frustrations of sharing space.

To avoid resentment, roommates should discuss overnight guests upfront. Once someone spends three nights in the house or apartment (not consecutively), it's time to revisit the discussion, says Pluhar, adding that it's best to address concerns with the roommate when their guest is not around. "On no account should the new lover be given a house key without the express permission of everyone else in the house," she adds. "Nor should that person be in the house without the housemate."

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There's an app for that: Alas, no app can keep your roommate's SO from spending the night or using your shampoo. But perhaps a gentle nudge about cleaning the bathroom will do the trick. ChoreBuster (online, free) helps you organize household chores, automatically generating a fair schedule of chores and scheduling email reminders.

5. Rent and security deposit. When both peoples' names are on a lease, the landlord or management company can bug the other person for rent even if he or she already paid their share. "The property management company doesn't care who pays what, they'll collect rent from whomever," says Olivarria, who ran into this issue with another roommate about ten years ago. She talked to the roommate and he paid rent a few days later, but it added a layer of stress to the roommate situation. This is why Meyer appreciates landlords who conduct a credit check on all tenants to ensure that they have a good credit history of paying bills on time.

"A roommate who is late on the rent should not be allowed to be late more than a month and they should have paid a 'last month's rent' so the money is there to pay the rent," says Pluhar. "If that roommate can't come up with the rent, it's time for that roommate to move out. It is not your responsibility to carry your roommate."

Aside from rent, damage to the apartment or to roommates' belongings can create other unexpected costs. Pluhar says roommates should expect normal wear and tear like chipped plates or stains on a couch. "The person who did the damage should do the best they can to fix it," she explains. "It might be getting the coach covers off and taking them to a dry cleaner. It does not mean replacing the couch with a new one because that couch wasn't new."

There's an app for that: Instead of leaving a passive aggressive note on the fridge reminding your roomie to pay the rent, consider using Splitwise (iOS, Android, or web, free). The app can send email reminders, check balances and help split bills with roommates.

--Written by Susan Johnston for MainStreet

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