Shared households; 'It's no fun to come home to an empty house'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Roommates are a fact of life for many. Kate Perkins (not her real name), who graduated from college in the early '70 s, has lived with several roommates since she arrived in New York nearly four years ago.

"I do it for financial reasons now, although when I first came to New York, I definitely wanted a roommate while I got used to the city," she says."i would live by myself now, but I can't afford it."

Andris Lapins, an environmental scientist in Vienna, Va., shares a house with two other men. He does it partly to save money, but mostly because he enjoys the company.

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"It's no fun to come home to an empty house," he says.

Annette Lynn, who runs a roommate referral service in Miami, Fla., lists some reasons why people chose to live with roommates. Part of it is economics. Two or more can live more cheaply than one.

"And in Miami [as in other cities], a lot of apartments are being converted to condominiums, and there are only a few rental places available -- at high prices," she says in a telephone interview.

"Then some people buy a home or condominium, but they can't afford the payments, so they take in roommates," says Ms. Lynn, who has two renters in the home she recently bought.

To people like Mr. Lapins, the cameraderie of a shared household is important. To others, it is a good stepping stone from their family.

"A lot of people who are new to the city want to live with a roommate for a year," adds Ms. Lynn. "They don't know the good and bad areas of town when they first arrive, and they feel more comfortable with another person."

Some also like the security of having a roommate.

"The companionship is nice," Kate Perkins says. "someone will always know when and if you come home."

Roommates include a wide cross section of society. College students, young professionals, older widows, and divorced parents with children are all among the ranks of roommates. For example, the bulk of Ms. Lynn's clients are between 20 and 45.

"When I first opened I thought I'd have a lot of college students, but they would rather find roommates through bulletin boards at school," she says. "Many of my clients are professional workers who are too embarrassed at 35 to admit they need a roommate."

One social worker in Portland, ore., lives in a house with three others while she goes to graduate school. She speaks enthusiastically about having roommates.

"Since I am gone all day, I like to talk to someone when I come home," says the social worker. "And because I am in graduate school, the support I get is nice."

She also appreciates the diversity of all her roommates.

"Otherwise it would be too monotonous," she says.

But sometimes the differences can mead tradeoffs. While Kate Perkins gets along fine with her roommate, she admits there are disadvantages to sharing a small one-bedroom apartment.

"There is a lack of private space," she says. "And decorating is hard. The apartment is not really an expression of you."

And like the two bachelors in "The Odd Couple," the proverbial slob and Mr. Neat- as-a-Pin, Miss Perkins finds that different definitions of cleanliness can be a sore spot.

"But sometimes we adapt and help each other out, like I suppose married partners do," she says. "She is better at some things that I don't really care about."

Fuzzy finances can lead to arguments. One Boston man, who genuinely likes his roommate, wishes he had spelled out money matters from the start.He often carries the payment for rent and groceries for several weeks before repayment.

Roommates can be found in haphazard ways. Some people run into nodding acquaintances from college and move in before really discussing arrangements. others meet people through work or friends.

Some roommates are found through newspaper ads, which can be general or specific. The majority ask for a "mature, neat, responsible person." Others are more specific, such as one requesting "nonsmoking professional female, 25 --."

One woman moved into her house after she answered an ad in a Boston newspaper. She had plenty of college friends in the area, but she wanted to meet new people. She's pleased with the result.

"It's nice," says the woman. "We're all independent. If I want to talk with someone, there is always someone around, but if I don't feel like talking, I can go to my room and shut the door."

Most major cities have roommate referral services. Some ask a minimum fee of Lynn's "Roommate Referrals" in Miami, actually help match personalities.

"We're very selective," says Ms. Lynn. "We verify employment, get three character references, and check with landlords to see if they paid the rent."

Clients then fill out a two-page application asking about everything from cleaning habits to hobbies and interests. customers are also asked to write a short paragraph on their ideal roommate.

Before paying for a referral service, check a consumer group to find out its history.

Ms. Lynn notes there has been an in creChicago woman, who says she would not live with a boyfriend, shares a large house in an urban neighborhood with two other women and one man. She cites safety as one reason she and her roommates decided to include a man. Ms. Lynn also shares her home with two men.

"I have to admit it looks good in the neighborhood if there is man walking in and out of a home," she says, bemoaning the rising violence in Miami. Although her service does do some mixed matching, if some one calls her and asks specifically to room with a member of the opposite sex, she tells them that she doesn't do that kind of placement.

Everyone who has never had a roommate agrees that communications is key to survival.

One graduate student recommends a heart-to-heart talk on work and social habits before the lease is signed. She decided to share a home with a woman she had known in high school and college. They had been fairly good friends, but once they moved in together, things fell apart. While the graduate student was working and taking night classes, she had only a little time to do homework late at night. inevitably, her roommate would turn on the radio. And the times the graduate student did want to chat, her roommate was uncommunicative.

"She would come home, flop in front of the television, and say she was too tired to talk with me," she recalls.

Andris Lapins finds that directness helps when problems arise. He didn't know either of his two roommates before he moved in with them, but he says they all get along just fine.

"If something is bothering us, we don't let it accumulate or snowball. We just say 'Hey, whose dishes are those? Do them.'"

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