*All characters and incidents are fictional
Shalini Gupta slouches into the overused stained sofa, laughing at her roommates joke, while she stuffs her mouth with garlic flavoured chips. Shalini shares a 2 bedroom, 900 sqft apartment in New York. “It was worth the trouble to find roommate, because sharing with someone makes rent more affordable!” she says, while passing the bowl of ransacked chips to me.
Every year, millions of single women & men choose to live with roommates (a more familiar term for ‘flatmates’). Although It is an unregulated industry, of unfair rental splits and stolen sandwiches from the fridge-- the gains are still very high. “If I live alone, I have do all the work on my own: throwing garbage, cleaning, bill paying. See now, I can even talk to her about my dating problems”, Shalini looks at her roommate, grinning and wiping off specks of potato chips from her chin.
It is suspected that most people living alone, do so because finding and living with a roommate is too much trouble. So what are the problems that people, especially women face?
1) Marriage is around the corner
Perhaps the most hurtful part of living with a roommate, is not the fear that they will get married. It is the fear they will get married before you.
Parineeti, an accountant, says “For each 7 years I have lived here, I was sure it was my last year with a roommate”. Every year, Parineeti would sign only a 6 months lease renewal, convinced she’ll find a man to get married soon. “Instead, my roommates got married and moved out. Everyone who becomes my roommate gets married and moves out. Mine is the marriage house.” she says sadly with a pout.
Parineeti claims she now dreads looking at her iPhone to see “I need to talk to you about something” from her roommate.
“Last two times it happened”, Pareneeti aggressively jabs two fingers into the air, “one roommate suddenly demanded a lower rent ...because...? Because she was getting married and her expenses were going to increase. How is that my problem??”, Parineeti curls her questioning fingers into my face. ”I ignored her for days and even took my coffee machine into my room so she couldn’t use it”. Parineeti admits in frustration.
The second SMS she got was “I am moving out in a week. I am getting married”.
“I couldn’t sleep”. Parineeti folds her arms into pure jealousy. “Why her? Why can’t I find a husband to live with forever?”. After denial, Parineeti moved into the next feeling, which she says, is a sudden pang of desperation.
“I was just about getting used to her and her blasting music while bathing... now I had to find a new one!” she says, worrying despite her track record of finding 7 roommates in 7 years.
2) To find a roommate, look everywhere, under the bed, in the closet.
craigslist.com or sulekha.com has been the run-to location to post ‘roomate wanted’ advertisements. For those attached to a university or large company, internal mailing lists are a crucial source of roommate supply.
“When I, like, first saw the advertisement of 4 girls looking for a 5th roommate at SoCal University”, says Neha cradling her mac on her laptop, “I was afraid”. The advertisement read “We are 4 fun loving roommates looking for a 5th to join the crazy party. We are always chatting and do everything together!” She pushes her hands to explain it looked as if a close knit group was searching for a 5th person to alienate. “But I was ...majboor”. Neha had arrived late to her semester, and most housing was taken by then, leaving this the only choice. “When I visited them, they were giggling at their inside jokes, about, like, how Anu holds her spoon while eating, and I instantly like… I didn’t feel like laughing”.
Neha took the offer to be the 5th roommate. But today she has no regrets. While I watch her roommates watch TV, and one beating eggs and swearing in the kitchen, “We have a ‘whose turn is it’ timetable. A timetable for cooking, a timetable for cleaning, a timetable for TV remote ownership. I personally made the timetable for grocery shopping, rent cheque collection, rent cheque drop off, garbage throwing and dishwasher unloading” she says, beaming with pride.
For Shruthi, it didn’t work out so easily. Unlike Neha, Shruthi had too many choices, as in San Francisco, there was a high demand for rooms. “When I posted on craigslist.com, I got 209 responses in 1 hour”. Inspite of specifying ‘wanted indian vegetarian female easy going in early 20’s without a car’, Shruthi was contacted by men, a 46 year old lady with a cat, and an asian woman who said that she’s “a vegetarian who eats fish, is that ok?”. Shruthi had to modify and repost her ad. “I linked a Google form that deposited the responses into a spreadsheet”, Shruthi says. She shortlisted 4 girls from that, who all hurriedly accepted without seeing the room. When Shruthi found they were not desi, she had to pretend there was an imaginary 5th person, because she didn’t want to come across as racist. She wanted only indian. Shruthi took to facebook to vent her frustration. She now lives with a girl, Shashikala, recommended by a friend through her facebook post.
3) "There is no fair rent split" - Roommate Rental Rights Inc.
The teething pains of being a roommate, is that any combination of rent and room size is a problem. For Shashikala, Shruthi’s roommate, the master bedroom pays a paltry $100 more, a random whole number chosen just because it sounded good. When Shruthi steps out to take a call, Shashikala bends forward and whispers to me, “Areey, I came in thinking I’ll take the larger room, but Shruthi emotionally blackmailed me into taking the smaller. She argued she has a visiting boyfriend and I don’t!”. For Shashikala, the trade off was to own the only parking spot assigned to the apartment, which later became a source of sadistic happiness ,since Shruthi often prowled the block at night, searching for parking, after a long day at work.
Shashikala has been unable to decrease her rent share and has been looking to move out since the day she moved in. She has still kept her boxes unpacked in the living room area, in anticipation of moving out soon. “It’s been there for about 3.5 years. I will move out this year, promise”, she says.
Sumit, a student at University of Indians, as he calls it, has it much worse than Shashikala. When he moved in, there were 2 guys occupying the living room in addition to 4 guys in 2 bedrooms. “They wanted an equal split. Why should I pay more for sleeping on the couch?”. He doesn’t talk to his roommates now. They too ignore him and often split open his mail for fun.
We spoke to Dr. FairSpread, the founder of ‘Roommate Rental Rights’. He has expressed his research findings. “The only fair way to split rent is to use surface area”. He scribbles on a paper, “For 5 roommates in 3 bedrooms, divide the common area of living room and kitchen by 5 ,which every one pays. Then the remaining area by 3, which is then split per room”.
Sumit dismisses Dr. Fairspread’s logic and years of research “I don’t use the kitchen, or balcony. Why should I pay?”.
4) They will eat your food.
Sanket, a 26 year old working professional, had a nightmare to deal with, when the fridge looked ransacked every morning. His roommate used to drink up 2 glasses of Sanket’s orange juice without leaving a drop for him. “It is never a good idea to split the grocery bill”, Sanket explains, punching his palm, “someone will always be eating more!”. Sanket now lives alone after his roommate of two years abandoned him on a spiff. “I found my roommate in bed with my ice-cream bucket, when I came home early from work one day. I am never going to live with roommates again”.
Unlike Sanket, Tejaswini, another working professional, is an exception. “I have rejected candidates who didn’t want to share their groceries. I never wanted to cook, eat or buy groceries alone”. Tejaswini and her 3 roommates were on a TTMM model (Tu Tera, Mein Mera), splitting a % of the bill based on consumption, and then splitting the tax on the bill by the same %. This system worked till “The calculations became tiresome. Once I spent 35 minutes calculating a 27% split on a $3.67 tax”. I ask if she’s heard of splitwise.com. “No”.
Tejaswini now splits evenly with her roommate. she smiles as she steps over a pile of laundry.
“I’ve never gone back”
Note: This has not been funded by the home builders association. The author still lives with roommates herself and associates with the problems roommates face. If you have roommate stories you identify with, please email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.