Despite its popularity, Craigslist (aka the land of casual encounters and missed connections) has a sketchy reputation at best. The website, which is home to actual phrases like “Perfect home jobs...Make $2,500 a day” and “HAIR UNICORNS WANTED” along with some others that we can’t print here, hardly seems like the place where you’d go to invite someone into your home. And yet it is.
If you have a vacant room in your apartment and you’re looking to fill it with a non-crazy person, Craigslist can feel like both the most convenient and the most terrifying place to start your search for a roommate. Horror stories about bad Craigslist roommates range from the ones who don’t pay the rent on time to the ones who might be actual serial killers.
Whether you’re looking for the kind of roommate who will become a lifelong friend, or you’re just looking for a quiet, non-smoker who will run the dishwasher when it’s full, here are some foolproof ways to find that person on Craigslist.
Write the Perfect Ad
If you work in marketing or have at least seen a few episodes of Mad Men, you already know how important it is to understand your audience when creating an ad. Follow this advice when looking for a roommate on Craigslist. Picture your ideal roommate and write the kind of ad that they’d respond to. Include some details about who you are (your job, hobbies, likes/dislikes) and some details about who you’re looking for.
Example: I’m an environmental studies major who likes yoga and vegan food. I would love a social roommate who gets along with my two dogs and enjoys nature and cooking the occasional meal together.
Be sure to also include photos of the apartment, along with details about the neighborhood.
Play by the rules of Tinder and talk to potential roommates online before meeting in person. Craigslist makes this easy by using a 2-way email relay. This means that when someone responds to your ad, they will see an anonymous email address instead of your actual email address. This anonymous email address will forward emails to your personal email address.
Get a feel for who you’re talking to by chatting via email before giving out your phone number, social media handles or any other information.
Don’t Be a Hater
There’s a fine line between searching for a roommate who you have stuff in common with and being discriminatory. That’s why there’s a little thing called the Federal Fair Housing Act. If you’ve never heard of the Federal Fair Housing Act before, it basically states that you can’t discriminate based on race, origin, religion, sex, handicap or familial status—yep, even on Craigslist. Common examples of discriminatory language in roommate ads include phrases like “no pets, even seeing eye dogs” and “Christians only.” In other words, don’t be a jerk.
One exemption: If you’re advertising an apartment where you and your roommate will be sharing a common area (bathroom, kitchen, etc), you can express whether you’d prefer a male or female roommate.
Your First Meeting
Ready to meet the roommate candidate IRL? Start with a meet and greet. Because psychopaths do occasionally lurk on the internet, meet in a public place like a coffee shop or bar. Keep it casual; the goal of this is to see if your personalities are a good fit. Have an idea of what questions you want to ask (here are five great ones) and give them time to ask you questions too.
One clever way to size up your potential roommate fast is to offer to meet at their current residence. While you obviously shouldn’t do this if you’re not comfortable with it, this is a pretty genius way to get a feel for how someone will be as a roommate by seeing how they currently live.
Your Second Meeting
If you’re vibing with your hopefully-future roommate, it’s time to show them where you’ll be shacking up. Give them a tour of the apartment and provide all the details. Be up front about what the rent does and does not include. For example, if there’s available shared storage space or parking, point it out.
Discuss the total rent, including shared bills. It’s best to charge a flat rate for utilities rather than splitting them up. This will prevent someone from potentially trying to get out of certain utility bills (like cable, for instance) for things they don’t use that often.
Talk hard rules, like whether or not smoking and pets are allowed, and soft rules, like cleaning and your guest policy. Make your expectations clear. Yes, this might discourage some applicants, but it’ll help you find the right person.
Do Your Homework
Even if the first and second meeting went well, don’t commit to living with someone right away. Take a moment to write down the pros and cons of different roommate candidates and then do a little sleuthing.
Checking out their social media might feel creepy, but hey, if you’re okay with Facebook stalking your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, you can be okay with scrolling through the Instagram feed of someone you might live with. Hopefully, a glance at the prospective roomie’s Facebook will reassure you that the two of you are going to be best buds, but it’s also possible that things might go the other way. Are they a member of not one but five different Nickelback fan groups on Facebook? Consider that bullet dodged.
If you want to be really comprehensive, you can do a background check and ask for references as well.
Have an Escape Plan
No, we’re not talking about a getaway car standing by in the event that your prospective roommate gets creepy (though that’s not the worst idea, come to think of it), we’re talking about practical steps that you can take to ensure that you don’t end up living with a bad roommate for any longer than necessary if you end up choosing the wrong person.
Avoid long leases. Month to month is best. And speaking of leases, it’s best to get every roommate’s name on the lease so that some responsibility will shift to the landlord as far as background checks, references and rent payments go.
And most importantly, don’t be afraid to have the “What if?” conversation before you move in together. Specify what behaviors would warrant a reevaluation of whether or not your roommate relationship is working out. That way, should the day come when your roommate decides to get a pet without telling you, do illegal drugs in the kitchen or participate in some other decidedly uncool activity, you’ll have an easier time addressing it.
Don’t Rush It
Give yourself enough time to find the right roommate. If you end up waiting until the last minute, you’ll be forced into saying yes to the first person who responds to your ad on Craigslist. If some of the steps that we’ve outlined seem a bit exhaustive, it’s because we want to emphasize the importance of taking your time in your search. Spend at least a half an hour at the initial meeting. Hang out until you’ve got all the information you need.
And most importantly, don’t make snap judgements. If someone seems totally perfect, don’t rush into committing to living with them. Mull it over before saying yes. After all, inviting someone to share your home is kind of an intimate thing and finding that person online can be awkward. Make it a pleasant experience for both of you by taking the time to choose the right person. Who knows? You just might end up becoming friends for life.