Welcome to Miss Type, a column about etiquette in the digital age. This week: How do you search for — and convince — a nice internet stranger to share a home with you?
Finding people with whom you can peacefully cohabit requires luck, genuine skill, and a willingness to humble yourself on roommate listing groups. I value my relationships with my actual friends too much to risk ruining them over shower shelf dynamics, and living alone is a right I sacrificed when I chose to pursue an MFA during an economic crisis. Consequently, I’ve spent the past seven years living with strangers I found on the internet, and honestly, they’ve been some of my best roommates. Sometimes these living situations have resulted in lasting friendships; other times I move out and never think of the person again — which is also a form of success.
There is a specific art to it: You have to identify a good roommate from little more than some words and pixels on the web, demonstrate that you’re also normal and okay to live with, and then enter a deeply intimate situation after meeting only once or twice. The best resource for learning how to do this is just a naturally good intuition about who you get along with. But in lieu of that, I offer this guide to finding a roommate online:
1. Reactivate your Facebook account
Roommate searching is among the last dignified uses of Facebook. Most cities have groups for this. Statuses are discouraged; Close Friends stories are fine. I have nothing against Roomster, I’ve just never met a real person it worked for. Craigslist isn’t out of the question, but it unfortunately suffers from an immediate association with murder, and the anonymity makes it harder to immediately look people up — you want to be able to click on a profile and see if they’re posting Canva graphics about divine vulnerability. And remember, potential roommates want to click on you too! Don’t leave your social media wide open (which implies you lack boundaries), but keep enough of an online footprint that they can start conceptualizing you.
It’s best to choose someone who you could imagine hanging out with, but isn’t deeply intertwined with your social circle. It feels better knowing you have freedom to complain without putting other friends in a weird situation.
2. Establish contact
If you’re filling a room in your apartment, write a post with basic information: rent, utilities, pets, neighborhood (but not your address), move-in date, laundry. Take cues from posts in the group. Add your general age range and a brief description of your employment status — not necessarily your position, but like if you work nights or a 9-to-5. Include a cursory detail about any other roommates. I like to say something vague like: “We’re pretty quiet but like to have friends over sometimes!” which is essentially meaningless, but also, the only proper way to be. I also like to say how it’s sad because I loooove my old roommate but she’s moving across the country. While this is ostensibly praising my roommate, it’s actually there to signal how amicable and easy I am to live with. Include a tiny joke if you want, but don’t put on a whole show if you’re at risk of rereading it from the perspective of strangers until you hate yourself. Take photos of the place in natural light, and I can’t believe this has to be explicated, but I keep seeing it and each time it stuns me: No selfies(??), just house!
If you’re the one looking for a room, send a private message to the person with the listing. I write something like: Hi! I saw your listing on (blank). I’m a (blank) and I’m looking for (blank). I talk briefly about my living habits (framed in positives — what I’m looking for rather than what I’m avoiding), maybe one personal fact, and end the message with: Let me know if you want to chat sometime and figure out if this would be a good fit!
It truly doesn’t need to be harder than that. While it’s good to be concise, there are almost no circumstances where your best move is a one-word message saying “Interested” — and if you write something like “I’m a fun-loving PR student looking for a roommate who can keep up with my energy,” I’d personally take that as a direct threat.
3. Make sure you click offline
Viewing the space matters, but I really believe the tour’s (or video tour’s) most vital function is to check for chemistry. You can walk on the porch and say, “Wow, so nice!” as much as you want, but what you’re really figuring out is: Is this a person who I feel comfortable being around for potentially 24/7?
People are generally bad at assessing themselves accurately, so use concrete examples when describing living styles: Are dishes washed immediately or within 24 hours? If you’re having “a few people over” for your birthday, does that mean your three closest friends come to play Catan or is it a euphemism for a party? If someone dates a guy with a foot fetish, would all other roommates be willing to wear socks until he leaves?
If the tour is going well, less comfortable questions (credit, Covid, substances, quasi-live-in partners) can be broached. I haven’t personally asked for former-roommate references, but it could be a good idea. Google the person, obviously. Heed red flags — they’re on their best behavior now, so if they’re pushy about moving in or loudly identify as “no drama,” these traits will only magnify later.
You don’t have to come out of the tour with a decision, but shoot for a timeline, probably within the week. If you visited a place and liked it, send a message saying so. It’s fine if you’re still talking to other potential roommates; you’re a single girl. Err lightly on the side of exclamation point overuse.
4. Move in
Within the first week, invite your roommate to drink wine or alternative beverages in the living room while you watch TV. I like The Bachelor, since it was made to help you talk to people with whom you have nothing in common. If you spend time together early on, it’s easier to not scurry into your room and hide every time they use the kitchen. Maybe you’ll be friends; maybe you’ll get in a temperature battle and one day wake to find they’ve literally unscrewed the thermostat from the wall to prevent you from using it, and this whole guide has led you astray. Either way, your search is over — you have a roommate!
OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED: Actually be a good roommate
How does one become a good roommate? There are the obvious factors: taking out the trash, breezily asking someone to wash their plates without making it sound like a confrontation, not sneaking a bit of their leftovers and then moving the rest around with a fork so it looks like you didn’t. There are also less tangible qualities, like abstaining from self-aggrandizing when you bravely replace the toilet paper as if you’re never mildly annoying to live with, which you are. If you can honestly say that you’ve never dribbled coffee grounds by the trash or woken everyone with an alarm or hogged the freezer with microwave meals, then great, but you should know that your roommates don’t think you’re not annoying — they think you’re high-strung and stressful to be around. Put in effort, but also recognize that you and your roommates are fallible humans embarking on a historically unnatural form of cohabitation.
If all else fails, then who knows — maybe it’s time to drop out of your MFA, look for a job that pays you a livable salary, find your own studio apartment, and stop living with strangers from the internet. This is a pretty common plan of action. Alternatively, you could just open your laptop back up and reactivate your Facebook all over again.
Ilana Bean is a writer and MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.