Living With Strangers: How to Prioritize Safety and Privacy

Protecting yourself in a new living situation is crucial for living a fulfilled life in college. Here's how to take precautions and find a great roommate.

One of the best things about college is the thrill of meeting new people. While it’s the friends you make along the way who make this time in your life so special, the majority of students find themselves living with strangers at some point in their college lives.

While this has become a typical part of the college experience, it also presents challenges in the 21st century where privacy is at a minimum and people are generally more cautious of who they live with. In the age of COVID-19, these challenges are maximized—especially where health safety is concerned. Choosing a roommate is no longer a case of who you might want to put up with while you’re trying to study but the person you’re locked indoors with for months at a time. It’s important that all college students know how to prioritize their safety and privacy while living with strangers. This guide aims to teach these essential safety and analysis skills for the next time you pick a college roommate, whether you’re living on or off campus.

Get to know your roommate before they move in

It’s best to have a clear picture of who you’re going to be moving in with—not just to avoid a personality clash but to make sure you’ve made a safe pick and found a person you can trust. Tools such as SpareRoom allow you to put up ads and assess potential roommates before inviting them over for an apartment viewing. These websites typically feature user profiles that give you insight into a potential roommate’s hobbies, interests, and personality before you agree to let them live with you. Alternatively, if you’re using a service like GumTree, you can request additional information, such as what they’re looking for and what they’re studying, in an introductory email.

Interviews are a common procedure when looking for a new housemate. Inviting someone to take a look at your apartment gives you both a chance to get an idea of each other and see whether you’re a good fit together. In the age of COVID-19, virtual viewings have become commonplace, with students more than happy to view the place and get to know you over FaceTime or Zoom. A quick 10–15-minute interview is essential when looking for a new roommate. It helps you root out people you wouldn’t want to live with and start to immediately build a relationship. Of course, if you’re just starting college and you’ve been assigned a roommate in a dorm, it’s likely your school will provide a way to get in touch with your roomie. 

Related: Adulting 101: Your First Apartment Search

Learn to set boundaries

Once you’ve found or been assigned a roommate, make sure you don’t leave the important conversation about personal space off for too long. It’s important to set boundaries early and establish where and how everyone in the living space can have an opportunity to step away and be by themselves. On top of this, it’s important for everyone to acknowledge what’s an acceptable use of the shared spaceboth during and after of COVID times. While there’s nothing wrong with having friends over, having strangers around every night of the week can make it difficult to relax and study. There’s more to cohabitation than picking the best room. Establish a chore schedule, acceptable times of the week to have friends and partners over, and how stuff can be shared. Sentimental value and safety around the home aren’t things to be taken for granted.

Protect your assets and belongings

It’s no secret that college students may not take as good care of their living space as they will in adult life. That doesn’t mean you should accept a litany of charges from your landlord or the school’s residential life office at the end of the semester. Protecting your assets and creating a safe environment for both your possessions and the furniture provided is a key part of making the most of your college living experience. Protecting your living space is important, even if you’re only renting it for a semester or two. This is particularly important when you’re living with people you’re not familiar with who may have more destructive habits and a less careful approach to living. Forgetting about a lit candle or running bath can cause a lot of damage! 

Thankfully, there are flexible services ideal for student renters looking to protect their assets and get coverage in case of an emergency, such as tenant’s insurance. Tenant insurance covers three things: your own personal liability, additional living expenses, and contents coverage. Even if you end up living with a roommate from hell, you won’t be hit with a huge unpayable charge on the back end. In general, it’s best not to put all your belongings on show until you get to know your roommate a bit better. While suspicion isn’t a great way to build a friendship, it’s important to establish boundaries and not leave yourself open to damage or theft.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Living With Roommates vs. Living Alone

Choosing the perfect college roommate

It’s important to make the right choice when finding a college roommate. Even if you don’t end up becoming great friends, this is someone you’ll be around during one of the most defining periods of your life—you at least have to put up with them when you’re studying for exams. Here’s how you can make sure you’re picking the best college roommate for you.

Ask your friends

Someone you know will always know someone else who’s looking for a room. No matter what time of year, there will usually be a reason that a friend of a friend needs a new place to live. While it might not be formal, this is often a better way to find safe and secure roommates you can trust. Having a friend vouch for them is a great way of putting your mind at ease about a new roommate. Likewise, if you’re the one looking for a room, ask your friends if they know of anyone looking for a roommate. This saves you viewing time and also gives you a nice ice breaker when you meet them. If you’re moving in with a friend, classmate, or friend of a friend, it makes it a little less weird to check them out on social media beforehand. You may have even been to their place before and have an idea of how they like to live and treat their home. 

Related: How to Be Smart When Picking Your College Roommate

Make a list of deal breakers

When searching for someone to move in with, it’s important to have a list of dealbreakers. In some situations, you’ll be thrown in the deep end and won’t have much of a choice. But when you can, putting together a list of dealbreakers or a roommate agreement can save you a significant amount of stress and hassle. Finding a roommate can be a bit of a lottery, but occasionally you’ll have some room for choices, especially if you start hunting early. Think about your own personal rules on:

  • Cleanliness
  • Personal space
  • Inviting friends over
  • Socializing
  • COVID-19 health and safety measures

People want and expect different things for their homes and roommates. If someone does vibe with you, don’t force it. It’s better to be upfront about what you’re looking for in your initial message or profile rather than shocking someone later when you need some alone time.

Share contact details

Once you’ve found someone you think might be a good fit, make sure you share contact details. Not only does this make it easier to keep up with a move-in date, but it helps you get to know each other a bit. Moving in cold turkey can be hard and make it difficult to bond in the early weeks. You only have so much time in college, so building a relationship beforehand is an important step.

However, you may want to avoid sharing social media profiles at first. While you can block someone on Whatsapp, it might be harder to keep a low profile if you start sharing Facebook and Instagram accounts. Access to one account can often lead to someone finding another, meaning you’ll have an annoying time trying to track down and block unwanted views from prospective housemates that didn’t quite work out. 

Related: Top Tips and Tricks for Finding a College Roommate

Living with strangers isn’t easy. At best, they get in your way, and at worst, they can cause damage you’ll have to end up paying for. Make sure you do your research and find ways to protect both yourself and your deposit before having someone move in. 

Get more advice for living your best college life in our Student Life section.

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