DennisBeaverJuly 27, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

The trek back to college and university is right around the corner, and that often means having a roommate. Last week we looked at one of the consequences of picking the wrong college roommate – winding up in small claims court over unpaid rent and related expenses.

There is, however, a lot which can be done to limit the chances of things going wrong.

“It begins with a basic understanding of what leads to roommate problems in the first place,” in the view of Jessica Davison from the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno-Pacific University. She is a student discipline case manager, and a trained mediator.

If anyone has seen what happens at college when limited life experience meets immaturity, Davison certainly has. “In addition to the pure educational aspects of attending college, the entire experience – and especially having roommates – can be instrumental in developing effective social skills. That begins with understanding what gets roommates in trouble.”

Best friends often make horrible roommates

“It’s when college students don’t talk about reasonable expectations and household guidelines that another roommate will inevitably move in, and his name is Trouble,” Davison cautions.

“It is simply critical to discuss those things which matter to you in your daily life, in that room which you both occupy. So often, we do not ask ourselves the right questions and have flawed expectations. Merely because someone is your best friend does not mean they will make a good roommate,” she observes.

“But when I point this out to best friends, I often find raised eyebrows and skeptical looks. And so I explain, that when you are so close, it is harder to be objective about flaws, and then, when the best-friend/roommate’s behavior is bothersome, we might not speak up soon enough, and resentment builds.”

“It’s what we might not know about that person’s life within the confines of a bedroom that can be the source of trouble. If one roommate is neat and tidy, and the other is a pig, his side of the room an incredible mess, this is a disaster in the making and could easily ruin a long friendship,” she stresses.

An approach to resolve roommate disputes

“It is important to realize that few people are comfortable with conflict, so you want to address as many issues as possible before you move in together. Make your feelings clear on such issues as maintaining a clean living area, noise, friends [in the room] past a certain time, watching TV, and so on. As awkward as this may sound, it is absolutely essential to make a commitment both orally and in writing.”

“Yet, issues will arise, and you need to expect some bumps in the road. In learning how to deal with conflict or differences of opinion in that intimate life setting, you will benefit across a life time,” Davison said.

“Listening is critical, as is how you phrase what you are saying. Instead of, ‘You are a pig!’ try, ‘I have trouble studying in a space which is really messy. We agreed to keep the room clean, clothing kept neat and clean, and respect our needs. This just makes it hard for me when it is not clean. Can we work together on this?'”

When it’s a financial issue – get help

A messy dorm room is one thing. Failure or refusal to pay one’s share of expenses goes well beyond damaging relationships. As credit reports are routinely considered by landlords, potential employers, insurance companies, lenders, and, by the military, the one thing a college student does not need is being sued for rent by a landlord or former roommate. It suggests irresponsibility.

Students who attend schools with mediation and conflict resolution programs, such as Fresno-Pacific University, are indeed fortunate. Should whatever issue arise, they have available an incredibly valuable resource: mediators, right there on campus, trained in the art and science of problem resolution.

“For students who live off campus, money issues top the list of problems, and often can’t be solved without outside help,” Davison notes.

“Be it a legitimate dispute, or just irresponsibility, it’s generally a lot easier to come to a resolution by involving a mediator from your college campus, or through your place of worship.”

When should I just move out?

The Fresno-Pacific University mediator felt strongly that all roommates need to understand that there is a time to simply move out.

“If you have attempted to resolve the issues through a constructive process and it is going nowhere, it may be time to call it quits. This is not a sign of failure or retreat, rather, it can be an intelligent and perhaps the only decision open to you.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.