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Dealing with roommates: who gets the "good" bedroom?

Published: Oct 14, 2009

Few things start fights (or feed simmering resentment) like unequally divided bedrooms in a shared house or apartment.

Where you live in a house or apartment has a major impact on your life. Does it put you closer to street noise? Does it give you a big walk-in closet, or does it mean you've got to sell your bed and sleep on a futon? Can you put all your books and stuff up on luxurious shelves, or do you need to ship them off to a rental space (or, more affordably, mom and dad's basement?)

A good bedroom can mean comfort -- a bad bedroom can drive you crazy. So how do you divide up such critical stuff among a group of people who may have just met?

There is, fortunately, a great answer to the eternally annoying problem of unequal living spaces: Let the free market set the price of each room.

Here's how you do it.

Let's say you've got a three-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $1800, or $600 a roommate.

There are three bedrooms: a big, glorious one, a medium-sized one, and one crappy room a little bigger than a closet. It's immediately obvious that everyone wants the big one, and could deal with the medium-sized one. The small one is a total, obvious hardship, however, and will clearly go to whomever is most easily bullied, or just not around when people start moving in their stuff. This is utterly uncool.

You could draw straws to settle the question, but that's a lot of value and hapiness to put into one random lottery, and doesn't take into account the fact that some people put more or less value on living space -- and have more or less resources to share with the group.

A better way to solve the problem is to mount a reverse auction. Here's how it works.

Start with the best bedroom, the big one with the decent paint job and walk-in closet. Ask: "Would everyone here pay $5 more a month to live in this bedroom?" Of course they would. "$10 more?" Sure. "$20? $30?"

Suddenly, Roommate C drops out.

"How about $40 more? $50?" Roommate B drops out.

Now Roommate A is paying $650 a month in rent and living in the big bedroom. Roommates B and C are only paying $575 for their rooms, after splitting the savings.

Now you do the same with the medium-sized room.

"Would you both pay $10 more a month to live in it?" Sure. "$20?" Yes. "$30?"

Roommate C drops out, again.

Now the rents look like this: $650 for the big bedroom, $605 for the medium bedroom ($575 plus the $30 bump) and $545 ($575 minus the $30 savings) for the little crappy bedroom.

Roommates who wanted luxury pay a bit more for it; those who don't get to save some bucks.

If you want to keep everyone happy over the long term, re-auction the bedrooms annually -- it's possible that someone's gotten a raise (or lost a job) and would be willing to try a new situation.

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One of the most regularly contentious issues among roommates is what to do with all that junk you shared in common in the house or apartment, and have to somehow divide now that everyone is going his or her separate way. It's difficult not to get emotional ...

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