Author explores the mysteries of stranger cohabitation

The new book, “The Roommates: True Tales of Friendship, Rivalry, Romance, and Disturbingly Close Quarters,” (Picador, $16), contains 61 stories about roommates who variously turn out to be kleptomaniacs, proselytizers, amnesiac urinators, identity thieves — and some who become treasured lifelong friends.

Author/anthologist Stephanie Wu, 27, was inspired to collect accounts of crazy, conniving and just plain kooky roommates after realizing cohabitation with strangers is an amazingly common, yet often unanalyzed, phenomenon for Americans — and especially so New Yorkers.

A senior associate editor at Town & Country magazine and founder and editor-in-chief of the online publication, MochiMag.com, Wu shares her Union Square two-bedroom apartment with a (terrific!) roommate.

Is sharing our space becoming more common?

There’s such a concentration of people in New York City living with roommates! The number of nonrelatives in nonfamily households in NYC went from 271,798 to 352,738 between 2000 and 2010 — a 29.8% increase. Cohabiting with strangers is a part of growing up and a rite of passage for so many of us, who may first have roommates in summer camp, boarding school or college dorms. The cost of housing in New York City means that many people between the ages of 20 and 27, especially, are likely to have roommates.

So economic necessity has made multiple bunking compulsory?

A The population is split between those who need roommates to pay the rent and just survive and those who really want that sense of cohabitation — either because they feel unsafe alone, or they just want that company. Having a roommate gives you a chance to meet new people, experience new cultures and really understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes. It can even provide a kind of satellite family, which is especially helpful if you’re new to NYC. Living with strangers has its challenges, but cohabitation is great training for settling down with a spouse — your hopefully ideal, lifelong roommate. You encounter the same kind of kind of challenges and compromises to live with a spouse.

Yet, so many people in your book opted to room with people of the same ethnicity, religion and age — even though these peers sometimes wound up victimizing them! Why are people so positively biased toward their own kind when selecting roommates?

Most people gravitate to the familiar and what is comfortable to them. But some of this responsibility should fall to the colleges. NYU in recent years has done away with the ability to pick your own roommate, which is a move in the right direction. You fill out a short personality survey about whether you smoke or drink. But what NYU doesn’t know is that a lot of people fill out these forms with their parents watching! (So respondents may not answer honestly.)

Aren’t there famous celebrity roommate couples?

A Yes! In addition to Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones, actress Connie Britton lived with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (when they participated a Dartmouth study abroad program in Beijing). Raven Simone and Lindsay Lohan lived together for a little while, too. In my book, Top Chef Spike Mendelsohn talks about all the roommates he’s had and that he can now afford to live alone, but a lot of people who could afford to live alone want that life lesson of the roommate experience — in part because it enhances your social supports and connections but also because you make memories together. It’s less lonely.

It seems that most people find roommates on Craigslist — but what precautions can you take to make sure you don’t wind up in the police blotter?

There are numerous apps to weed out the weirdos. There’s also word-of-mouth, which is how I found my roommate. But what you use isn’t as important as the screening process: Don’t just take someone because the person looks good! You need to have an honest conversation to find out if you’re compatible. You have to be honest with the other person above all. Don’t embellish anything!

What are the most frequent sources of friction between roommates?

Sleeping habits. Friends coming over. The expected level of cleanliness and noise. You need to discuss if you’re cooking together and whether you will each buy your own groceries. (And policies regarding pets and plumbing.) Differences can lead to confusion and before you now it a slide into passive-aggressive behaviors, which isn’t good.

Your most harrowing stories came from people who had been robbed and conned by the people with whom they lived. Shouldn’t anyone contemplating cohabitation with a stranger perform a credit check?

That might be going a little far unless you’re in one of those situations where you’re the landlord. Remember: The other person will want to check you out, too. Asking for references is great, but the main thing is to have a really honest conversation to find out if your living styles and habits are compatible. If anything feels even slightly, slightly off about the other person, heed your intuition.

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