How to Divide Communal Items with Your Roommates

How can you divide things fairly with your roommate? How can you decide what is shared and what is yours? Domestic CEO has some ideas.

Amanda Thomas
6-minute read
Episode #220

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to have roommates and housemates. From my first college roommate to living with one of my best friends to having friends stay with my husband and myself when they were going through rough patches, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about living with others. One of the stickiest situations about having a roommate or housemate is how the communal items are divided.

From the big stuff like furniture and appliances, to the small stuff like Oreos and milk, how items are purchased and consumed between roommates can have a big impact on the relationship of those living together. Luckily there are a few simple steps you can follow to help maintain good vibes with those whom you are sharing a home.

Agree on ownership of the big stuff

I’ll focus first on the big stuff. No matter how long you live with and how much you trust your roommate, you will want to make sure you go in to the roommate situation with a "claim your own" mentality, so you will want to have it be crystal clear who owns what items in the home, especially the big stuff. The last thing you want when you move out is to have there be any confusion about who bought and brought which items in to the household. Any confusion about this topic can lead to fights (and possible legal action!) about who is able to take the items with them to their next home, or who is responsible for having the items removed from the home if no roommate wants to keep them.

For any larger items that are going to be kept in the common areas, it is smart to come up with a detailed list of ownership. You can keep this as a document on Google Drive and update it as other larger items are brought in to the home. The good thing about keeping this on Google Drive is that all changes and updates to the document are recorded in the file, so there’s a record in case a dispute arises in the future.

To create this list, detail out each item over $100 in value that is to remain in a common area. Include a description of the item and the dollar value of the item as well. If there are items you need to purchase for the home, decide which roommate is going to purchase the item and add them to the list once they are in the home.

I’d highly advise against “chipping in” on items because it creates a lot of confusion upon move out as to who owns the item. If you want to split the cost on things, instead come up with a list of a few items that need to be purchased and split up who is going to purchase, and therefore own, each item.

It’s a little more work, and it can be uncomfortable to bring this up with your roommates, but trust me when I say it’s easier to have this conversation before there is a problem in the future.

Determine use “rules”

Years ago, one of my best friends and I decided that we were going to sign a one-year lease together. We both had experienced bad roommate situations in the past and were nervous that living together would ruin our friendship, but for financial reasons, we knew it was a good decision. To make sure that we would end the year with our friendship intact, we decided to make a “Roommates’ Agreement” that detailed out some of the things we knew could cause frustration between us. I admit the idea of the agreement came after a couple bottles of wine, but it turned out to be one of the smartest things we could have done.

I’m not advocating for a Sheldon Cooper style roommate agreement, but it was very helpful to talk about the things we knew would annoy us if our roommate did. In this Roommate Agreement, we detailed out a variety of things, but some of the most important were how our common areas could be used. Other examples included:

  • No all-day TV binge watching in the living room unless both roommates are watching or one roommate isn’t home
  • Whichever roommate is annoyed with the dirty dishes first is the one responsible for doing the dishes
  • If clothes are left in the washer or dryer, the other roommate can move them to the bed of their owner

By taking an evening to talk about our expectations and a few of them down in writing, we were able to avoid a lot of awkward situations over the course of the lease. I would highly advise doing this for any of the common items and areas you have with your roommates or housemates. You’ll be surprised at how many things you think are common courtesy your roommate is oblivious to. And that conversation is much easier to have before you are fully annoyed with them in the future.

Remember the little stuff

While it may be tempting to not talk about the little things like food, paper products, and soap, it’s important to talk about them up front and come to an agreement about how they are going to be split. These are the items that have the potential to cause resentment and fights for the duration of your time living with another person if one person feels like their roommate is using more than their fair share. There are a few different methods you can use to ensure fairness over these items.

The first and easiest way to make sure everyone feels like they aren’t paying for more than they use is to not have any communal consumable items. Each roommate would be responsible for purchasing everything from food to laundry soap for themselves. The fridge and kitchen cabinets can be divided using containers, permanent markers, and labels. Think of it as the grown up version of using tape to separate siblings in the backseat of the family station wagon. Can it work? Yes, but just like the older brother is watching their annoying younger sister and ready to tattle as soon as she crosses that line, the roommates can end up watching their items like hawks ready to call out the others on violations of the use agreement.

The point is that we had dialogue to make sure that both of us felt like no one was taking advantage of the other.

A second option is to have all consumables be communal property. Roommates can split the grocery shopping bills evenly and each person can eat and use as much as their heart desires. While this can work for a few weeks or months, there will eventually come a time where one person becomes possessive and resentful of this arrangement. Heck, I am prone to lose it with my husband if he eats the last of the ice cream in the freezer and I’m legally obligated to share my food with him. Why would we expect different from a roommate?

What I would recommend for most roommate situations is a hybrid of the previous two options. Things that you know you will both be using, like cleaning products, paper towels, and light bulbs can be purchased by splitting the cost evenly. If you are committing to doing “family” meals, those expenses can be added to the bill that gets split evenly as well. Everything else can be purchased and used by each person individually.

When my friend and I lived together, we would cook dinner together a few times a week. We would either buy those groceries together or we would each buy the ingredients for the meals we were going to cook. Either way, it felt like a fair split for us. Everything else in our kitchen was used by the person who bought it. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were definitely times when I ran out of milk and borrowed some of hers, or she was craving one of my frozen dinners and I shared. The point is that we asked and had dialogue to make sure that both of us felt like no one was taking advantage of the other.

When it comes down to it, the key to dividing communal items with a roommate really is as simple as making sure no one feels like they’re being taken advantage of or being disrespected. While not every disagreement can be prevented, the more conversations you have in advance, the less sticky situations will arise in the future.

Until the next time, I’m the Domestic CEO, helping you love your home.