Some roomies make 'SWF' seem tame


ATLANTA -- After seeing "Single White Female," some viewers mutter that the movie is too far-fetched.

It does seem unbelievable that fate could land anyone a roommate as deceitful, possessive and violent as Hedra, portrayed in the film by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Believe it.

From students who share a college pad to the recently divorced to the economy-minded homeowner, nobody is exempt from a nightmare roommate.

There are enough bizarre -- even frightening -- stories from wronged roommates to raise even Geraldo Rivera's eyebrows.

Scott Johnson, a puppeteer, thought he had it made when he moved into a Grant Park house with a mild-mannered roommate four years ago. He wasn't alarmed when the roommate warned him that he experienced occasional seizures.

But one day Mr. Johnson came home to find the house in ruins.

"I was terrified. It looked like it had been hit by a tornado," Mr. Johnson says. "The gas stove flames were coming up, there were broken plates everywhere, my clothes had been pulled out of the closet, he'd pulled small trees out of their pots -- we're talking a big mess."

His roommate's dogs cowered in an outside shed, and when the roommate -- who often mixed anti- depressant medication with alcohol or marijuana -- arrived, he said, "I don't know what happened."

Mr. Johnson found out.

"He'd gone after the dogs with a butcher knife. I decided to move out before I found him standing over my bed with a butcher knife."

The threats can get even more frightening. One of the seven wretched roomies Ms. Braybant endured during the 10-year period before she married broke her cat's leg. And, Ms. Braybant says, the same roommate's boyfriend assaulted her twice before she threatened to call the police.

Mutating personalities

When "nice" people, even friends, become roommates, they sometimes seem to mutate as soon as they step through the door.

Tammy Flowers, 24, is still reeling from her traumatic experience with a roommate who had been her husband's friend.

Soon after he moved in, the man became obsessed with Ms. Flowers, making her feel like "someone took my whole life away from me." She and her husband took in their roommate -- in his 50s and recently divorced -- to make money. It wasn't long before he was dictating Ms. Flowers' schedule, leaving his children with her, alienating their neighbors, invading family holidays and making sexual advances.

"He became my husband. He yelled at me, 'Why isn't my supper ready? Why aren't my clothes clean?' He would wake me up and say, 'Where's my breakfast?' "

Within a few months, the Flowerses packed up and moved, but the roommate began harassing Ms. Flowers and her mother by phone. She went underground to escape him. By altering her work schedule and keeping her location secret from all but family, Ms. Flowers has finally shaken off the man's obsession.

"I don't trust anybody anymore," Ms. Flowers says. The screening process

Roommates are a financial necessity for some. In seeking a compatible home companion, many people believe that placing a classified ad such as the one that appeared recently in Creative Loafing, a local alternative newspaper, specifying "no idiots," can insulate them from invasion by a housemate from hell. Others take a safer route, such as a roommate-matching service.

Roommate Finders, a subsidiary of Apartment Finders, was founded in the economic crunch of 1980 to accommodate the growing number of people in need of roommates.

Owner Estelle Schwarz says the agency charges from $75 to $125 to interview and match Atlanta roommates. The agency asks about personality, lifestyle and schedules, runs credit checks, and most important, relies on a sixth sense when pairing roommates.

Sizing up a new roommate

It seems that everyone has a roommate horror story to share. There are plenty of successes out there, too. Don't wait to see if your match is a lucky break or an awful twist of fate.

Take these precautions, compiled from suggestions by Estelle Schwarz of Roommate Finders, as you're sizing up your new 'mate:

* Get personal and financial references. Call the person's former roommates and landlords. Be prepared to offer your own references as well.

* If you're looking for an apartment, make a detailed financial budget to avoid committing to something you can't afford,and leaving your roommate in the lurch.

* Set ground rules before you move in together in terms of utility bills, house guests, smoking in the house, pets, food shopping, cleaning, etc.

* Know your lease (and liabilities if your roommate ships out). Insure your belongings.

* Be flexible. Life with your roommate will be very unlike living with your parents or your former spouse. Prepare to compromise and adjust to someone whose values and lifestyle may be foreign to you.

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