The 20-Something's Guide To 10 Common Roommate Problems

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Roommates are good for a lot of things, from saving on rent to helping with zippers you can’t reach. But it’s not all easy: shared spaces, conflicting schedules, and different definitions of what “clean” means can make home-sweet-home anything but.

It doesn’t matter if your roomie is your best friend since childhood or a Craigslist rando; at some point, you’re going to have to deal with one of these all-too-common roommate disputes. It can feel uncomfortable to tackle things head-on, but more often than not, being up-front is the best solution. Plus, having these conversations now can be good practice for moving in with an S.O. down the road (or so my married editor promises me). While I have yet to bunk up with a boyfriend, I’ve certainly had my share of roommates: 24 in just under 10 years. And I’ve navigated every issue and fight out there, with varying levels of grace.

To learn from my mistakes (and do better in the future), I spoke with Lizzie Post, great-great granddaughter of Emily Post and host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast, to get her advice on dealing with cohabitation problems productively. Spoiler alert: A lot of it comes down to what Post calls the three C's: communication, compromise, and commitment.

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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Living with a roommate can save you money…if you actually split the bills. But if you’re always the one stocking the TP and filling up the fridge, it can feel like you’re throwing cash out the window. Before you accuse your roommate of trying to bankrupt you, however, remember that she's probably unaware that your idea of what’s fair runs counter to hers.

When talking about a more equitable way to share finances, Post emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, so be willing to compromise. If you feel like you’re always the one buying staples, maybe you can offer to make that your job — provided your roomie agrees to pay you back once a month. Or maybe make a list of what’s shared and what each person is responsible for. It may seem obvious to you that you’ve never once touched the communal groceries, but your roomie could be totally oblivious.

The thing to avoid is preemptively deciding something should be split and just presenting your roommate with a bill. It will only lay groundwork for resentment. Conversely, if your roommate decides that twinkle lights or $100 of dry goods are communal property and asks for your half, consider the benefits of swallowing the cost this one time and setting a policy going forward. When it comes to an unexpected expense, I remember what a friend once told me: You’re saving money in your current living arrangement, so chalk it up to an occasional “happy roommate” tax and move on.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
One topic about which roommates often take their gloves off and fight? Apartment temperature. It’s a perfect storm of cost and comfort. Whether you're a penny-pincher or just cold-blooded, it can be easy to start watching the thermostat like a hawk and marking your roommate’s every adjustment. Heck, even when I lived in a dorm and paid nothing for utilities, my roommate and I managed to maintain a winter-long heating war. I wanted to never feel cold, even when emerging from the bed at night to pee, and my roommate wanted to be able to sleep under a massive comforter with a flannel duvet cover. We spent the entire winter cranking the heat up and down in angry silence.

Once again, Post advises compromise. If you’re uncomfortable with the temperature, offer to try some solutions before adjusting the thermostat. It might be that you use a fan or take a shower and then reevaluate the situation in 20 minutes. If your roommate sees your efforts to find a happy medium, he might be more understanding when you eventually do have to modify the thermostat settings. If your roommate’s concerns are cost-driven, Post recommends offering to pay more. A 60-40 split might be well worth it if it means being comfortable in your own home.

While my college roommate and I were never able to work things out, I did manage to compromise on AC with my current roommate a few summers ago. In a perfect world, I sleep with the AC on full blast, while she prefers a warmer apartment. We tinkered with the AC for a few nights, eventually figuring out the highest temperature at which I could sleep soundly through the night, and we left it at that temperature at bedtime for the rest of the summer.
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Here’s something I’ve actually had no experience with: a roommate who suddenly gets a permanent shadow around the apartment when she starts dating someone. While I haven’t had to deal with it myself, I’ve heard it all from friends: boyfriends or girlfriends who steal coffee and toothpaste, dominate common areas, and/or basically move in rent-free. While the lovebirds are lost in each other’s eyes, you're eyeing the water bill wondering how much the creeping cost is due to new boo’s very long daily showers.

Post, unlike me, has dealt with this in the past, and she says it’s important to bring things up early. Let your roommate know, gently but firmly, that you’re not signing up to live with a couple. It’s completely reasonable to ask that the significant other chip in, whether it’s with actual cash or doing the dishes. It’s also within your rights to ask to renegotiate the rent so the couple is paying more than 50% of the share — should you eventually decide, as a group, that it’s okay for the S.O. to move in full-time.
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Oh, the chore wheel. I think every year of college, whatever set of roommates I was living with came up with some kind of list of rotating chores. And then we did it…exactly never. Cleaning can be a sensitive issue, and an easy way to cause fights, since someone else’s mess can feel like a personal insult to you. Sometimes, you might not even agree on what a "mess" is. Once, my roommate and I were tidying after a party and, since it was late, we both knew we’d save some of the clean-up for the next day. I started immediately shoving every dish into the sink so at least the counters would be cleared. She looked at me like I was crazy and said that, to her, an over-full sink is worse than cluttered counters. I was gobsmacked!

If you keep in mind that a person’s cleaning habits have much more to do with their personal preferences than with any disrespect for you, you can again approach the conversation with a willingness to compromise. What’s a reasonable standard for apartment cleanliness you can both live with? Once you decide what a workable solution is for both of you, Post says the dreaded chore wheel can actually be a good solution. “It’s a third party that dictates what’s going on, so the other person can feel less personally attacked” when you remind him of his duties.

That said, if the cleaning plan doesn’t work, revisit the initial conversation and see what can be changed. Are you and your roommate willing to nag each other to get things done, or is there another option that hasn’t been tried yet? Sometimes, throwing in cash for a cleaning service will go a long way in making everyone happy.
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Slamming doors and heavy footsteps might only disturb you for a few seconds of the entire time you’re home, but that can be enough to ruin your day if it disrupts your sleep. Post once again emphasizes that it’s highly unlikely your roommate knows her noise is bothering you, so approach it as a friendly ask, saying something like, “I don’t think you have any way to know this, but when you close the cabinets, it wakes me up.”

And, again, big shocker: Be ready to compromise. If your roommate is an early riser, you can’t expect her to silently apparate out of the apartment every morning. Post’s own life is a good example here: She once asked a roommate to leave the kitchen cabinets open in the morning so the slamming wouldn't wake her. It meant Post would have to come through afterwards and do more tidying in the kitchen, but it also meant she got a lot more sleep.

For my own part, I once had a roommate who would come home late and turn on every light in a hopes of being able to tiptoe around as quietly as possible. But the light would wake me up immediately. I would have far preferred a bit of noise in exchange for minimizing the light. Had I just let her know, I would have gotten a lot better sleep that year.

If the problem is TV or music, offer to set quiet hours during which the two of you can still enjoy entertainment, but in your rooms, with headphones on. And, like with the AC, you can suggest your own compromises as well: Offer to try solutions on your end, such as earplugs or a white-noise machine.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
If you’re having friends over, Post counsels notification. “It’s not about asking permission; it’s about keeping people informed,” she explains. It’s amazing how much a little heads-up can change someone’s outlook when they come home to find guests.

If you’re the one continually caught unawares by guests, Post suggests saying something like “I’d love to get some advance notice when other people are going to be in the house.” This is also a good time to talk about closing time for get-togethers. If you’re worried about noise on a weeknight, it’s perfectly reasonable to make a rule that people should be out by 10 or 11 p.m., or ask that they retreat quietly to a private space after that.

Sometimes, though, clueless guests can overstay their welcome. Hosts might not always feel comfortable giving them the boot, so you can use my tried-and-true method: Get up and say it’s time to put on your PJs, or find an excuse to tiptoe through the common space dressed for bed. Do it with a smile on your face, and it sends the message loud and clear regardless: It’s lights-out at your casa.
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If you and your roommate's bedrooms are each your own individual kingdom, common areas like kitchens and bathrooms can turn into a no-man’s land. Most spaces are big enough to share, but bathrooms in particular can become hotly contested turf. Post proposes creating a schedule, especially if one or both of you has a set time to be at work in the morning. If this hasn’t been something you’ve talked about, your roommate might not be aware that this is a problem, so, once again, approach it with the “There’s no way for you to know this, but…” method.

However, if you’re both dashing for the bathroom every morning, be the bigger person and bring it up first — with kindness. After all, for every day she’s edged you out to do her 12-step Korean beauty routine, there’s another day you dove in first to have a nice long soak in the shower. Just try to bring it up it with the same grace, as if she didn't know there was a shower-related Cold War going on, and you’ll have a less defensive conversation — and happier results.
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This one is short and sweet: If you long for a cat or dog but your roommate doesn’t want one, there’s nothing you can do. Pets are a serious commitment. They're something both parties should agree on — and something you should discuss, especially regarding who gets custody should you part ways. I hate to admit it, but when I was 20, I brought home a stray cat I named Pickles without asking my roommate’s permission. Seven years later, Pickles is still with me (and my current roommate, who hates cats and is very patient with her), and we make it work. But any dependent creature you bring into the space should be something you’re both enthusiastic about.

And, if you have a pet, be sure you’re conscious not only of the messes you make, but pet messes as well. The general rule in my house is that if Pickles leaves a "surprise" and I’m not there to deal with it, my roommate gets a small gift on behalf of the cat.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Whether it’s cat vomit or a broken lamp, owning up to your "mistakes" is vital to keeping the peace. As Post puts it, “You really need to offer to fix, replace, or manage the damage.” If you (or your pet) have damaged something and can’t afford to replace it right now, offer to pay in installments. Just ignoring it is only going to make things worse.

Meanwhile, if you have something truly irreplaceable in a common area, consider moving it somewhere else. Sure, you’re living with another adult, not a toddler, but accidents happen, and you can’t babysit Grandma’s vase 100% of the time.

If the damage is related to trust rather than material possessions — like hosting five out-of-town friends the night before your roomie’s LSATs — do whatever it takes to apologize. Otherwise, smaller issues could grow into big grudges that blow up under stress.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Of course, you could do everything suggested in this list (and then some!) and still not be able to make it work. Or maybe it’s time to move on to a new living situation or city. Once again, Post recommends being up-front from the beginning. When you sign your lease, just let your roommate know you’d like as much notice as possible, so you’re prepared. If he does give notice, it’s fair to ask if there’s anything you could do to change his mind, or ask why he is moving on. But after that, don’t try to convince him — he's already given it a lot of thought if it’s come to this.

If you’re the one moving out, Post says in-person is best. No one wants to hear over text that he might need to find a new roommate. It might be a little awkward, especially if you’re friends, so it’s fine to give each other space. Post says that, in her experience, it can take up to six months for former roommates to become friends again.
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