6 Signs You're a Bad Roommate—and How to Change Your Ways

Updated 05/23/19
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I write this article with the seasoned wisdom of a reformed “bad” roommate. I spent four years of college balancing stained coffee cups atop dirty-dish towers with the shrewd precision of a true slob. I mastered the art of not doing laundry and lived four full years without ever knowing the color of my bedroom floor. Generally speaking, I was able to live out my years as an undergrad with mild disregard for my roommates’ aversion to day-old burrito wrappers and last-minute visitors. 

The gravity of my less-than-hospitable living conditions finally dawned on me when I left my spacious bedroom with a walk-in closet in Michigan for a 10-by-10-foot closet-turned-bedroom in New York City. Sharing a 500-square-foot living space with two virtual strangers forced me to reconsider my knack for treating the living room as an extension of my closet. It goes without saying that my hour-long morning showers were a thing of the past, along with my charming habit of allowing my laundry pile to mushroom into an uninhabitable island.

Most shocking was my growing distaste for clutter and disorder myself; I grew to reject my perfected iteration of organized chaos in favor of an empty kitchen sink and folded laundry. I began putting my dejected Friday-night outfits back into my dresser in lieu of any considerable floor space to clutter. I even spent a few Saturday mornings—dare I say it—cleaning. I found that if my teeny-tiny apartment was a mess, my life felt like a mess, too.

Today, I can confidently say that I’ve come out on the other side of my dirty-clothes fortress a changed woman. While it did take an egregious lack of space for me to understand the error of my ways, I can now look back on my years as a one-woman tornado of greasy pizza boxes and seldom-laundered clothing with a sense of youthful nostalgia (and embarrassment). Fortunately, my time spent as an honorary fraternity brother eventually led me down the path to slob redemption; my bad habits taught me a hard lesson in what not to do when sharing a space with others.

All things considered, I now pride myself on being a good—dare I say great—roommate. What follows is a list of what NOT to do when trying to be a good roommate, from a person who once embodied a bad one.

This sage advice tops almost every roommate-etiquette guide ever written, and for good reason. Living with roommates almost implies that you’re housing a myriad of personalities under one roof. With that being said, you’re better off keeping your organizational eccentricities (or lack thereof) to yourself. Everyone is entitled to a clean living space, regardless of what they choose to do behind closed doors. Don’t be the person who comes home after a long day of work and promptly drops everything they own onto the living room floor; not only will someone else get stuck cleaning it up, but you’ll invite more excess items into your already cramped living space. Keep your belongings—and your clutter—to yourself.

While not a roommate faux pas of my own, believe me when I say that communicating with the people you live with via a 2-by-2-foot square of fluorescent yellow paper is not the way to go. You share a bathroom and split bills with these people; the least you can do is have a face-to-face conversation with them. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the foundation of any good relationship—romantic or otherwise—is built on open and honest communication. While you don’t have to be friends with your roommates, you can make your living situation a veritable success by simply conversing with them when the situation calls for it. Anything regarding bills, moving out, or paying rent should be discussed in-person, not through a communal whiteboard.

Aim to inform your roommates about visitors a good month or so in advance. This affords them the luxury of conveniently being out of town that weekend if they so choose, an option that each and every occupant of a 500-square-foot apartment is entitled to. Your friends and family shouldn't make the trip just when it's convenient for you; their visit should fit into your roommates' schedules as well. This same advice applies to Friday-night dinner parties, wine Wednesdays, and Friendsgiving celebrations—if it affects the people you live with, ask them in advance.

One of my biggest pitfalls as a college roommate was shirking my household responsibilities by way of sheer obliviousness. My failure to recognize that something needed cleaning resulted in my more-organized roommates picking up the slack. While I always managed to make up for my negligence (I’d often go on unprovoked, house-wide cleaning binges), an imbalance like this can give rise to an uneven power dynamic in which one person feels like they’re doing all the work. Cue the passive-aggressive Post-Its. To avoid inciting an all-out Cold War, split household chores right down the middle, both in terms of hours put in and money spent. Your personal cleaning habits are no excuse.

As any person with siblings can attest, bathroom time is sacred and must be respected. This means keeping your morning showers to a brisk 15 to 20 minutes and housing your makeup, hair dryer, and excess “getting ready” necessities in your room. On a larger scale, this boils down to respecting your roommates’ schedules, as well as effectively communicating your own. Avoid arriving late to work four days in a row by discussing morning routines ahead of time.

The delicate art of peacefully coexisting with another human being—friend or foe—often boils down to a general sense of self-awareness and respect. Simply put, you and your massive shoe collection are not the center of the universe. Blame it on immaturity, genetics, college, or whatever you want, but being a less-than-stellar roommate is often related to a general disregard for the needs of others. A bit of advice for both preschool children and grown-adult roommates? Treat others how you want to be treated. If you don’t want your roommate to eat the fresh vegetables you just bought, then don’t discreetly eat away at their stash of chips. It’s that simple. 

Do you have a roommate horror story? Share your tips on how to deal below!

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