Nightmare Housemates/Roommates — How to Survive Them
A friend recently asked me for tips on dealing with a difficult housemate. As I was offering some advice, I was about to add “I’m not an expert.” And then it hit me that, actually, I am. I’ve been sharing properties with people who are not my family members for the last 23 years. I’ve had around 30 housemates, and happily, some have become good friends. I’ve also learned a lot about dealing with the annoying ones, and so when I’d written down some tips for my friend I thought they might be worth sharing with a wider audience too.
This is not advice centred on negotiating with housemates. There are heaps of other articles out there dealing with calm discussion about setting up cleaning rotas and similar, but in my experience you stand zero chance of taming a truly bad housemate with this kind of thing, and if you keep trying forever they tend to become really angry. I can’t cope with endless conflict, and I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in that. Causing someone you don’t know well to become very angry often feels unsafe, particularly if they are physically larger and stronger than you. If you have never had to sidestep conflict for this reason, I’m guessing you’re male — most women are depressingly familiar with the need to sometimes prioritise personal safety over trying to get a fair deal.
There may also be other reasons to avoid conflict— you may not be able to, or want to, waste hours on futile arguments, and so might choose to try and work around your housemate’s foibles instead (particularly if you are planning to move out fairly soon). When a house share is going well I try to make an effort to catch up with my housemates sometimes and do things with them to retain the friendly relationship. With housemates I really dislike, the friendliness has already been lost and so I feel justified in avoiding them.
If you feel that conflict should never be avoided as it allows people to ‘walk all over you’ then consider the example of a student in their final year at uni who can choose to spend every day staying in the flat arguing with their annoying housemate (who realistically will never change) or studying in the library. I was that student, it was my third year at uni, I was in the library every day from around 9 am — 10 pm, and that strategy helped me score a first for my degree and also win thousands of pounds worth of funding for a subsequent course. I don’t lie awake at night wishing I’d spent more time confronting my housemate.
If your living situation is making you very miserable or you feel in danger you should look to get out as soon as possible. Low rent or a convenient location do not outweigh major threats to your physical or mental health.
It’s also worth researching whether you can report your difficult housemate to someone who can take action against them. If you are in university or college accommodation there is likely a warden tasked with handling these kinds of complaints. In a privately rented house or flat, the landlord or agency may be willing to get involved. In many situations this is not the case though — for example, if you’ve signed a joint contract with your housemates then you will probably be expected to resolve disputes between you without external aid. And in general, many wardens/agencies/landlords view arguments about cleaning or sharing the cost of communal items as relatively minor (however severe and frustrating they are) and so may opt to stay out of it.
Most people are happier when they have plenty of autonomy, so I try to allow my housemates to make their own choices in anything that doesn’t pose a serious problem. If they want to store recycling boxes on the worktop for ease of access rather than stowed neatly away in a cupboard then I can live with that — it’s a relatively small price to pay for household harmony.
Bear in mind that your way of doing things is just one option and not necessarily the only correct option. Pick your battles and don’t come across as unreasonable by objecting to every little thing that your housemate does differently from you.
If you’re open-minded, occasionally you might find that you prefer your housemate’s way of doing things. I’ve picked up many tips from former housemates, including how to make a great pasta bake, how to keep your ankles warm in the winter (boot slippers!) and where to buy great vintage-style clothing.
‘To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.’ Marcus Aurelius
If you respond to a housemate’s appalling behaviour by behaving appallingly yourself then you have allowed them to have a very powerful effect on you, and you are unlikely to feel good about that in the long run. Far better to try and rise above it, while of course acknowledging that your anger is asking you to try to resolve the problem. If you have difficulty controlling your emotions it might be worth trying mindfulness meditation, which I have practised for many years. Or perhaps yoga, exercise, creative work, or some other fulfilling activity might at least make you feel more clear-headed. Then you can approach the problem as a calm compassionate human being rather than a boiling ball of rage.
Bear in mind that if you are controlled by your instinctive reactions to your housemate, angry or otherwise, you have essentially become their puppet. And surely no one wants to be an irate Kermit with their housemate’s hand up their bottom (well maybe some people do, but that’s a whole different article which thankfully I do not have the expertise to write).
Similarly, don’t be a hypocrite housemate, moaning about the behaviour of others whilst being difficult and irresponsible yourself. Don’t complain that others fail to clean if you can’t be bothered to do any either; don’t moan about others being irresponsible when you’ve just spent all your rent money on a hamper of artisan cheeses; and don’t call others rude or abusive if your idea of calm debate is one involving less than thirty instances of high-decibel swearing. In these scenarios, you and your nightmare housemate thoroughly deserve each other.
Housemates who don’t clean communal areas
A strict cleaning rota is fine if you’re able to hold everyone to it (for example if you have the power to evict them for non-compliance). If not, rota or no rota, some housemates see no reason to clean at all.
As it’s impossible to physically force people to clean, my advice would be to think differently about your own cleaning. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged down to your housemate’s level. Try to allocate roughly the same amount of time to cleaning, whoever you live with and however much cleaning they do themselves. Try to escape the mindset that certain tasks have to be accomplished on a specific schedule. If you prefer the shower to be wiped down weekly but it’s actually cleaned fortnightly, is that really unbearable? Probably not, as long as taking a shower isn’t depositing more dirt on your skin than it removes.
Set yourself to clean for half an hour, or two or three hours a week, or whatever feels appropriate for you. You might need to experiment a bit to find the optimum duration. Ideally though, choose an amount that you feel comfortable encouraging your housemates to emulate, so that you can set a good but realistic example. Your nightmare housemate is unlikely to emulate you, but other housemates might. And future housemates might too, long after the nightmare one has moved out.
To make sure you stick to your goal, time your cleaning, ideally using a timer that also logs your sessions, such as the Toggl Track app. Introducing some accountability into the process will reduce the likelihood of you getting lured into cleaning far more or less than you planned. And if there is no house cleaning rota, don’t choose in advance which area to work on. Instead, assess at the start of the session which areas are a priority for you. If your housemate never empties the kitchen bin, you might find you do it every time, but treat it as a chunk of your cleaning time like any other and it becomes less of a big deal. It just means you spend less time vacuuming the living room or wiping down the cooker. And if the vacuuming and cooker are not your number one priority then you might be able to live in a house where those tasks are done later rather than now. The most important thing is that your priority tasks have been completed without you taking time away from non-cleaning activities or having another fruitless row with your housemate.
Ideally, spend some of your cleaning time working on your room, but don’t log it separately from the time spent cleaning communal areas. This makes it impossible to calculate exactly how much time you spend on communal cleaning, and so lessens any resentment you might feel at comparing your cleaning time with your housemate’s. Purely focusing on your own cleaning schedule saves masses of time and mental energy you might otherwise have spent trying to ascertain who scrubbed the sink on Saturday or wiped down the worktops last week. Clean independently, bask in the knowledge that you’re a great housemate, and get on with your life.
Housemates who don’t clean up their own stuff
Most nightmare housemates realise that leaving items of value in areas where other people have easy access to them is a recipe for loss, breakage, or the item being cut into pterodactyl-shaped pieces for use in craft activities. This sort of natural retribution is likely to catch up with them sooner or later, and hopefully result in some improvement. If the mess is annoying, perhaps you can at least take some delight in foreseeing, or secretly bringing about, the various disasters that may befall it.
Moderately untidy housemates are best tolerated, if at all possible. Anything left in communal areas is fair game to tidy into a box, cupboard or magazine rack, which may help in living with it. Just make sure it’s relatively easy for your housemate to find, as hiding people’s stuff is a sure-fire way to cause yet another argument.
It’s also worth trying the same strategy with one of the most annoying items that housemates can leave around — dirty dishes. Accepting that your housemate will never wash them immediately after their meal and investing in a storage solution for them could keep the kitchen much more hygienic and useable. If you can afford it, consider a box with a seal around the lid so that smells can’t escape, and look for an opaque box rather than a transparent one, so that you don’t have to look at the dirty items either. If you can’t afford — or feel uncomfortable paying for — a box, cheaper options are a bucket with a lid or a washing up bowl that you can throw a tea towel over.
You may find that your housemate doesn’t put their dirty items in the box, particularly to start with, but it should be a fairly quick job to chuck them in there yourself. If not, make sure you time it and count it as part of your cleaning for the day or week, allowing some other less important cleaning activity to be left a bit longer.
If you don’t own any already, buy your own kitchen items, and make sure they’re never left around dirty in the kitchen, to keep them well away from your housemate’s mouldy pots. When your items are clean store them well away from others (in your room if you do not have a kitchen cupboard that others stay out of), and in the long run your housemate will run out of clean items to use and finally have to wash up.
If you are lucky enough to have a dishwasher, you may find that you often have to load or unload it to be able to use it yourself. You probably don’t have much choice in this — either learn to live with it by treating it as just another chunk of cleaning time, or consider opting out of the dishwasher altogether and wash up by hand. Although the latter might seem like more work, not having to deal with other people’s items may mean you actually save time.
Housemates who don’t replenish communal items
Ah, the fully grown adults who still believe in the toilet roll fairy. Bless.
There is a fairly obvious solution to this problem — the main stumbling block is accepting that you have to go there, and then getting in the habit of sticking to it. Buy your own washing up liquid, toilet roll, or whatever else your housemate is neglecting to buy, keep it in your room, and take it with you into the kitchen or bathroom when you need it. It’s a bit of a pain, but less annoying to my mind than paying for everyone else’s supplies. Some (generally student) accommodation inherently demands a certain level of this — communal showers shared between many people with no storage space for shower gel and shampoo force you to plan ahead and take your own things in with you. Just treat your house like this kind of scenario. Trust that you’ll get used to it and eventually do it on autopilot as with other activities like brushing your teeth and showering. Adapt calmly and be prepared to be in it for the long run, but don’t be surprised if your housemate eventually decides against sticking with the new system. Nightmare housemates are generally disorganised, and so will be much more likely than you to suddenly realise they’ve forgotten to take their toilet roll in with them — a split-second too late.
If noise is preventing you from concentrating, try one of the many apps or YouTube videos that provide white noise, pink noise, ambient coffee shop noise or the lilting melodies of subaqueous dolphin intercourse. Or you might be one of those people who can work or read to music, in which case what are you waiting for? Put Taylor Swift on loop NOW.
If sounds or music don’t work for you then it might be worth investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, to increase the effectiveness of sounds/music or just to cancel the noise. Read the reviews and if the noise is a serious problem then it might be worth buying the best-reviewed pair you can afford. Do be aware though that certain types of sounds are cancelled better than others — a constant hum may disappear whereas a heated argument may not.
If noise is disturbing your sleep then try earplugs, or you might be able to find headphones/earphones that you can comfortably sleep in. Unfortunately, some people struggle to sleep with anything in their ears, especially if they’re worried about hearing an alarm in the morning. If the noise pollution happens on a limited and fairly predictable schedule (for example 3–4 am) then as a last resort you might be able to work around it by going to bed earlier, reading a book or doing some other activity in the noisy period, and then going back to sleep when it’s quieter. If noise is completely wrecking your sleep though, accept that this will have dire consequences for the rest of your life, and consider trying to move somewhere quieter as soon as possible.
Weighing things up
Sharing a house is often cheap, but problems with housemates can be potentially expensive and time-consuming. If you are not tied into a long contract problems with housemates may encourage you to consider moving out, but it can be difficult to decide whether it’s worth the disruption and/or higher rent this may involve. When mulling it all over, a useful exercise is to assign a monetary value to the toll the difficult situation is taking on you, and add this to the amount you’re currently paying for rent and bills. This will give you the real cost of staying in the house.
To find the real cost, add together:
- Extra financial cost
- (Extra time cost) x (Amount you earn per hour at work)
Extra Financial Cost might include:
- Communal supplies your housemates don’t replenish.
- Food/other items of yours used without permission.
- Eating out to avoid a dirty kitchen.
- Coffees out if you’re uncomfortable chilling at home.
- Extra money spent covering bills if your housemates don’t pay.
Extra Time Cost might include:
- Time spent arguing/urging housemates to mend their ways.
- Extra admin caused by housemates’ disorganisation.
- Time spent distracted by housemates’ noise.
If you want to get serious about this, make sure you log any extra financial costs on a list or spreadsheet, and use the Toggl Track app or similar to keep track of wasted time.
Once you’ve worked out the real cost of living in the house, compare that with the cost of other places and you might find that they look more attractive. The idea of course is that extra money you’re spending to stay in your current house could potentially be spent living somewhere much better. And time spent dealing with negative situations in the house could potentially be spent working, earning more money to fund a nicer living environment. Not everyone can take on extra work in the time freed up, of course, but you might be able to use the extra time to save money instead, for example by cooking from scratch rather than buying ready meals or eating out. Time is always potentially money, so valuing your time should help you assess your situation. Obviously do also ensure that you can comfortably afford any new place that you move to on your current income. And then any money or time freed up from your previous housemates will be a welcome bonus.
As well as money, make sure you take your quality of life seriously — it’s great to save cash, but if you spend 99% of your life living in misery in order to afford the 1% of your life when you’re happy on holiday or excited about a new purchase, your priorities are probably wrong and you may well look back on this period of your life and regret that you didn’t act to improve things sooner.
Give house sharing a fair shot though, if you can, and don’t let one terrible housemate put you off. There are plenty of nice ones out there as well.
If you do find yourself stuck with a nightmare housemate for a while, don’t feel you have to punish them, the universe will do that in good time. Imagine the blazing rows they’ll have with all the people they live with in the future — housemates, romantic partners, children. Imagine the jobs they’ll lose for being irresponsible and impossible to deal with. Imagine the financial difficulties they’ll get into when they fail to pay their bills on time. Imagine them surrounded by irritated, frustrated, repulsed people their whole life and bask in the thought of the happy household you will eventually find yourself in after they’ve left or you’ve moved on, and thank your lucky stars you’re nothing like them.