Let’s face it: dealing with a messy roommate (or any roommate conflict) is awkward. But in the end, addressing the situation will make living together better for everyone.


When I went away to college, my worst nightmare was being placed with a messy roommate. Seriously — I’d have nightmares about the old soda cans, the dirty laundry, and the funky smells I might encounter. What can I say, I watched a lot of TV.

Thankfully, my roommate was fabulous. But I heard all of the horror stories from my friends — crusty dishes in the sink, hair in the drain, books and papers spread out all over the dorm. I shudder to think what could have been!

Let’s face it: dealing with a messy roommate (or any roommate conflict) is awkward. But in the end, addressing the situation will make living together better for everyone.

Roommate nightmare

Roommate rules: Co-habitating without going crazy

Set some rules. When you first move in with your roommate, it’s important to sit down, talk honestly, and set some ground rules for how you’ll maintain your shared living space.

Do dishes need to be cleaned immediately upon finishing a meal, or can you wait until the end of the day? How often will you take out the trash? Where will you put recyclables before they go out to the curb? Figuring out all of these things early on will make things easier in the long run.

Have realistic expectations. Part of living with a roommate is managing your own expectations. First, keep your discussion focused on shared spaces like the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. You can’t expect her bedroom to be as neat and tidy as you keep your own. If a few dirty socks on her floor bother you, simply look away or close the door. That’s her space, not yours, and she can clean it — or not clean it — as often as she feels.

Likewise, ask yourself if your own expectations are realistic. Whereas you might be accustomed to spotless hardwood floors scrubbed daily, she might be used to washing them every other week. Learn to compromise.

“We all grew up in different homes with different habits and standards,” says Anna Sicalides, a certified professional organizer in Berwyn, Pa. “When we live with roommates, we are learning about our roommates and their habits and standards, and it is not always easy and takes effort on everyone’s part.”

Part of realistic expectations also means understanding that square footage isn’t negotiable — your living space is only so big. If you and your roommate are having trouble keeping your home clutter-free because you simply have too much stuff, consider cheap storage units for some of the extras that are in the way.

Storage prices very based on the size of the unit — but you should be able to find self storage rentals in your price range, especially if you’re splitting it too ways. It’s cheaper than going through the moving process and finding a bigger place, anyways.

Divide chores fairly. Make doing chores as easy and painless as possible or your roommate may mutiny. Divide up responsibilities based your personal preferences and schedules. You could even write out a roommate chore chart so that everyone knows what’s expected of them on a daily or weekly basis.

“It’s a great idea to make each person’s chores align with their strengths or interests as far as housekeeping goes,” says Trish Hilliard, a Houston-based professional organizer and owner of Simplicity Please. “For example, some people love vacuuming. Some don’t, but they might like cleaning counters or taking out the trash.”

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Take your weekly schedules into account. If Wednesday night is trash night, and your roommate often works late or has night class on Wednesdays, offer to take that chore yourself.

Likewise, if your roommate frequently has afternoons off in the summer, politely ask if they can cut the grass or water the plants while the sun is shining—rather than making you do it at 8 o’clock at night when you get home from a long day.

Educate each other. Consider this: maybe your roommate is trying hard to keep things tidy and simply doesn’t know how to do it.

“I had a roommate who washed dishes in cold water—they were disgusting,” says Sicalides. “We all need to educate each other sometimes.”

If your roommate has never done her own laundry or vacuumed her own carpets, be patient and show her how to perform these important tasks.

“Own” your jobs. If you’re ultra-picky and unwilling to compromise about the way certain things are done, do those jobs yourself. After all, chances are good you’re not going to be happy with how your roommate does them anyway — and your constant criticism probably won’t go over well.

“Someone once told me that if the mess bothers me more than my roommate, then I should clean it up,” Hilliard recalls. “If you don’t like an overflowing trashcan, then own that—volunteer to be the roommate that takes out the trash.”

But be careful not to do everything for your roommate. If you’re going to “own” a job, find one she can “own,” too. Maybe her job will be to find self storage at a nearby storage facility for your extra stuff. Once you have your storage rentals in place, she can mastermind the move. The responsibility and sense of accomplishment will help her learn the importance if decluttering.

“If you like to have dirty dishes loaded up in the dishwasher, then be the roommate that volunteers to unload the dishwasher every morning so dirty ones can go in it throughout the day,” Hilliard continues. “Then feel free to point out areas the messy roommate could ‘own’ as well.”

Be open with your concerns. After setting ground rules and making a chore chart, you need to tell your roommate if their slovenly behavior continues to be an issue. Ranting to your friends won’t help anything, and complaining to your co-workers isn’t going to change things at home (plus it will get pretty old for your co-workers very fast). Talking to your roommate, on the other hand, might.

“Communication is key. You must take the time to communicate how you feel in a non-threatening or judgmental way,” Sicalides says. “Treating them respectfully, outlining how their messiness affects you, and working out a system together would be my recommended approach.”

The earlier you talk to your roommate, the better. Letting the issue drag out will only make things worse and create a bigger problem when you finally do tell her. If you’re worried about confronting the issue, plan what you’ll say ahead of time, so your point comes across clearly and effectively.

Good luck! Whether it’s siblings, friends, or perfect strangers, living with other people always requires communication, commitment, and compromise. Just be honest, respectful, and willing to bend a little, and things should be just fine.

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