How to Handle Living With a Messy Roommate? (With Useful Tips)


One of the major conflicts that tend to arise between roommates is about cleanliness. Diary clothes, moldy dishes, mildewed shower tiles, overflowing litter boxes, garbage scattered all over – living with a messy roommate can make your life stressful and create strong rifts between you and your roommate. Rather than getting frustrated by the mess, there are a few things you can do to deal with your messy roommate constructively.

How to handle living with a messy roommate? One of the first things you’ll want to do when dealing with a messy roommate is talking to them about the issue. They may not be aware of just how messy they are, and confronting them about it can go a long way. You can also show the standard of organization you expect in your shared living space by leading by example. By making sure your dishes are clean and your leftover food is put away, you can inspire your roommate to follow suit. If your roommate has items scattered all over the apartment, consider gathering them all up and placing them in a pile so that it’s easier for you to clean. It might also help to assign household chores so that each person is aware of their responsibilities and can be held accountable if they don’t complete them. 

Regardless of how you found your roommate – through an enduring friendship or the internet – there’ll come a time you need to address the issue of apartment cleanliness at some point of living together. Read on to discover useful tips on how to handle living with a messy roommate. 

1. Confront your roommate

Confrontations are never easy to navigate. Here are some guidelines on how to bring up the issue of messiness with your roommate.

A, Be honest and straightforward

You need to be as specific as possible about the untidiness that you’re having a hard time living with. For example, if the hair in the shower drain is getting on your nerves, try asking, “Could you try to clean the shower after you’ve used it?”

Let your roommate know the changes that you’d like to see when it comes to keeping your shared living area clean. You’ll find that you’ll likely need to be open to compromising as they may not be willing or able to do exactly what you expect. For instance, in the example given above, you may need to add “I know you may not always remember to clean the shower after you use it, but maybe we can try to make sure we clean it before someone else uses it.”

It may be tempting to talk to other people (say, another roommate) about your roommate’s messiness before addressing the issue directly with them, but they likely won’t appreciate learning about how you feel through someone else.

B, Steer clear of an accusatory approach

Try to avoid starting a conversation by accusing your roommate of being messy as this will likely result in defensiveness and hurt feelings. Instead of pointing fingers, gently suggest the areas you would want to be tidier. 

Instead of using phrases like “You’re so messy!” or “You never clean…”, try saying, “This is a difficult conversation, but I want you to know that it can be annoying when there is hair in the shower drain. I’ll make sure to wipe down the bathroom walls after I use it if you’ll be sure to remove your hair from the drain after you take a shower.” Being open to compromise will help your conversation to be more productive. 

C, Consider your timing

Did your roommate just get home from a gruesome day of work? Maybe confront her about leaving dirty dishes to pile up in the sink tomorrow. Ask to schedule some time when your roommate will be most open to hearing from you. This will help you avoid blindsiding them too.

D, Give them a chance to process

If it’s the first time you’re talking to them about their messiness, allow them time to process and think. It’s also courteous to allow them to speak. Ask them if they have anything they want to add or ideas for how best to deal with the issue moving forward. 

E, Suggest viable solutions

If you’re going to point out issues, be prepared to offer solutions as well. For example, you could say “It would be helpful if you could clean up after you have friends over. I don’t mind helping out if I have the time.” Keep in mind that different people have different standards when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene. 

F, Set boundaries about shared spaces

Setting boundaries is important when you share living space with someone else. Keep in mind that your roommate has the right to maintain their own standard of cleanliness within their own area, whether it’s a bedroom or just their own bed and closet. All you can do is focus on shared spaces, such as the bathroom, kitchen, hallway, or living area.

For example, you might say, “It would be great that there not be dirty dishes in the sink. I try to clean all my dishes after I use them. Do you think you could do this as well?”

However, if there’s a bug infestation or mold in your apartment stemming from your roommate’s hygiene habits, then you might need to suggest changes to their area as well.

G, Vengeance is not the solution

If you’ve tried talking to your roommate and they’re not willing to cooperate, or you’ve yet to breach the conversation about hygiene with them, it can be tempting to take passive-aggressive retaliative actions to get back at them. This should never be an option because it’s likely to exacerbate the situation. 

2. Handling the messiness

A, Demonstrate the standard of organization you expect

If you want to maintain a certain standard of organization in your shared living space, the best thing you can do is lead by example. Make sure you don’t leave hair in the shower drain, your dishes are clean, you put your food away, and your dirty clothes aren’t strewn all over. It’s unfair to expect your roommate to tidy up if you are also messy. Look around your kitchen, bathroom, and any other shared spaces, and take note of your mess. It’s a lot easier to notice other people’s mess than it is your own. Always set a higher standard for yourself than you do for your roommate. 

B, Gather all their loose items in one place

If your roommate has items scattered all over your shared space, consider gathering them all up and placing them in a pile. Doing this might successfully send the message and steer them in the right direction. Whether this happens or not, you can look forward to the space being clean for a temporary period. 

C, Consider cleaning up the mess yourself

If your roommate’s untidiness becomes unbearable to handle, you might want to consider simply cleaning it up yourself. While this may seem counterproductive, it will help to address your need for a cleaner living space. Whether it’s removing the hair they leave in the shower drain or washing the dirty dishes they leave in the sink, you can take initiative to make your space as clean as you want it. Your roommate might notice and get the hint of how you expect your living space to be. 

After you finish cleaning, follow up with your conversation about your desire for a different standard of cleanliness in your shared space. Otherwise, you might find yourself always cleaning up after your roommate. 

D, Ask to keep spaces separate

This is especially important if you live in a space like a dorm room, where there might not be much distinction. Take the initiative (with your roommate’s consent, of course) to divide the room into separate spaces. You will have one half of the space and your roommate will have the other half. If it helps, you can even put a divider like a line of colored tape on the floor to show how the room is divided.  

3. Working together to maintain neatness

A, Assign duties

After having a conversation about their standard of cleanliness, consider assigning household chores. Try to be as fair as possible when assigning tasks. For example, you might offer to clean your shared bathroom weekly, if your roommate agrees to vacuum and dust surfaces in the living room. After two weeks or so, consider scheduling a meeting to check in about how the assigned duties are going.

Keep in mind that it’s normal for most people to have fluctuating schedules and there may be times when either you or your roommate unintentionally slack when it comes to cleaning because of work or school obligations.

B, Use lists and pictures to define expectations

It might be a good idea to take photos of what each tidy room looks like after you compromise on a basic level of tidiness. You can then refer back to these photos to make sure that the room returns to the state that you agreed on. Another solution to try involves making cleaning checklists that you can refer to once a routine has been established. Avoid adding items that weren’t agreed upon to the cleaning checklist without your roommate’s consent. 

C, Consider implementing a penalty system

If you’ve tried the assigned tasks and one of you simply isn’t following through, you might want to consider implementing a penalty system. For this to be viable, you’ll all have to agree upon it and set realistic terms.

For example, you could say that if someone fails to do their allocated chores for more than 2 days, then that person is to pay $20. Make sure you type this and print it out, then have each person sign it. You might find that some individuals would rather pay a penalty than do an assigned chore. If this is the case, you can use the money to pay for a cleaning service.

D, Take turns doing specific chores

You may find that it’s more effective to trade off on specific household cleaning tasks. Not many people are fond of cleaning the toilet, and getting this unappealing task done can be easier if everyone takes a turn at it. By doing this, it’s less likely that someone will start to feel resentful and stop doing their job. 

You can use a spreadsheet or whiteboard to track chores to make it easier to trade-off and not forget who signed up for what chore. 

Another approach is having a whiteboard listing the tasks but not assign any specific tasks to any one person. Using this system, everyone agrees to do a specific number of chores on the list on a “first come, first serve” basis. With this system, a roommate who is unmotivated when it comes to chores might be more eager to complete tasks they consider to be easier before someone else in the household gets to it.

E, Clean together

Doing chores together on a specific day or at a particular hour of the day can help to motivate your messy roommate. For example, you can set aside Saturday mornings to focus your attention on household tasks. Chores that you can do together weekly or every other week include dusting, mopping floors, vacuuming, deep cleaning the bathroom, and cleaning the stove.

However, this approach might not work for all chores. Some tasks, like washing dishes, might need to be done every day. So, unless you’re okay with letting dishes pile up until the scheduled cleaning time/day, this may not be the most suitable solution for you. 

F, Suggest that they pay for a housecleaner

If your roommate is unwilling to do their share of chores no matter what you try, it might be worth suggesting they pay for a housecleaner. You can also suggest to your roommate that if they do not want to do tasks around the shared space, or they don’t have the time, they can pay you to do it for them.

Final thoughts

Living with a messy roommate can be one of the most challenging parts of sharing a living space. Before you move in with someone, discuss their level of cleanliness. Be honest about what you consider to be messy or clean. If you do end up with a messy roommate, talk to them honestly about how you feel. Try to work together to keep your apartment clean and keep a separate space for yourself to keep as clean as you’d like.

Melanie Asiba

Melanie is an author. She enjoys traveling, reading and trying out new things. In addition to writing for Apartment ABC. Connect with her at [email protected]

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