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Roommate Issues (Smoking, Loudness, Stealing, etc.) and How to Deal with Them

“Nobody’s perfect,” as the old saying goes, and the best way to discover this is to get a roommate. When you move in with someone, you get to see all of their imperfections and bad habits up close. Whether your roommate is a heavy smoker, a noisy evening partier, a lover of loud music or a mild kleptomaniac, it all boils down to one thing: he or she is disturbing your life and making it hard to live together in the same apartment. The approach to fixing this problem is similar in all of these cases.

First, Calm Down:
If you’re like most people, your roommate’s annoying habit will probably make you feel like the Incredible Hulk. You may want to turn into a raging maniac who runs around roaring at the top of your lungs. It’s perfectly okay to do this—but do it in private, where no one can hear you.

Then take a deep breath and calm down. Look at the situation rationally. If you believe that your roommate stole something, double check; perhaps it’s just lost. If there’s cigarette smoke in the air, find out if it’s from your roomie or from someone lighting up in the apartment next door.

Next, put yourself in your roommate’s shoes. If there are messy dishes in the sink, is it because he or she had to rush off to a job interview? Can you let this one slide? If not, prepare yourself to take the next step…

Confront with Gentleness:
If your roommate really has made a mistake, it is important to discuss it in person. Resist the temptation to leave a note, because the written word is too ambiguous. No hand-drawn smiley face can substitute for a kind word and a real smile.

Find a moment when you are both calm and you have time to talk. Explain the problem simply, resisting the temptation to blame. First, put yourself in their shoes. For example, you might say, “I know that you must have been thirsty last night when you drank my soda.” Then gently turn the tables and put them in your shoes: “Unfortunately, I’m short on cash right now and I can’t afford to share my groceries. Could you check with me before you borrow food?”

Make Positive Suggestions and Negotiate:
As you saw in the previous example, it’s helpful to keep the conversation positive. If you can suggest a way to avoid the problem in the future, all your roommate has to do is agree to the solution. If your roommate does not agree, try negotiating. For example, if your roommate is a smoker and doesn’t want to smoke outside in winter, can they smoke on the porch? If there is no porch, can they lean out their bedroom window?

But what should you do if the negotiation doesn’t work? What happens if your roommate agrees to turn off the loud music at midnight, but then blares heavy metal music at 6:00 a.m.?

Be Firm and Make Things Clear:
If your roommate crosses your boundaries again, it’s time to have a more serious conversation. Make it absolutely clear what is acceptable (and what is not) and what the consequences will be. Of course, this conversation should also be conducted as politely as possible, with minimal finger-pointing.

At this point, you may want to put your agreement in writing. In fact, many experts suggest that you always have a written contract with your roommates, and that you get this contract signed before anyone moves in. You can even get pre-written contracts online.

Contracts can cover a range of topics including:

  • Bill payments
  • Noise levels and noise hours
  • Pets
  • Cleanliness
  • How rent is paid
  • Which bills to split
  • Visiting hours for guests
  • Who can move in (e.g. boyfriends, relatives, etc.)
  • What will happen if someone wants to move out
  • Whether smoking is allowed

If you feel shy about approaching your roommate with a legal document, blame it on your lawyer. “You’re a wonderful roommate,” you can say, “but my lawyer is pestering me to have this signed.”

When Nothing Works:
Most roommates will improve after a few polite discussions, but there are times to get moving. If your roommate refuses to leave, steals and hides your possessions, causes damage to the apartment or is otherwise impossible to live with, you still have options.

If your roommate is violent (or is threatening violence to you or someone else), do not continue to live with him or her. Call the police, report and document the incident, get to a safe place and seek the support of a friend or family member. Domestic violence is not limited to marriages; it can happen with roommates, too.

If you have a non-violent (but otherwise rotten) roommate, contact your landlord. Your roommate’s actions may be cause for evicting them or terminating the lease agreement. If your roommate is stealing from you, contact the police and ask them for advice. Local laws vary, but there is usually something that you can do to recover your property.

In most cases, extreme measures like this will not be needed. With a little patience and negotiating, even some poor roommates can transform into good friends.

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