Roommates and Overnight Guests:Tips to Avoid Problems

Doug guests visitorBen Franklin may have known about electricity, politics, bifocals and one or two other things, but one of his more overlooked gifts to posterity is this immortal observation: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” What he didn’t say is this: If they’re your roommate’s guests, rather than your own, the smell can set in a whole lot faster. Strangers in close confines can  make for uncomfortable  situations. You can’t eradicate this awkwardness altogether, of course, but there are ways to make it easier for everyone. Pleasant, even. If you’re inviting a guest over, especially someone who’s staying more than one night, here are a few basic things to bear in mind so you can keep the peace with your roommate.

First and foremost, practice good communication. This is really, really important. Really. Unless your guest is going to enter and exit through your bedroom window, he or she will almost certainly be using the shared spaces of your apartment–the key word there being “shared.” It’s your roommate’s place just as much yours, so it’s absolutely key that you give the proper advance warning that there will be another person around. Put yourself in your roommate’s shoes: it’s jarring enough to get home one evening and find a stranger coming out of your bathroom, or to see your roommate snuggling on the couch with someone you’ve never seen before, right? Well, it’s even more disconcerting, even more of an affront to basic expectations of personal space and privacy, to wake up in the morning and stumble to the kitchen in your underwear, only to encounter an unexpected stranger. So chat with your roommate before your guest arrives, give at least a one-sentence description of who the guest is–a cousin, a couch-surfer, a college friend–and be sure to ask if your roommate has any questions or concerns. As always, it’s just good form to keep your roommate in the loop.

When you’re having this discussion, keep the tone light and friendly. Roommate relations can be tricky, and adding another person into the mix, even for one night or a few hours, can make things even more complicated. So keep it a casual, friendly conversation–you’re a diplomat here, not a dictator. But do make sure everyone has an understanding of how to interact and what to expect.

Make it clear how long the guest will be around. Will it be a day? A weekend? Make sure your roommate is okay with that, and offer reassurance that your guest will be respectful and discreet. Also realize that even the most polite guest can seem like a major intrusion if he or she is around for more than a few days–or if, for example, your roommate is in the middle of finals or just starting a new job or dealing with any of those big-deal, stressful life situations for which the space, privacy, and predictability of home offer a much-needed balm.

Establish some basic rules and expectations for both your roommate and your guest. If either one has a habit of wandering around the house in the nude, or cooking elaborate meals and neglecting to clean up the kitchen, now would be a great time to ask that this sort of thing be halted, at least temporarily. Do either of them have more low-key but still notable quirks, habits, or needs that need to be explained? Are there areas of the apartment, or things like specific food in the refrigerator, that your guest should understand are off-limits? Make sure everyone understands these basic  things.

DON’T get too close and cuddly outside the bedroom, if your guest is a boyfriend, girlfriend, or any sort of romantic interest. Don’t make your roommate feel uncomfortable, and know where that boundary lies. Some people might not particularly care if you kiss in front of them; others will start to squirm at the slightest hint of verbal flirting. Just understand–and respect–the specific boundaries of comfort, and if you’re at all uncertain, err on the side of discretion. (Besides, you probably don’t want to flirt with someone else staring uncomfortably, do you?)

DO socialize together! If you’re watching a movie or playing a game in the living room, invite your roommate to join you. With any luck, you’ll all become friends.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (6)

  1. Avatar Anna

    His girlfriend is coming over every day after work spending night taking showers leaving on morning I told him he is sneaking in here so I don’t want to get ijntrouvoellll

  2. Avatar Jocelyn

    My best friend of 10 + years was engaged to her girlfriend and had an apartment and dog with her. The girlfriend decided she wanted to leave abruptly and my friend couldn’t afford the rent on her own anymore. My friend has had an off and on relationship with this same girl for the majority of the years I’ve known her and i’ve helped my friend through many times of crying and suffering because of this girlfriend being mentally and physically abusive and controlling. We’ll call my friend Mary and her girlfriend Rosy. Mary asked me if I was interested in moving in with her when her lease was up. I figured it was time for me to move out of my parents house so I agreed. Knowing Mary and Rosy’s history, I mentioned to Mary before signing the lease that I wouldn’t be comfortable with this (then ex) girlfriend living here or staying here all the time if they were to get back together. Mary laughed and said that wasn’t a possibility. The first couple months were fine although Mary was upset about the breakup still and I tried to console her the best I could. I noticed changes after the first few months where she’d seem like she was hiding something and I knew she was probably talking to Rosy again… which is fine… that’s her choice. Next thing you know they’re back together and now I’m dealing with Rosy visiting here. When she visits, Mary makes a very serious effort to keep Rosy separate from me because she knows having her here makes me uncomfortable. Mary has actually paid for hotel rooms for Rosy for some of the nights she was around. This only adds to my hurt and frustration because I never see Mary anymore and I feel alienated in my own home. On the other hand I have no desire to hang out with Rosy at this point. I’ve expressed to Mary how uncomfortable I am that Rosy is around and that I feel disrespected because she’s blatantly disregarding the agreement that was made before the lease was signed. She acknowledges that tha agreement was made but thinks I shouldn’t be making such a big deal about it. She thinks I’m not being a good friend by limiting the time Rosy can be here. I even compromised and said that Rosy can visit but just not for long periods of time. I said she should not be staying for more than 4 days at a time and not more than twice a month. The last time she came she’s stayed for over a week and the time before that she was here for 3 weeks! At this point, our lease is up in two months. Mary has decided she’d like to move in with Rosy when the lease is up but she’s telling me I have to come to a decision of how we’re going to deal with the next 2 months living together. She can’t accept my compromise of only letting Rosy stay for short periods of time. I don’t want to ruin my friendship but I also don’t think it’s fair for me to be walked all over.

  3. Avatar Thoughtful Thoughts (@IgnitingThought)

    What about a 4 bedroom 4 bathroom college apartment (off campus), where three of the guys disregard any consideration and simply allow a friend of theirs who does not attend that college (or any college) and does not have a job to stay in the apartment — indefinitely? This guest gets drunk and is boisterous and loud at 3 AM, vomits all over the kitchen and curses the third guy who forcefully asks him to not vomit in the sink and on the floor?

    • Ben Ben

      Hi there,

      This behavior sounds pretty much unacceptable. It sounds like you have tried to let it be known that the behavior won’t be tolerated, but it might be the time to be very clear about what you expect. You should probably set up a time when all of the roommates (no guests) can sit down and lay out ground rules for the apartment. The reason you don’t want the guests to be there for this first meeting, is that you want both the guest and their host to understand that the guest does not have any pull or control over decisions in the apartment.

      Approach each person and tell them you would like to set up a time to talk about this issue, and ask if there is a time that works for them. Let them know that if there is anything that is bothering them, this would be a good time to make others aware.

      Something that has to happen in all apartments is compromise. It sounds like you don’t want the person to be banned from the apartment as long as the follow a few simple rules (quiet hours, cleanliness, etc). Write out what you expect the rules to be.

      Once you get to the meeting with your roommates, just remember to be confident and remember that you put a lot of effort into getting this meeting to happen. So make sure you say all you wanted to say. Be respectful, and be sure to listen to everyone’s points of view. It can be stressful to have that many people involved in one issue.

      It’s good that you have let your feelings be known, but now it’s time to be very clear about what you want. And remember that you may have to compromise, but you are at least allowed to say how you feel.

      Good luck! I think with some communication and ground rules, you will be a lot happier.

  4. Avatar Ria

    I wish I could show my housemate this article without looking like a dick.. Especially the penultimate point!! Eugh.

    • Alex Alex

      Hi Ria,

      Thanks for the positive comment! A thought: If you’re polite about it, it might be a way to start a productive discussion. Certainly, stewing about it while saying nothing isn’t going to solve the problem. If you do approach your roommate, just remember to assume the best: He/she may not even realize you have an issue and likely isn’t trying to make you upset. If you approach with that attitude, you’re unlikely to come across as a jerk. Best of luck.