How to Handle a Smelly Roommate

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How to Handle a Smelly Roommate

Oh My Apartment · Jan 21, 2008

It’s every renter’s nightmare. You walk into your apartment and get a whiff of a strange smell. It’s hard to identify, but it’s bad. You follow your nose, and unexpectedly, it does not lead you to the kitchen garbage. Instead, your nose takes you straight to your new roommate’s room. Uh oh. You’ve got a problem. Cleaning out a smelly refrigerator or recycling bin is an unpleasant but manageable task. Talking to your roommate about how bad he smells is another thing altogether. We spoke to renters about how they handled their smelly roommates–read on for their stories and the lessons they learned.

Identify the Source of the Stink
Before you even think about broaching the problem with your roommate, figure out whether you can identify the cause behind the smell. Some smells, such as cigarette smoke, are easier to discuss than more personal issues, like suffocatingly bad B.O. Denise, an artist living in Newark, New Jersey, found it easy to talk about her roommate’s cigarette smell. “My roommate was a smoker. We’d made a rule that there was no smoking in the house, but she did this thing where she smoked with the window open and then sprayed air freshener to cover up the smell.” Of course, the air freshener didn’t eliminate the smell of smoke, it just created a new, more terrible smell. “I didn’t feel bad about letting her know that she reeked. I also told her that she had smoker’s breath. It wasn’t like she naturally smelled bad. It was the cigarettes.” Other smells that were easy to address included foul-smelling deodorant, body spray and perfume. “My roommate’s summer subletter wore this awful cheap cologne,” remembers Raj, a computer programmer in Portland, Oregon. “I just told him I was allergic. He put the stuff away for the rest of the summer.”

Send a Subtle Hint
If the cause of your roommate’s bad smell is a little more personal, sending a subtle message can help. Max’s college roommate was a sweaty varsity athlete averse to doing laundry on a regular basis. “He’d let his dirty gym socks stew in the hamper. Our whole room smelled like a gym locker. But even though he was a varsity rower, he was the sensitive type. I didn’t want to come out with a direct complaint at the risk of offending him.” Instead, Max offered to do a load of his roommate’s laundry. “I told him I knew he was busy and hadn’t gotten a chance to do his laundry recently. So I offered to throw some of his stuff in with mine. He declined and gave me a weird look.” So did it work? Max reports that his roommate started doing laundry a lot more regularly after that. However, he doesn’t take full credit for improving the laundry situation. Not long after his laundry offer, Max’s girlfriend came into the dorm room when his roommate was home. “She announced very loudly that our room smelled like a dirty gym sock. So maybe that’s what really made him change his ways.”

Lindsay, an event planner from Manhattan, took to spraying Febreeze around the apartment while her roommate was home. “She had B.O., that was clear. I didn’t know her well enough to say anything directly. So every time she walked in the door to the apartment, I’d get up and start spraying. When she’d ask what I was doing, I kept telling her about a ‘weird smell’ in the apartment. I think she got the message, but I’m not sure there was anything she could do about it. I moved a few months later.” Lindsay’s point is an important one to remember. Sometimes people with bad body odor can’t help it. Some body odor problems are related to medical conditions. They can be covered up, but are hard to eliminate. If your roommate showers and changes clothes regularly and still smells, the problem may be beyond his control. You may want to rethink saying anything to him at all.

Taking a Direct Approach
Some renters chose to take a direct approach with their roommates. How did they fare? “My college roommate wore smelly Birkenstocks, which she never cleaned. The dorm room smelled like feet,” says Mariana, a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She says she weighed the pros and cons of a direct confrontation. “She was kind of oblivious, so I didn’t think she’d respond to a subtle hint. And I really couldn’t take that smell anymore. So I just told her ‘your shoes stink. Our room smells like feet. Wash your shoes or leave them in the hall.'” So how did she take it? “Not well. She was really offended. But she listened. Given that we weren’t great friends anyway, I’d say it was worth it.”

Others had a clear success. John’s first roommate after college rarely showered. “He was the outdoorsy type. He showered maybe twice a week. It was bad–a mix of B.O., sweat and just old, musty something. Just bad!” Luckily, the roommate provided John with an angle. “He was doing online dating and kept complaining that he couldn’t get a second date. Then he asked me if I could think of a reason why. Well, the reason was obvious, and I told him why–in a nice way, of course.” The situation ended happily. John’s roommate took to showering “four or five times a week,” a vast improvement. John’s suggestions to his roommate were well-received because the roommate had something to gain as well. If you’re going to take a direct approach, think about the ways that your advice might benefit your roommate as well as yourself.

Copping Out and Keeping Quiet
Not surprisingly, most of the people we spoke to decided against doing anything at all. Some kept quiet because they knew their time with the roommate was limited. Others feared an emotional overreaction. “I think my roommate was depressed at the time. She didn’t go out and stopped showering. I didn’t want to say anything because she was clearly bad off and I didn’t want to make her feel worse. Besides, I didn’t know her that well,” remembers Ashley, a student in Baltimore. “I just didn’t get too close to her. When she left the apartment, I’d shut the door to her room. The smell was pretty manageable when I did those things.” Others chose a combination of silence and passive-aggression. “I was living in a suite with three other guys in college,” remembers Dave, a computer programmer from White Plains, New York. One of our roommates had really bad B.O., but the rest of us didn’t want to say anything. So we pulled pranks on him instead, flushing the toilet when he was showering and stuff like that. OK, maybe it wasn’t the best way to handle that situation. But it made us feel better!”

So what can we learn from all this? First, some smells (like smoke and cologne) are easier to talk about than others (B.O.). Subtle hints work–but not always. When they fail, you may have to take a direct approach. The more responsive your roommate is to constructive criticism, the better your chances for a successful discussion. Of course, you can lay low and play the avoidance game, which works better when your time with your roommate is limited. You should only have to suffer in silence for so long.

We know you have some great stories of your own. Tell us how you handled them in our comments section.

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