Illustration by Daniel Fishel for Express

For Malcolm Whitfield, it’s his roommate’s tendency to borrow food without asking. For Puja Panwar, it was overhearing her previous roommate having, er, intimate conversations with her long-distance boyfriend. And for Frankie Gourrier, it was the sound of children scuffling across the floor in the apartment above him – and the time his wife heard what turned out to be a home birth in the upstairs unit.

“It sounded like someone was slaughtering a hog,” he says.

If you’ve ever been in a group living situation, be it a rowhouse or a high rise, you’ve faced them: awkward renter issues. (OK, maybe not the home birth.) So what’s a renter to do? We polled some local renters and etiquette experts on the most common issues that make renters uncomfortable, and the best ways to handle them.

If these walls could talk

When Gourrier, 29, lived in Madison, Wisc., before moving to Silver Spring, the neighbors above him had some issues conforming to the building’s “quiet hours” policy, which says tenants should keep noise down at night.

“One child would drag the chair across the floor,” says Gourrier, who now lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife where he thankfully doesn’t struggle with noise issues anymore. “It sounded like thunder.”

As the resident manager in his old building, Gourrier went to talk to the neighbors about the noise, and explained that the walls were thin.

“They always apologized,” he says. “They knew it was a pain.”

Panwar, 21, who rents a three-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, describes a similarly awkward issue from a previous living situation with a friend.

“I could hear her having computer sex,” she says. “In the beginning, I tried to avoid it. I’d leave the apartment.”

Without mentioning specifics, Panwar ended up telling her roommate to let her know when she “needed some privacy.”

With such private matters, she says, “It’s better to be ambiguous.”

Before mentioning anything, renters should consider whether what they’re hearing is above and beyond everyday noise, says Nancy Mitchell, a protocol and etiquette consultant and owner of Etiquette Advocate (301-320-8055).

If standard noise is drifting through the walls, that’s the fault of the building — and poor sound proofing — she notes. But loud music, blaring TV and other over-the-top noise is worth mentioning to your neighbors or roommates, Mitchell says. Just be sure to be cordial and don’t make your first encounter with the neighbors a complaint, she suggests.

“You might get to know the person by bumping into them in the hall, or bring them muffins and say hello,” she says. “Then once you’ve had that conversation, you know you’re not a total stranger when you go over and mention [the issue.]”
If the building doesn’t have set quiet hours, you might work out your own with the neighbors, Mitchell adds.

Crystal Bailey, director of The Etiquette Institute of Washington (1155 F ST. NW, Suite 1050; 202-670-7349), notes that renters have more standing to mention noise issues to their roommates versus their neighbors.

“It’s a question of ‘do I have the right, socially, to even comment?’” she says.

With neighbors, it’s really delicate to say something. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up.”

Beg, borrow, steal

Whitfield, 26, rents a two-bedroom apartment in Hyattsville with a friend, whose tendency to borrow food irks him, but they don’t really discuss it.

“If it’s a major issue or anything dealing with bills, we’ll talk about it,” he says. “In terms of significant others or borrowing food, we just let it go.”

On the subject of group living etiquette, the biggest complaint Mitchell hears revolves around roommates borrowing others’ stuff or eating food without permission.

“That’s just standard good manners,” Mitchell says. “You don’t take someone else’s stuff without asking.”

Bailey agrees. “I say do not borrow anything, unless it’s down to the wire,” she says. “And if you absolutely need to: ask, and replace it as soon as possible.”

Speaking up

For other awkward renter issues — the significant other who spends more time in the apartment than you but doesn’t pay rent, the parents who drop by unannounced, the neighbor across the way who undresses with the blinds open — the etiquette experts suggest mentioning something early, before a minor nuisance turns into a major point of tension.

“What you’re trying to do is head off a blow up,” Mitchell says. “If you don’t say something and you keep repressing it, it builds and builds like steam.”

At the end of the day, Bailey says, it always comes down to the golden rule. In this case, she says: “Do unto your roommate as you would have them do unto you.”



The path of lease resistance

You may not realize it, but your apartment could have policies in place to try to nip certain awkward renter issues in the bud. Many leases, for example, have addendums with policies on:

Guests: If guests are staying overnight, for example, some landlords require you to notify them, and some forbid guests from more than about a dozen days per year.

Music/noise: If your building has evening quiet hours, you’ll likely find them in an addendum to your lease, along with warnings against “unnecessary or boisterous conduct,” for example.

Children: Some buildings have rules for where children can and cannot play or gather in the apartment building. E.B.


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