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You’re Staying How Long? Managing Difficult Houseguests

I have a lovely studio apartment. It’s relatively spacious and it has hardwood floors, a separate kitchen, and a charming porch with a view of a gas station that is often obscured by a leafy tree of some Northern California variety. The rent’s great, all things considered, and the location couldn’t be better. But the very best thing about my studio apartment? Out-of-town friends rarely have the stomach for more than a night or two on my meager AeroBed.

People ask to stay with me sometimes, and I graciously say, “Of course! I’d love to have you. But you do know I live in a studio, right? You do know you’ll be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, wedged in between my bed and my desk? Oh, and how I snore!” As you can imagine, I keep my place to myself most of the time.

But this doesn’t make me a stranger to the concept of the dreaded horrible houseguest. I have heard the tales from friends and have even experienced a few myself over the years. Here, a field guide to different types of houseguests, and how to deal with them effectively, drama-free and friendship intact—usually.

1. The Mooch: The Houseguest Who Takes “Mi Casa Es Su Casa” a Little Too Literally
It’s one thing to make yourself at home. It’s quite another to help yourself to every piece of food, article of clothing, toiletry item, and iota of privacy that exists within a person’s abode. Most people don’t mind if a guest pokes in the fridge for a snack, but when she takes up residence on the couch in the matching velour tracksuit that she pilfered without permission from your closet, with the last of your Wheat Thins and that bottle of sauvignon blanc you were saving for a special occasion, all the while hogging the remote control, things can get a bit tense.

Coping Mechanism: Provide Other Options

The best way to manage a mooch is with simple distraction. She likes pretty and/or tasty things that aren’t hers, so suggest a trip to the mall, the movies, a museum, that new deli on the corner—anything that provides her with impetus to get the heck out of the house and wreak her grabby havoc elsewhere.

2. The Mess: He Came, He Saw, He Left His Stuff Everywhere
He leaves a trail of disorderly destruction wherever he goes. He hasn’t so much as put a cereal bowl in the dishwasher, and didn’t even offer to wipe up the spot on the floor where he spilled Diet Coke. And as if that weren’t bad enough, you notice that he hasn’t showered in three days and you’re worried about the smell emanating from your guest room; you suspect you’ll have to burn those sheets once he’s gone.

Coping Mechanism: A Little to the Left of Passive Aggressive

It’s very hard to accuse a friend of being a pig. But it’s easy to help your guest notice the standards by which you keep your house. When he spills the Diet Coke, ask, “Do you know where to find the paper towels?” When you begin to notice the smells in the guest room, surreptitiously plant some aromatic decoration on the nightstand or leave a change of sheets at the foot of the bed. The hints are subtle, but they likely won’t be missed.

3. The New Roommate: Or, Beware the Couch Surfer
It seemed like the friendly thing to do, letting your friend stay with you while she was between apartments or between jobs. She promised it would only be for a week or so. It was the “or so” that contained the fine print. “Or so” means she’s effectively squatting in your living room.

The Coping Mechanism: Tough Love

You hate to play the role of Captain Obvious in the Theater of Duh, but in this instance, you just have to tell it to your friend straight. Explain to her how nice it’s been to have her for so long and how honored you were to help her out. Then lay on the “buts”: But it’s time for her to stand on her own two feet. But it’s time to once again become a contributing member of society. But if she stays for one more week you are going to throw all of her belongings into the street while she sleeps. Set a deadline for her departure, then be proactive in helping her keep it, so she knows she has your support, even if she’ll no longer have your couch.

4. The Non-Decider: Your Second Job
This sort of houseguest is especially prevalent if you live in a destination city people come from all around the world to see, and lucky you—you get to put them up. You would think he’d arrive with a mile-long list of the sights he wants to see, the things he wants to do. But no. He shows up with nary a plan and wholeheartedly expects you to lay out the itinerary for his visit.

The Coping Mechanism: Give Him the “Locals-Only” Tour

You know perfectly well what constitutes a good time in your town. So take your friend to the places you want to go. Forget the sights and the tourist traps; show him where you have coffee every day, take him to your favorite restaurant, introduce him to your dry cleaner. Chances are, he’ll appreciate the local’s perspective as much as he does any famous landmark, and if he doesn’t, he’ll eventually speak his mind and let you know what he’d really like to do.

5. The Complainer: Never Has a Nice Thing to Say
You might not be Martha Stewart, but you know how to spruce your place up in anticipation of impending guests. Does she notice? Does she care? No! She’s wrinkling her nose at your choice of window coverings. She’s complaining about the quality of the mattress in the guest room. She’s wondering out loud, “How could you pay so much rent for this place? What made you choose that sofa? Why do you have only skim milk?” And on and on she goes, making her displeasure abundantly clear even as she avails herself of your hospitality.

The Coping Mechanism: Stand Your Ground

The first thing is to allow for the possibility that perhaps you might have overlooked some detail that would interfere with her comfort, however unlikely. Doing so will help to put you on the higher ground, and will eventually trivialize her complaints, with no unfriendly effort on your part. Once it’s been established that you are indeed a gracious hostess, counter each complaint with an anecdote about the amenities at a five-star hotel or expensive bed-and-breakfast. When she says snidely, “The floral print on your sheets is so 1997! They’re just so … charming!” You say, “I know, they’re very cute. By the way, have you stayed at the W? Nothing like sleeping on Egyptian cotton. No wonder a room is $400 a night!” While your poly-blend, floral-print sheets might not measure up to 500-thread-count Egyptian cotton, the reminder that her accommodations at your abode are gratis might quell the complaints.

In the end, the best way to deal with visitors who have a history of being difficult is to just say no. It’s not easy, but you’re equipped with the grace and panache to do it in such a way that feelings will not be terribly hurt, and they will have to concede that it is best for all parties that they stay elsewhere. But more often than not, most of us are delighted to house our family and friends for the duration of their stay. Everyone successfully puts their foibles aside for the peace of the group, and everyone ends up having a marvelous time. What? Don’t laugh. It’s possible.