What do you wish you'd known when you moved into a shared house?
August 19, 2010 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What do you wish you'd known when you moved into a shared house?

A week ago I just moved cross-country, to Oakland, and into a house where seven people live. One is a friend of a friend from college, which is how I found the place; the other five are people found via (I think?) Craigslist. As far as I know nobody knew each other before moving in, and all but one of us moved in after around July 1 of this year, so this isn't an established situation.

We all have separate bedrooms (well, there's one person's bedroom that you have to walk to to get to another person's, but neither of those people are me). Two bathrooms. Two kitchens - one full-size and commonly accessible, one mini-kitchen in my room. Age range is early 20s (but post-college) to early 30s. (I'm 26.) Three women, four men.

My experience in living with other non-family people has been:
- in a dorm all four years in college;
- an ill-fated year in 2005-06 where I shared a two-bedroom with someone who found me online; that scared me into living alone for the last four years, but with my situation here I can't afford it, and living alone was getting kind of lonely anyway.

So I'm a bit worried that I'm going to commit some horrible sins against shared-house etiquette just because I don't know what they are! If you've come back to shared living after living alone for a while, what do you wish you'd known? Help me avoid coming back here in a few months with some horrible saga of how I hate my housemates.
posted by madcaptenor to Human Relations (37 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The number one rule to a friendly and fun shared house: keep the kitchen clean. Keep the bathroom clean to, but really keep the kitchen clean. No, really; it's like the golden rule.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:45 AM on August 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, I do like when other people keep the kitchen clean. So I guess the golden rule implies I should do the same.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:47 AM on August 19, 2010



- Create an easy and efficient way for everyone to share utilities. It's a pain in the ass to have to go through each month trying to figure out who owes who what. Designate someone to keep track of the utilities. Or put a thing on the fridge saying "so-and-so paid electric and it was x number of dollars." At the end of the month, add, divide, and cut checks. Or some other system you guys want - but get a system in place, in any event.

- Don't be passive aggressive ever.

- Don't be the person who always buys toilet paper, but don't be the person who never does either. Same goes for taking out the trash, recycling, etc.

- Try to hang out as a house and drink some beers every now and again. It's awkward sharing so much with people if you never shoot the shit a bit.

- Be flexible and understanding, but not a pushover. A roommate has an occasional party, or plays music loudly late every now and again, and it bothers you? Let it go. Roommate has huge party every weekend and blares AC/DC until 3 a.m. every night? Lay down a little law.

- Don't fuck anyone you live with.

- Busy housemates are happy housemates.

- Be kind.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:51 AM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

With that many of you, you may want to consider weekly or bi-weekly house meetings, so that issues can be brought up and attended to before they fester.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my shared living experiences, hiring cleaners to come in and do a once-over every two weeks has been worth every single penny in facilitating household harmony. The charts and calendars and pestering people when it's their turn to clean the bathroom get old really really fast. I know people seek out these shared living situations to save money, but when you divide it up among 7 people it's not that much.
posted by ambrosia at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2010 [13 favorites]

It's just normal stuff. The biggest areas of conflict will be noise in private space (i.e. your music in your room at 4am), and communal spaces.

The mini-kitchen, if it's in your room, should be yours. Otherwise it's going to lead to no end of problems.

This kind of stuff should be thought about:

The full size kitchen:
- Cleaning rota (easiest if you all say: Saturday morning = cleaning the house day)
- Cleaning materials purchase rota
- Are certain foodstuffs communal (e.g. milk, bread)?
- Do people have designated fridge, cupboard space?
- Are crockery, cutlery etc. shared?
- Can washing up be left to soak (suggest no, unless it's a pan with egg stuck to the bottom or something, and then if you made the mess you clear it up)?
- Does washing include drying and putting away?
- Taking out the trash rota

- Who uses what? Women one, men another?
- Cleaning rota?
- Leave toothbrushes etc. in bathroom, or only take in stuff when you need it
- Buying toilet paper rota
- Any precedence rule (e.g. Bob works in the morning, so must have the shower before 08:30 so he can get out the house and leave. Paul works afternoons, so shouldn't take the shower before 09:00)

If you can all agree to some ground rules, you avoid the conflict that arises out of uncertainty ("oh, I thought we shared bread, sorry, I've just been taking it as I need it!")

I'd say sharing and getting to know your housemates is the way forward - cooking and eating together will help you bond, and give you some slack if you mess up. It will also mean a generally more chilled out house.
posted by djgh at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2010

Keep communal areas clean.

Keep your own areas clean enough that they don't smell.

Try and keep noise to a minimum.

Respect people's private spaces.

If you're having overnight guests for more than a few nights, or for single nights, but pretty regularly, it's probably wise to get an okay from everyone.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2010

I'd find out the house perception on "overnight guests" - allowed for how long? Etc. And listen carefully to how noise travels throughout the house so you know how much noise you can safely make yourself with your guest(s).
posted by analog at 11:54 AM on August 19, 2010

Know that there might be some clash between Askers and Guessers, but it probably isn't personal.

This probably seems like a no-brainer, but I'll go ahead and say it anyway: your roommates don't want to hear you having sex. It's awkward. Just be mindful that things may uh, get louder than you think.
posted by corey flood at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2010

pet issues. be clear about guidelines.
posted by effluvia at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: corey flood: in college I had thin walls, a loud bed (poorly constructed loft), and the girl in the next room was not shy about telling me that she'd heard.

Fortunately she was okay with it. I generally remember sex noises in college being something that people laughed about, not got angry about.

Then again, I'm not in college any more.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2010

After living in a house with eight to nine other people, none of whom I knew before moving in.... This is my advice to you.

You may be extremely lucky and have all awesome housemates (and I certainly hope that you do). This was my case for the first year. What happened after that point is that slowly some of the cool people left and were replaced by people who seemed cool at first, but then showed their true crazy colors. So, in that spirit beware of your housemates letting friends you don't know stay for extended periods of time no matter how tempting it may be financially.

If you have furniture and they have pets, use Scotchguard. Pets and irresponsible people can really drag a house down.

If your expensive condiments get consumed before you've used them even twice start keeping them in your cabinet. If they keep disappearing, put some really creepy picture with intense eyes up on the inside of your door. It may not solve the problem, but it can't hurt.

If someone asks you to do them a favor, and it doesn't put you out, by all means do it. Brownie points come in very handy in future situations. However, be wary if their favor requests become regular things. Needy people, especially needy people with drug problems are pretty much the worst.

Also if someone who obviously has issues starts claiming that things are missing, chances are very good that they're the one to blame. Don't be surprised if they start keeping their food in a plastic bag in the trunk of their car and still claim that people are taking their food.

Don't get involved in any drama. Remain aloof as much as possible.

Shared house etiquette is just that. Shared.
Take out the garbage when it's your turn, and if you see that it hasn't been done in time take the initiative.
Move the vacuum around once in a while. People will love you for it.
Don't leave piles of your dirty dishes in the sink, or food bits all over the kitchen.
If there's a chance to improve the house or decorate, involve the housemates in the process.
Don't leave your stuff having around all over the place.

All the best.
posted by BishopFistwick at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Never bring up how much work you do in comparison to how much work any of your roommates does. You will not win an argument that way, and you will look like an asshole.

Always assume good faith. Your roommates are not leaving the faucet dripping because they hate the Earth or want you to hear DRIP DRIP DRIP all damn night -- they're leaving it dripping because they just don't realize that the faucet needs to be dogged down pretty hard. Explain it to them, and then explain it to them again when they forget, and then they're being assholes and it's something to yell at them for.
posted by Etrigan at 12:06 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The number one rule to a friendly and fun shared house: keep the kitchen clean. Keep the bathroom clean to, but really keep the kitchen clean. No, really; it's like the golden rule.

This, and banging roommates has consequences.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get to know everyone, at least as far as their interests in entertainment (video games, music, TV, movies), food (allergies), usual patterns of being awake and around, and how lively they are. If you're not sure what someone thinks of something, just ask them.

It's not always possible, but sharing some meals is pretty great, in terms of having a relaxed/comfortable household, cutting down on personal food prep time, and the amount of cleaning any one person has to do. House-hold game or movie nights are also fun, but preparing food together, or everyone having a role in the course of a dinner is more bonding (in my experience). If some are more of the cooks (and others agree on that), let them shine, and the others can clean (unless someone really hates cleaning, then they should pitch in for the food or something else).

Agree on what is shared and what is personal, and how to mark these things. It's usually the biggest issue in kitchens and bathrooms, but some people prefer having a very organized living room or kitchen area, while others are spill out when they get home. If anyone wants the common areas more open, then everyone should stick to dumping personal items in their rooms only.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2010

The only problem I've had are: messy roommates in the bathroom and kitchen, roommates who were looking for a 'best friend' when I moved in.

I'm introverted and this has resulted in at least two roommates becoming "mad" at me because I "hide" in my room.
posted by KogeLiz at 12:13 PM on August 19, 2010

In my experience, calling house meetings only works if a) everyone's the absolute best of friends or b) you all hate each other beyond loathing. If you're anywhere in between, they tend to breed resentment ('why can't people be reasonable about things like household rules?' vs. 'why couldn't you just tell me to put the milk back in the fridge, rather than call a meeting about whether or not we should bring in a law about it?'). Be direct, don't make things bigger deals than they have to be, and always handle potential issues as they come up rather than sitting in the corner of the living room glowering to yourself about them.

Also, watch out for the housemate who gradually moves in their non-rent-paying significant other. That always gets ugly.
posted by Catseye at 12:16 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The shared money pool is an excellent idea. We opened up a bank account between 3 of the 9 house members. We paid for utilities, toilet paper, soap and cleaning supplies. Money was thrown in when the account was getting low. This also covered gas money for those who cared enough to make a run to Costco.

You may find that individuals who share bathrooms may handle the toilet paper on their own. In our experience, the girls went through toilet paper a lot faster than the guys. We also quit buying paper towels early on since it seemed wasteful.

Sharing meals worked well for half the house, the others kept to themselves due to dietary habits.

We implemented a fining system for missed chores. You only need to load the dishwasher once every 9 days so a $5 fine was reasonable. The fines went into the bank account. The most important chore was garbage. It had to be put to the curb every week. If the two people responsible missed it, it cost them $10 each. This was actually fair considering garbage cost a lot per month. Keeping the kitchen sink manageable and taking garbage out was much more critical with 9 people since the normal-sized sink and garbage cans filled up quickly. Fortunately we had 3 refrigerators.

The kitchen was cleaned once a week and the other common areas were cleaned when it felt dirty enough. People kept their stuff in their own areas, hallways were kept fairly clear.
posted by just.good.enough at 12:21 PM on August 19, 2010

This is my experience, from living with anywhere from one other person, to 9 other people:

Nobody thinks anybody else does "enough" housework.
Everybody thinks they do "more than my share" of housework.

Deal with this in part by having a cleaning person come in every two weeks. But really, that will only serve as damage control. There needs to be sweeping, vacuuming, and wiping of surfaces in the meantime.

Defnitely have a house meeting. Try to arrange house activities, preferably things outside the house. Picnics, happy hour, musuem something or other.

Maybe have Ask vs. Guess culture be a topic at a house meeting? We had a house meeting every week in the 10 person house, and it literally saved our lives the night our wiring caught on fire.

As for ordering things to the house, definitely do that. Otherwise, someone is going to be sitting on the can in anguish about the toilet paper being gone.

The thing I haven't seen mentioned yet? Pest control. It's worth every penny to have the Orkin Man (or whomever) stop by once a month to make sure that you don't have roaches. Unless, you know, nobody in the house minds roaches. Cause they will arrive.
posted by bilabial at 12:23 PM on August 19, 2010

Also, we gave up on monthly house meetings after the first 2 or 3. They were good for establishing rules but personal grievances can be handled without gathering everyone. What I meant earlier was that we opened up a joint bank account with 3 people's names.
posted by just.good.enough at 12:24 PM on August 19, 2010

Walking through rooms to get to other rooms sounds like a massive fire hazard. Make sure you buy smoke detectors, and that the batteries are changed regularly.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:29 PM on August 19, 2010

Decide how you will handle things like last month's rent & security when someone moves out. Have a documented process that everyone agrees on, or someone's going to say "my security is my last month's rent" and not pay rent, and then everyone has to scramble to cover their share until the next roommate moves in. You don't want to do that.

Putting stuff in communal spaces: Decide how you want to handle things like people hanging pictures or putting stuff on the mantlepiece. Some people won't give a shit, others will care passionately.

It's not personal. None of it's personal. So just tell someone to stop leaving their shoes at the bottom of the stairs, their spoon in the sink, their newspaper next to the toilet. Chances are they don't even know that they're doing it.

I seriously once had a house dissolve into warfare over The Spoon In The Sink and The Picture On The Fireplace Mantle. Last time I ever had a roommate.
posted by micawber at 12:37 PM on August 19, 2010

Make sure people know how to communicated with each other. I had a bad roommate situation get worse because I was told he didn't mind us leaving notes about things. He read the notes in the worst way possible, and eventually blew up over it.

Also know that people can't always communicate the way you want them too. I don't really like leaving notes for people. But when I'm gone by 7am and go to bed around 9 it doesn't leave a lot of room for face to face conversations, especially when they're gone a lot of the time.

You're already a step up by having everyone out of college. I think that was my big mistake. The roommate wasn't out of college yet and didn't seem to understand that the world is different when you're out.

I know it's been said before, but get the food sharing down quick. It doesn't matter what system you use, but make sure everyone knows it and understands it. For example, sharing eggs is OK, but does that mean I can use 6 eggs to make a cake every weekend?

Also, try not to leave guests "stranded" at your house. My old roommate had his carless girlfriend spend the night and would head back to campus Saturday and Sunday mornings for his job. He left her at our place, which meant that I essentially couldn't go anywhere because I didn't want to leave her alone at our apartment. Remember that their your guest, not the guest of everyone else in the house.
posted by theichibun at 12:40 PM on August 19, 2010

I generally remember sex noises in college being something that people laughed about, not got angry about

Yeah, it's not so much an "angry" thing as an "I'd really just like to finish my cereal without having to listen to my roommate's girlfriend screaming for him to 'give it to [her] like that'" thing.
posted by corey flood at 1:01 PM on August 19, 2010

Walking through rooms to get to other rooms sounds like a massive fire hazard. Make sure you buy smoke detectors, and that the batteries are changed regularly.

?? Don't you walk through some rooms to get to other rooms in every house? Yes, smoke detectors are a good idea, but no more or less than they would be in any home.

We lived this way (with rotating roommates) for many years. The very best things we did were:

- Everyone contributed a set amount to a general fund every month. The cable, internet, and water bills were paid out of this fund, also the purchase of household sundries like cleaning supplies, etc.

- We instituted "family dinner" one night a week. You weren't required to come, but there was some implied social pressure to come. It was a quasi-potluck: one person (or a couple) would cook some easy main course, others would provide bread, drinks, salad, etc. Someone other than the cooks did the dishes. It provided a way for us to be social together, celebrate birthdays, just get to know each other, and in general served as the fulcrum that kept us all on a friendly footing.

- There should be a few house rules and they should all be written down. In my experience, rules (or guidelines, whatever) are necessary for: house guests, house quiet hours, shared 'resources' (for example, we had a DVD player sign-up sheet), etc. (Yours will certainly be different.)

As to thriving in this environment:

- Be Kind
- Talk TO your housemates, not about them. Encourage open lines of communication and refuse to be party to behind the back complaining or gossip.
- Always wash your dishes - even just a glass - immediately after you use them.
- Label your stuff.
- If you borrow, pay back twice as much.
- Be as generous as you can.
- Respect others' privacy, but reach out to people in pain.
posted by anastasiav at 1:05 PM on August 19, 2010

Some tips for building goodwill with your new housemates:

Always clean more than you think is your share (even if there's a chore schedule) but don't expect others to do the same. This means that, when you're washing your own dishes, wash the other dishes in the sink, too, but don't get mad if no one else does this. Well, if you have your own kitchen, that might not be a issue, but you get the idea. Be generous in your cleaning.

If there is a chore schedule (and with that number of people, there should be!) always do your chore early in the week and do a damn good job, even if you hate that chore.

If you're planning on having more than 1 or 2 people over, send your roommates an email to let them know. It sucks to have grand cooking plans, only to come home and discover that your kitchen is full of people cooking an elaborate feast.

On that note: share what you cook! Eating together totally builds roommate bonding. If possible, set up a roommate dinner night, maybe once a month on the same night. Make sure you have plenty of beer/wine at these dinners.

Throw a party within your first month or two of moving in. I once had a roommate who threw a party 3 weeks after moving in. He paid for the alcohol, we all invited our friends. It was a great time, and seriously bought the guy some goodwill in the house. I'm not saying you have to or even should pay for all the booze, but house parties in newly-formed group houses are another way to bond, and being the guy who organized it will make your roommates think you're great! Make sure you all clean up together the next morning and then have brunch.
posted by lunasol at 1:20 PM on August 19, 2010

Create guidelines for how often significant others are welcome to sleep over/be at the house/use utilities, etc.
posted by kmavap at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2010

That I don't like living with other people.

That it is tolerable with your own bathroom.
posted by space_cookie at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2010

I once shared with 4 other people and the house rule (after "leave the bathroom as you found it") was that each person was responsible for one dinner a week (everybody did what they wanted on weekends) . It was great not to have to cook or clean up on 4 evenings and it was kind of fun to prepare a meal for the group when it was my turn. I'd get all psyched up for it.

Other shared experiences were generally very bad, except for the time when I moved into a place that had a cleaning lady. It probably saved somebody's life.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:10 PM on August 19, 2010

Like any relationship, communicate. Communicate *before* you're angry. Encourage your housemates to do the same by being approachable when they have concerns.

Unlike any relationship, don't fuck. (Sigh). Be ready to move out if you decide to ignore this advice.

Keep your things in your room, whenever you are not actively using them right now. Same with dishes. (Cleaning up the next morning after dinner isn't going to be ok if you've got 4 housemates left who want to eat dinner that night after you.)

Live with people whose cleanliness level is similar to your own, whatever that may be.

Be sure to be home sometimes, but also to not be home sometimes. Encourage the same behavior in your housemates.
posted by nat at 2:14 PM on August 19, 2010

Having lived in shared housing for most of my adult life, I agree with others that having a generous attitude will get you far.
In addition, here are some mainly logistical tips for a large shared household:

-Have a monthly meeting and potluck. While everyone is enjoying tasty food, have everyone contribute a list of household topics to create an agenda, and have someone keep notes in a communal binder. Great topics are developing chore and billing systems, fun household outings or events, and yes, a bit of airing of grievances. People do have different communication styles, but keep things positive and it should go well. The notes will come in handy for remembering dates that people paid bills, what guidelines were decided on, etc.

-The binder (see above) would be an excellent place to store receipts for common items and copies of utility bills. With seven people, even if the household is fairly stable, you are going to have turnover. Maintaining a household binder will really help keep the transition between old/new housemates running smoothly.

-Choose one home improvement project on occasion as your household contribution. Maybe a small garden, decorating project, bathroom shelving, beer brewing, or something else that you enjoy doing that you can share with the household. Have folks decide if they are going to contribute to the cost of this project. For example, a housemate spent a couple of weekends expanded our garden, and we chipped in for some of the supplies.

-I agree with other folks: plan a fun outing or house party to get to know everyone.

-If folks are into it, have some sort of communal calendar. We use google calendar, and everyone in the house has access. The calendar is where you put household events, visiting guests and when people are going to be out of town.

Also, during conflicts, try not to join "sides" and try not to amplify drama. Learn to recognize housemates who do this, and keep your distance as much as possible.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 2:35 PM on August 19, 2010

Outlaw written complaints and passive aggressive notes. If you have an issue, it must be brought up with that person. Writing things like "please eat the bread!" or "electric bill for march: $100" is fine.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:08 PM on August 19, 2010

I wish I had known that some people would be offended by me keeping my own bowl, plate, knife, fork, spoon, glass, pot, and frying pan in my personal cupboard and only using those, and cleaning them immediately upon using them.

It seemed like a completely reasonable solution to frequently needing to clean up other people's messes in order to just have a bowl of cereal in the morning, and to getting yelled at by everyone for not cleaning up the sink, of which none of the contents were ever mine.

However, people felt that I was not contributing to house harmony by not having to share in cleaning up other people's kitchen messes. In retrospect, I would imagine that what made them angry was the frustration of trying to accuse me of something that I could reasonably and logically divert. And yes, I was not participating in something that they had to participate in because they were not willing to take steps as drastic as mine.
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:42 PM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: Solon and Thanks, thanks for reminding me about the passive aggressive notes. I've been both the writer and recipient of such notes (in the 2005-06 situation I mentioned above) and that was one of the things that sucked most.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:46 PM on August 19, 2010

I always say the first rule of having housemates is to remember to be a good housemate yourself. Keep the common areas clean, wash your dishes in a timely fashion, pay your bills on time, don't bear grudges. The last one can be toughie - don't let things degenerate into seething resentment when you can move out and keep your friendships.
posted by poissonrouge at 6:02 PM on August 19, 2010

Be honest and communicate about your recreational drug use. Seriously. If the police come in with a warrant to seize someone's stash, they are not going to care about the subtleties of your boundaries - you will ALL be considered "found-ins". In extreme cases, you may want to negotiate an emergency procedure to gather up everyone's contraband and flush it. Not that I've ever ahem been in uh such a situation.

Get emergency contact information for all your roommates. Who are you going to call if one of them gets sick, gets injured, or gets arrested?

Be respectful of the neighbours, and keep the outside of your house at least as tidy as the rest of the houses on the street. Be part of the neighbourhood... attend Neighbourhood Watch meetings, and join the community.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:33 PM on August 19, 2010

Having had a few disaster shares myself...

A shared pool of money for essentials is a great idea. I never had one and, as such, some people spent more on toilet rolls and washing up liquid and some spent nothing. Chances are the people who don't want a money pool are the same people who end up spending the least on the basics.

A cleaner is a great way to keep the place tidy. Chances are though, you'll find one person who doesn't want to pay the money for one. Usually they are the same person who will do the least cleaning.

Someone will never wash up and someone will wash up but do it badly. Having your own crockery may be a good idea in these circumstances. A dishwasher may help, although you may find that people don't empty it.

A sheet of paper on the wall with each persons name in a column and then empty rows works wonders for working out who owes what. You write the item and your in the row (eg. "gas bill (mr_silver)") and then the amount each person owes you in the column with their name.

Splitting the home phone is always a pain in the backside and there are always a bunch of calls that no-one will claim to. The only way to get around this is get it below a certain number and then divide it equally between everyone. There will always be one person who complains that they shouldn't have to pay line rental because they don't use the phone. Normally this is the same person who receives a lot of calls and turns out to be the maker of the calls that no-one recognises. Thankfully mobile phones these days generally solve this issue.

Share the payment of monthly bills around everyone in the house so each person has a responsibility. You don't want to be the one person who has all the bills in your name. Make sure you have at least one though, as it's good proof of previous address when you move on.

Agree that the communal areas will be kept clean and tidy. Accept the fact that this is unlikely to happen. Bear also in mind that peoples tolerances to mess will invariably be different.

Sharing cooking and food will always be a disaster so avoid it at all costs. Otherwise you get into a situation where people are complaining because someone uses a pint of milk a day and they only have it in coffee on weekends. In other words, they end up subsidising everyone else's food.

On recap, thank god I bought my own place!
posted by mr_silver at 2:42 AM on August 20, 2010

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