Tips and Tricks for living in a shared house
July 20, 2013 12:30 PM   Subscribe

If you've lived in a house with a lot of other people in it, what has helped keep the peace and made things run smoothly for the household, short and long term?

I'm thinking about doing a panel / breakout session at an upcoming lifestyle conference about "how to live in a shared house without killing your housemates".

I have a lot of experience with living in shared housing, shared with both friends and non-friends. And a lot of training in conflict resolution and such.

But I'm curious about what others may have learned about living in houses with other people (between three and six people) and strategies or lessons they may have learned during that time or afterward in reflection about how to make such a living arrangement work.

I'm looking for specific approaches, conflict-avoidance or -resolution strategies, philosophies... basically anything which would give me a broader set of ideas to draw on as I put together this possible presentation.
posted by hippybear to Human Relations (14 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Always do more than what you think is your share (ie, dishes, cooking for roommates, random cleaning) and try to give your roommates the benefit of the doubt that they're doing the same.

Unless you're absolute strangers-sharing-space co-tenants, try to carve out time once a month to do something together. A house dinner is the easiest thing, but it could also be a bar night, a cleaning afternoon, or really anything. This helps you like each other more, which makes little annoying things easier to deal with.
posted by lunasol at 12:57 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've lived in large group houses for the last ten years, and here are my best tips:

1) Let go of your way of doing things being the right way. Roommates will do things differently than you do. Accept that. It's ok if some people put knives in the dishwasher and some don't.

2) Don't have objects in common space that require maintenance/care that you care about. Don't buy expensive nonstick pans. Don't buy silverware that matters to you. People will use metal forks in the non-stick, they will leave forks in takeout containers. Expensive housewares generally do not mix with group houses. Enameled cast iron and cheap non-stick are your friends.

3) I've always enjoyed living in houses where low-cost staples are shared. It's way nicer to just have milk and eggs and flour that you can use, but that is reliant on everyone having a little financial flexibility. Do not buy expensive wine and leave it in common areas.

4) When you want people to do something (clean up the living area, not leave the door open, etc) - ask them directly without framing it as something that the should have known to do. Don't be frustrated that people don't see the same "obvious" things that you do. If something is important to you, be direct, and frame it as a request, not scolding.

I love living with roommates, but I think the key is limiting what you engage with. Unlike a romantic relationship, you can seldom get everyone on the same page about the little daily ways to do everything, so you're happiest if you can just let everyone do things their own way and coexist.

(and on preview, I totally agree with lunasol. Always wash the few extra dishes that are in the sink, or take the trash out when you can. Like paying a big group check, if everyone pitches in a little more than you think you need to, you'll end up even.)
posted by mercredi at 1:03 PM on July 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

I live in a house with 6 other people.

1. Unlike some other similar houses I know, we don't rotate cleaning duties. Rather, we divide the house into "areas" and each of us picks his or her favorite. I share kitchen duty with a housemate, and I clean one of the toilets, sink and mirrors alone. Another one of us does trash, another goes shopping for supplies and manages the house's money. It works because each one does what they like, and there is clear accountability for bad cleaning or neglected duties. In my boyfriend's house (also 7 people) this would never work, so they do something completely different: they have a cleaning party every once in a while. Whoever cannot make it to the party has to pay for the beer.

2. A kitchen area where food is "for everyone", and another where food is "just for me". Always keep something in the "for everyone" area, it makes you feel like home.

3. Have a meal (for us: breakfast) together every two weeks (mandatory), and dinner/barbecue together every week or so, not mandatory. We do this to make sure we are not strangers to each other. Maybe get drunk together, at least once.

4. Learn to speak your mind politely and considerately, but right away. Don't keep it inside. Encourage other people to let you know what their boundaries are, listen attentively and respect them. Discuss them and negotiate. From the very start. Don't let politeness and the "honeymoon feeling" at the beginning keep you from bringing up stuff you know will be a source of conflict for you. It's easier to keep cool about these sorts of things if you know you can speak about them safely and freely. It's easier to take criticism and suggestions if the person making them is calm and positive about it. Our first attempt at "conflict resolution" was a huge fight, with many ensuing conversations, weeks afterwards. Now we know each other better and trust each other to speak up and listen, and we barely fight.

5. Be open about your weaknesses and let them get to know you, and vice-versa, so you'll know how to cooperate while exploiting each of your strengths. You will live with these people for a long time. You don't need to be best friends and share everything with them over wine every night (though it's always nice if that works out), but things like "I usually forget to turn the lights off, I'll do my best but I can't manage to do it all the time" will normally cause someone else to be extra attentive. Be understanding of their weaknesses, generous with your help.

6. Be willing to do a bit of extra work sometimes if needed. If one of your housemates is busy and can't find the time to do her dishes, and you're doing yours anyway... What goes around comes around! And be appreciative of the things they do for you.

7. Assume the very best at the beginning. Expect everyone will be considerate, generous, responsible and respectful, and act accordingly all the time. But don't expect anyone to pick up your slack.

Actually, it's a lot like successful relationships...
posted by ipsative at 1:07 PM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Always do more than what you think is your share

It's funny, after living in a shared house for two years (with 15+ residents and various guests), I actually feel the opposite. The people I remember being the MOST stressed out all the time were the people who felt compelled to do more than their share. This tended to lead to bitterness of the More Than Your Share crowd toward the Chores: How Do They Work crowd, which is an unwinnable conflict.

My advice

Pick Your Battles - There are some things you just have to get over, or you'll go crazy. For me, I just learned to deal with most noise issues, and also cleanliness.

Find a chore style that works for you, and stick with it regardless of what others are doing. I'm much happier when I have one big chore that I do once a week in discrete X Task Has Now Been Completed For The Week chunks. So I just made an agreement with the house that I'd take on one of the bathrooms, and it would be cleaned every Saturday without fail, and that would be my chore contribution. Other people preferred tasks that were easy, but required a lot of maintenance throughout the week. There was also an unspoken understanding that some people just never did chores, and, well, see above about picking your battles. We tried to assign those people the least necessary tasks, because we all knew they weren't going to do them, anyway.

Try to stay out of money issues. Who was behind on rent was always a nightmare, if we started letting people get behind on rent. Same for "so and so's girlfriend de facto lives here but doesn't contribute" stuff. Never ever ever, no matter how tempting it seems, let someone coast on rent or bills in exchange for domestic tasks.

Remember that you are empowered to kick people out. There were a lot of people who wore out their welcome, but we were squeamish to ask them to leave. You can ask someone to move out for social transgressions that aren't illegal or in direct violation of your lease with your landlord. I mean, you don't want to be completely psycho about it, but if somebody just really isn't a good fit for the house, you can ask them to leave. It doesn't make you a bad person.

Develop a strong policy on guests. This includes significant others, visitors from out of town, and "she needed a place to stay" situations. We always had a problem with couch surfing around Burning Man and other big events. Having visitors contributed to the creative energy of the space, but there were always a few moochers. I remember a girl who came from overseas to sleep on our couch for a night before leaving for Burning Man. Of course she was right back after Burning Man, and it took MONTHS to officially kick her out. I think she was doing visa runs to Canada and we were still hemming and hawwing about what to do about her.

Because of the sheer number of people living in my house, we had a good track record of being organized about house rules, chore charts, calendars, who paid how much rent, how bills worked, etc. This made life a lot easier, and I think it can be helpful in any living situation with more than 4-5 roommates. We had a house "treasurer" who collected money from everyone and deposited it in a special checking account, from which that person paid all the bills. Before things came due, the treasurer would make a spreadsheet that showed what each person in the house owed, right there in black and white. This is so so so much better than most other shared house financial arrangements, unless it's just two or three people. We used similar systems for chores (there was an official "enforcer"), social calendars (there were rotating "hosts" for events), etc.
posted by Sara C. at 1:22 PM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've done a lot of shared living, and in one house in particular, kitchen cleanliness was a big struggle. There were anywhere from 6-7 people living there. What finally worked for us was a day-of-the-week system. Everyone was still (hypothetically) responsible for cleaning up for themselves, but each person had a day of the week that they were responsible for making sure that all dishes were washed, cleaned dishes were put away, counters were wiped down, the floor was swept, etc. It made a massive difference in kitchen upkeep and ended frustration, resentment and fights over messes.

We also struggled with trash battles, and finally we downsized our trash can and recycling can and mandated that trash and recycling were to be taken out by the kitchen cleaner. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but we never had trash wars again.
posted by jaksemas at 1:31 PM on July 20, 2013

I've always enjoyed living in houses where low-cost staples are shared.

This reminds me of the most brilliant thing we did when I lived in a collective.

The house provided ALL basic groceries. Everyone paid a flat fee per month, and just like we had a treasurer, a chore enforcer, event hosts, etc. we also had a grocery shopper. We had a house Costco membership, and the grocery shopper and a couple assistant would go once a week and come back with not only staples like rice and flour, but with basically everything a fifteen-person household needs, food wise. There was a request list, and sometimes the grocery shopper would come home with awesome surprises if there was a great deal on something at Costco that week.

I mean, obviously if you wanted something special that wasn't on the list, you'd provide that yourself. And it was all super basic and highly dependent on what was available at Costco. But it was nice that there was always just food around, and for the most part you could eat anything in the fridge. It also limited the absurdity of, like, fifteen separate jars of peanut butter.

Stuff like this also made it easier to give your time for stuff like house-wide meetings, or volunteering to take on a role like treasurer or chore enforcer. Because hey, at least you don't have to grocery shop.
posted by Sara C. at 1:33 PM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's funny, after living in a shared house for two years (with 15+ residents and various guests), I actually feel the opposite. The people I remember being the MOST stressed out all the time were the people who felt compelled to do more than their share. This tended to lead to bitterness of the More Than Your Share crowd toward the Chores: How Do They Work crowd, which is an unwinnable conflict.

Totally. That's why the second part, giving your housemates the benefit of the doubt, is so important. Yes, it's Advanced Housemating, but if you can master it, it will get rid of like 90% of housemate conflict.
posted by lunasol at 2:31 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fully acknowledging that this home is EVERYONE'S home, that it's not up to me to decide how clean things should be (or up to anyone else) really cleared up a lot of annoyance when things would be messier or more cluttered then I would prefer.

I always wash one or two dishes that aren't mine, and put away a few extra off the cleaning rack, and I aim to live with people who have the same philosophy about shared housing. If everyone does that, you never have dirty dish wars. If no one does that, you are guaranteed dirty dish wars. Being the only one who does that breeds resentment.

That actually works for the idea of treating everyone with consideration. It only works if everyone else is doing the same. As soon as you get someone who dumps shrimp shells in the recycling bin and refusing to clean it out, or someone who likes to have screaming sex at 3am, everything falls apart.

I'm very suspicious of potential dates who say they can't stand having roommates. It says to me they really want full control of their environment (which would be an issue if I were to attempt to share it), or that they aren't good at the consideration for others part of shared housing.

(4 out of 5 ends up being that they aren't good at chores and live in a sty.)
posted by Dynex at 2:49 PM on July 20, 2013

If there is any way you can possibly afford it, get a cleaning service for the common areas. Include the cost in the rent collected from each tenant. Once a week is ideal, but even once a month will prevent the house from descending into total filth and massive battles over who let mold start growing behind the toilet, or whatever. It just makes everything so, so much easier for everyone.
posted by decathecting at 3:12 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sara C's idea is brilliant, and i wish we had done that. A lot of the other stuff she's said is gold as well.

I was actually going to bring up failure modes more than anything else. There are many types of people and behaviors that can ruin it for everyone that are really only solved by getting rid of the person. There's a very grey line between the "has the right intentions but inept" chores how do they work person and the maliciously lazy "you're not my mom you can't make me do it" type.

I've lived with multiple people who absolutely will not clean/contribute unless you force them too, and often go out of their way to invent plausibly deniable obligations on the day everyone was told a week or two in advance was going to be the big "lets clean everything!" day.

The guests thing is paramount, but don't go too nazi with this. Several of the people i used to live with have a very nice share house going now, but they have a "only one guest is allowed over at a time TOTAL" rule unless there's a special exception for a small party or something. So if someone has an SO/etc staying for the night no one can visit. This, obviously, is ridiculous in a house of 4-5 people. That said, you do need some kind of iron-clad "you only get to crash here X number of days before you're out" rule that you're very ready to enforce in a "Oh, XYZ shitty thing which is a plausibly excuse happened? Well i bet you know other people in town, sorry, bye" WHEN THEY GET UP IN THE MORNING, not at night when they were about the crash for the day that was too many. Like Sara, i've had many problems with someone crashing for a "couple nights" staying for a week, or a month, or months. Or just showing up every few days to crash again endlessly. Some of them would make a point of even showing up when i wasn't around and going to bed at like 8-9pm on my couch so that they'd be "asleep" when i arrived and could try and avoid me.

One of the biggest problems therein is that, after much deliberation about this over the years, you really have to make it so that any one person who lives there can throw anyone out. End of story, no debates, no stupid appeals for mercy to the other roomates by the person they want to throw out, no 2/3/4/5/6/etc-against-one of the other roommates going "no, we want them to stay". Take it up with the person who threw them out later if you feel it's unreasonable but any person who lives there has to be able to single handedly throw anyone who doesn't out at any time. This will diffuse so many situations. It can create inter-roommate conflicts, but those are SO MUCH better than shitty moocher Vs roommates conflicts and a bazillion other problems like "Shitty ex of one roommate is going out of there way to be buddy-buddy with all the other roommates so they can awkwardly/creepily hang around all the time to spite their ex" kinda crap.

Unless this is like a house lawyers just out of law school who are all super tidy and like sharing nice stuff, buy EVERYTHING for the common areas at thrift stores or on craigslist. Yes, you can have a decent flat screen tv(you can get those for $200 or less now! We had a nice big tv we watched movies on as a group that was $120 from some office equipment recycling place, seriously.). Buy basic used stuff that looks decent but no one will cry/have a tantrum/conniption/aneurysm if it gets destroyed. This also avoids a major potential and dumb conflict zone of "who the hell is using my XYZ?" and "Hey everyone stop using my XYZ, i wanna use it". If anyone/everyone else wants to get their own $SHAREDTHING for their room. But don't let some popular shared thing be some individual persons unless they completely donated it to the house and replaced it with their own newer/shinier/cooler one.

No couples. Fuck it. Similar to the thing above about not letting anyone endlessly crash there, you need a hard-and-fast rule about how often and how long people can stay over(like 3-4 consecutive days unless there's prior planning, and if it's the same person no more than 2 nights a week or something) that does NOT have some kind of clause or exception for partners. No couples get to join the group at the start to move in as a couple, and no ones partner gets to move in a couple months later "because her lease was up and we realized it made sense to move in together" or whatever. ESPECIALLY if they're "just crashing until they get a new place" or something. That will never happen, they're defacto roommates from day one. The reasons why no one wants to live with a couple, and why it sucks have been massively explained on this site before. It's generally accepted that most people don't want to do it, and they especially don't want to get kinda "hoodwinked" into it.

It really only takes one person to fuck it up for everyone. The only positive thing i've ever seen come from this is everyone else uniting in a sort of like "warriors pact" in hating the fuck out of the one shitty person. Every single living situation i've been involved in has had that one guy. Getting rid of that guy has always improved everything. The problem here is if everyone is locked in to a lease and you have to deal with subleasing, or worse that guy is just like "fucking suck it, i'm not leaving and you can't kick me out". There needs to be some pre-established "You can leave with X notice, and we can kick you out with X notice" agreement upon moving in. You may even need to run this by the landlord to make sure everyone's on the same page and that the landlord wont have the back of some asshole who doesn't want to leave.

Don't let anyone pay an overly large, or overly small share for their space. It's one thing for someone to pay more to get the master bedroom, or the giant room that's the whole attic, or the whole basement or whatever(or not pay more for getting the whole basement/attic because something about it sucks!). But don't let the one roommate who has more money pay $800 for a slightly bigger room while everyone else is paying $4 or 500 just so you can get a sweeter place. It will build contempt when they start treating the entire place like their house and they're royalty. Happens every time.

On a more positive note a thing that notably increased enjoyment for everyone:

Have large, cool common space. Don't let someone use the common room/living room as a bedroom just because it's out of the way or has a door. Having good common space people want to hang out in just makes for a better house in general. I've lived in places with no real common space where everyone just hung out in the bedrooms, and places with lots of common space. The lots of common space places always worked out better. Go out of your way to make it happen even. At one place we cleaned up the total shitsty yard and put up one of those street-fair type tents for shade and lots of seating/a coffee table/etc. It became a favorite hang out spot of everyone who lived there and all of our friends.
posted by emptythought at 3:21 PM on July 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:13 PM on July 20, 2013


posted by windykites at 6:13 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The things that have worked when I lived in shared houses with many roommates was:

Weekly house meeting. Each week we took turns making dinner before the meeting (we just went down a written list that people had signed up on), and we would eat dinner while discussing any house issues or just talk if nothing needed addressing.

The chore chart is indispensable. In one apartment I lived in a few years ago, it went like this: Everyone cycled through cleaning a different part of the house each week. We picked a day of the week that the cleaning would take place on, and everyone had to do their chore at some point during that day. If someone failed to clean their section by the end of the week, they would have to buy/cook dinner for the other roommates to make up for it.

During the first house meeting, get everyone's feelings on how they want to deal with sharing food. In a larger housing situations (9-12 people) we labeled our own food and only shared a few things like spices and leftovers from the house meeting, but sharing most/all food is another way that could work. People's preferences will probably be all over the map so work towards finding an ultimate solution that works for everyone and will hopefully cut down on food stealing.

Have one person responsible for paying bills to reduce confusion. One roommate I had would send out emails detailing the monthly bill amounts and break down how much everyone was responsible for paying. If you want to pool money to put towards buying toilet paper, cleaning supplies, agreed upon shared foods, etc. this person should be the one who collects and holds onto the cash.

Try to organized some house activities. People get along together better when they've had more chances to bond and spend time together. Game night, movie/tv night, potlucks where everyone can invite a friend, and throwing parties are great ways of getting everyone together and having fun.

And consider what kind of plan needs to be put into place if there are roommates who leave dishes in the sink for long stretches of time.
posted by fox problems at 9:35 PM on July 20, 2013

It sounds very basic, but the last couple of houses I've lived in have had a drawer per person in the bathroom, and it's wonderful. Everyone has space to store extra shampoo/conditioning treatments/razors/tampons or whatever, you have everything you need when you're in there but ownership is clear, and the shower and sink have much less clutter.

I hadn't realised how much it felt like a hostel when you're carrying in toiletries in the morning or showering with 400 bottles around you, and how much that tiny thing was nagging at me every day.
posted by carbide at 1:51 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Ergonomic keyboard with 6 on right side?   |   Where in NYC to repair or recover data on CF card? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.