Increasing numbers of us are regarding the dream of owning our own homes as a distant prospect, while rising rents are forcing many people to live in communal shared households. And it’s not just students and people in their 20s who are just starting out on their adult lives. Older people are being increasingly forced by circumstances (eg divorce, redundancy, bereavement) to consider the communal option.
A harmonious household can be an excellent social resource, providing on-tap company and plentiful human contact. But we all know that living together can be a hazardous affair and that gripes and grievances can all too easily escalate and get out of hand. When the atmosphere begins to turn Arctic (and not just because one of your flatmates has turned down the thermostat), you will need all your reserves of empathy, courtesy and diplomacy to negotiate your way out of trouble. Before it comes to this, watch out carefully for the following pressure points:
You need to sit down and openly discuss money before you all move in together. That means confronting inequities (eg very small rooms vs spacious master bedrooms) and finding ways to accommodate them (using a sliding rent scale to match room size). It also means working out how you are going to divide bills, who is going to look after household bills, perhaps agreeing a date on the month on which standing orders should be paid, or discussing whether each tenant should make a monthly contribution for a household kitty, covering the cost of basics like tea, coffee, sugar, cleaning products, and so on.
It really is worth spending time hashing out these questions before you’ve actually started living together. If misunderstandings and ambiguities arise later, it’s much more onerous to raise and resolve them.
Desperation can lead to some very strange households, which bring together an assortment of people who seem to be startlingly incompatible. It is essential that you go to some time and trouble to find people who are like-minded and compatible in a whole range of different ways. Night owls who like to socialise after midnight and enjoy clattering noisily around the house and playing music in the early hours of the morning will not fit comfortably with early risers who are tucked into bed by 10pm. People who have made very marked lifestyle choices (eg veganism) may not find it easy to share with people whose idea of an excellent breakfast is fried bacon and black pudding.
There are also more subtle questions: do prospective tenants want to socialise, maybe eat and drink together now and then, create a “house culture”? Or are they all rugged individuals, whose idea of shared living is to stay firmly in their own room, making occasional dashes for the kitchen where their food is neatly stowed away and clearly labelled? Obviously, these two stances do not mix, but a surprising number of housemates find themselves living cheek by jowl with people who are fundamentally different and mixing it up is not invariably successful. It is much more sensible to do your due diligence, and thoroughly explore these questions before you choose your housemates.
Everyone has different standards when it comes to kitchen and bathroom hygiene, but in shared households it is always best to default to a “leave no trace” option. Always clear up after yourself, whether that means doing the washing up late at night after a riotous dinner party or ensuring that you have wiped down bathroom surfaces after your morning shower. This might require a level of diligence that does not come naturally, but cleanliness can be a real trigger point, and nobody wants to find themselves having bitter rows about greasy surfaces or dirty pots and pans. And remember, it’s a shared responsibility to take out the rubbish bins and sort the recycling; take your turn and don’t let it become the sole responsibility of one harassed individual.
Before you embark on an epically long shower or take over the kitchen for yet another of your elaborate supper parties involving an inordinate number of ingredients, utensils and pots, spare a thought for your flat mates. One of them might be desperate to use the bathroom before setting off for work, or keen to knock up a dinner-for-one on the night of your supper party. Nobody in a shared household should wield greater rights over communal space than anybody else, so you really need to think carefully about other people’s access. Communication is key: if you’re having people around, give fair warning and check that it’s okay with everybody else. Be wary of hogging the shared bathroom – save your most indulgent grooming sessions for times when the flat is empty.
It’s all about consideration: you need to keep reminding yourself that your actions will have an impact on other people and ensuring that you minimise any fall-out. If you lapse or get it wrong, which inevitably will happen, a swift and heartfelt apology will go a long way.
In these straitened times the question of central heating can be highly charged. We all have different body clocks and comfort levels, and some people will inevitably prefer to keep the thermostat up high, which may well cause resentment amongst more hardy tenants. Don’t let these feelings fester; it’s quite acceptable to point out that keeping the flat at sauna levels all day has profound financial consequences (a smart meter will make that calculation horribly clear). Try and work out a compromise about when it’s acceptable to have the heating on (probably mornings and evenings); in the daytime more sensitive tenants might have to deploy blankets, thermal underwear and hot water bottles to fight off the chill.
Most people who share a flat or house will encounter problems at some point and if they are handled well, they need not be insuperable. If a problem has been brewing, try the following:
•Don’t just blurt out your complaint while the recipient is going about their business in the kitchen – it will come across as hectoring. Instead, say “I think there are some issues we need to discuss” and suggest going out for a drink, or meeting around the kitchen table later in the day. This will buy some time for people to reflect and might mean they’re better prepared and less liable to fly off the handle.
•Don’t just list crimes and misdemeanours, try and explain the consequences for other people. So saying “you never wash up your dinner things before you go to bed” is simply accusatory and may elicit a defensive reaction; saying “if you don’t wash up your dinner things before you go to bed, it means that us early risers are having to clear up before we can have breakfast and get off to work and it’s not a great start to the day, especially if we’re in a rush” conveys how you feel and may go some way towards eliciting sympathy and understanding.
•If possible, try to enlist the presence of a “neutral” third party, who can mediate between you and make the conversation feel less confrontational.
•Be very wary of leaving notes around the household with complaints or instructions. These will come across as dictatorial and officious – it is much better to have an open discussion.
•Don’t resort to passive aggression on household WhatsApp groups. If you send out a message saying, “Just thinking it would be great if we could all remember to wash up our breakfast stuff!” it is clearly directed at one (or more) offender, and everyone knows who it is. It would be much better to confront the situation directly, face to face, which is always a more effective medium.
•Above all, don’t let grievances fester and accumulate until you are a seething mass of resentment. If you do so, you may well find that the confrontation, when it finally comes, is catastrophic and the damage to your relations with your housemates is terminal.
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