Tips on How to Live in a Shared Household Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tips on How to Live in a Shared Household

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Food labelled to identify who it belongs to.

Anyone who ever saw the TV comedy The Young Ones or the film Shallow Grave will know that living in a house with people other than your family can be a potential nightmare (having said that, living with your family can be rough too, but that's another issue). Perhaps it's your first time away from home and you've taken a room in a large house with a bunch of strangers. Maybe you've moved to a new town or city and haven't had time to find a place of your own yet, or maybe you live in a huge city where the cost of living prevents solo accommodation.

It can be daunting, but it can be fun, too. One of the most rewarding things about living in a shared household is the social side. There's always someone to talk to, you never have to be alone unless you wish to be. Among the best times you'll have living with others is when you share with friends. Also, it's very handy to share if you want to move out of home, but can't afford your own flat. And as long as the basic rules and routines are clear, it's much more interesting than living on your own.

Remember you can't expect to move into a shared house and have everything just the way you like it. After all, it's just what it says it is - shared accommodation - and compromise is the most important word here. Why should you compromise? Because everybody else has to! And it's unfair of you to expect everybody else to compromise just so you can have things your way. If that's your attitude, you're probably going to be better off living on your own. There are, of course, a number of traps and pitfalls that the innocent housemate will need to learn to avoid. Which is why we asked you, the h2g2 Community, for your tips for living harmoniously in a shared household. This is what you had to say about the matter...


One of the most contentious areas when living in a shared household has got to be cleanliness, or lack thereof. Some people are, frankly, slovenly. At the other end of the scale, some flatmates hover over you while you're eating your dinner and when you pause at the end of your meal, they demand you wash up your plate immediately. There are several approaches to this problem and you and your flatmates will have to decide which is the best approach for you. Choose from among the following:

  • Avoid cleaning. A sink full of dirty dishes is not a crisis. Do everything you can to avoid cleaning for as long as possible (even using a saucepan lid instead of a plate if that is all there is that is clean). When it gets too disgusting, have a binge clean until the whole flat is clean and shiny. In this way, you will only do the cleaning when it is really essential and you'll get a real sense of satisfaction at the end of it. Just make sure you clean everything properly!

  • Divide the number of jobs between the number of people in the household. That way you can avoid the jobs you really hate and can do the one you don't mind doing. One of you can cook, another can do the tidying up, another can do the washing, and so on. If there's one person in the household who doesn't want to participate then, missing out on meals and clean clothes might help them change their mind about the situation, sharpish.

  • Make a rota. Some people find these restrictive, but it's a fair system and if you work it out well beforehand, it can really pay off. It's up to you how you arrange it: you could make sure each person takes responsibility for one room or alternate all the jobs that need to be done. However, it is essential that everyone sticks to the plan, otherwise half of you will feel resentful and the others will feel guilty. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with the rota due to changing circumstances, so factor in some flexibility - think about taking turns for having a week off, for example.

  • Consider getting a cleaner. In the UK it costs around £7-£8 an hour, so if there's four of you in a house and you get someone in for a couple of hours a week, it'll cost £14-£16 each a month. It's not a bad idea even if all that person does is the communal areas such as the kitchen, bathroom and living room. It will certainly makes life easier and saves having to divide general tasks.

  • Be spontaneous. And magnanimous. If the place is a mess and you have a bit of spare time don't sit about tutting and looking at it. Do the washing up or hoovering yourself. And if no-one notices, don't be afraid to say 'I did the hoovering' (with a smile on your face). Then you can glow with satisfaction/smugness for being so responsible.

  • Learn to accept that cleaning jobs won't always be split fairly, but karmically, it all balances out.

  • It's up to you to clean (or get cleaned) your own room.

  • If you're really not comfortable with the arrangements, you must talk to your housemates about it. It might not be the easiest of things to talk about, but it's far better than leaving it, and have it all flare up in a huge argument later on.

Communal Space is Important

In order to get on well with your flatmates, communal space is important. Just think about it. Living in a flat with no meeting place other than a small kitchen, say, will mean that you'll never get friendlier than just saying hello politely and exchanging a few words. It's a bit sad when everyone goes back to their own room. So when you're choosing somewhere to live, think about whether or not you want to be sociable.

Your Own Space is Important, Too

In the beginning, if you're finding it tough to live with other people, your own space is a haven. It's somewhere where you can relax. In your own room, you can calm down if you're feeling rather 'frazzled', which will make you better company for when you meet-up with your flatmates. It also means that you're not always getting under each other's feet.

Locks and Personal Space Etiquette

In the UK, students living in halls or other student accommodation should have locks on bedroom doors. This undoubtedly makes it easier to create 'your space', somewhere you can retire to and not be bothered by everyone else.

If you live in a house without locks on separate doors, you should never go into somebody else's room, even if you're desperate for a nail clipper and you know they've got one in their top drawer. This is somebody's private space and you have no right to invade it. Obviously if you're all really good mates and you've been told you're free to wander in and out of each other's rooms the above doesn't apply. And it's always polite (even expected) to knock before entering, especially if the other person is in their room...

Sharing a Room

Sometimes though, you have to share a room. This can be difficult, but there are some ways of handling it. Clearly defined and respected boundaries are important. Consider hanging up a curtain between the two halves of the room for each of you to have some privacy and a piece of territory that is indisputably your own. It also helps if you know that the sharing of a room comes with a time limit, so that you can look forward to having your own space again.

Making Life-long Friends with Biscuits

Going to university is often your first taste of freedom beyond the family home. It's a small, but fundamental point: take some biscuits with you when you go. It gives you an excuse to go around and talk to people. Okay, so it's a kind of bribery 'Will you be my friend? I'll give you a biscuit', but it's a good starting point. It also contributes to the long-standing tradition of the biscuit party, where everyone brings grub to a communal area in a halls of residence, be it the kitchen or a corridor. Always leave the door to your room open when you're home and remember that nobody knows anybody and everyone is looking for friends.

Chocolate biscuits have a high bribery value, but classic varieties make people feel more at home. Presenting a homesick student with a custard cream will help them feel reassured and happy. Remember: being presented with a custard cream assures you have a friend for life.

It is also helpful to bring other essential welcoming foodstuffs, such as chocolate, hot chocolate, tea and coffee.

The People Are Important

Once you've made friends and have been living with them for a while, you'll come to realise that group dynamics are important. There are a two options as regards living arrangements: you can live with friends or you can live with strangers.

Some people couldn't share a place with someone they don't know. For one thing, you can be more accommodating to people you already know and like. For another, you might not know how much you could trust them.

However, moving in with friends comes with a warning. What if you fall out over the washing up? Realising that you could easily destroy a great friendship as housemates, and preparing for that, is one step towards harmony. But you might not want to risk the cost of a friendship and you could decide that living with strangers is the best thing to do. After all, it could be fun, you never know you might meet. It's just as well to meet up with your new flatmates before you sign anything though. Think about going out with them for the evening. Or at least chat to them while you're looking around the place.

Sometimes fate throws you together with people and you get on famously. However, it can be a shock when you have to live with people who you have nothing in common with, who do things that you consider to be anti-social or odd. If you have a choice, try to choose people to live with whose behaviour you think you can bear. If you don't like people playing bangra or acid house music all day and night, don't live with them. If you think it's fine to leave jockstraps out in the sitting room, then make sure that you choose people who are similarly untidy. Being considerate is one of the fundamentals to living with other people, but it helps if you have a similar outlook and attitude to life. It's no good if just one of you likes partying all night. Much better that you all do. If you're all into hiking or cycling, you'll understand better that equipment left all over the hall is a fact of life. If you're all into EastEnders, great, but pity the poor fellow who doesn't get it. Here's an illustration of such incompatibility:

I unfortunately shared a flat with three DJs some years ago. I was the only person who actually had to get up in the mornings to go to work, so I really needed some sleep. My roommates on the other hand practised (three different styles of music...) had parties and invited lots of people. No sleep possible without ear plugs - and no chance to hear the alarm clock with them...

It took me six very sleepless months to find another flat. Talking to those guys was merely impossible, they just thought of me as uncool.

Chill Out

If you are more or less compatible with you housemates it's so much easier to be chill. You can still get annoyed though, but try not to let every little thing get to you, as this creates a bad atmosphere. Remember that there isn't any inherent good/badness involved... good people can drive each other crazy, too. It just comes down to how much you're willing to work with the other person, and how considerate everyone involved is willing to be.

Find a way to deal with it, as this Researcher shows:

Granted, I have not had a roommate since leaving home, but I do live in an extremely noisy apartment building. Add to that the fact that I'm an incredibly light sleeper, and the result was many near-sleepless nights listening to the bar hoppers stumbling through the courtyard or the couple next door going at it.

Then I decided to try wearing ear plugs at night and I found that they quite literally changed my life. I can now just pop them in and enjoy a peaceful night's rest. Some say they can't sleep with them in, but for me it was simply a matter of getting used to them. The down side is that now I find it even more impossible to sleep without them. Still, I swear by them, and heartily recommend them to anyone who has noisy roommates.

So, if somebody's left a dirty plate by the sink overnight, as long as there's another clean plate for you to use, what's the problem? Somebody keeps leaving their shoes under the table. And? They're not in your way, if you need to put feet under the table just move them aside. There's no loo roll left - you can get a pack for 30p from the corner shop... If you're the one who always ends up buying it or you're really short of money, stick a note up saying 'we're out of loo roll and I'm too skint to get any - could someone get some please'. Simple.

If something's offending you personally, maybe you have to chill out. However, if something's offending everybody, it's time to have a word with the perpetrator. If they all offend you - you're in the wrong house!

It's a Learning Process

Here are a few, other important things to remember. Sharing successfully is a learned process so think about:

  • Learning to discern when it's time to just let an issue that's bothering you slide, and when it's time to approach the individual who's bothering you privately, and when to take it further.

  • Trying to get a sense of whether or not people will be more offended if you're too chatty or if you're not chatty enough. If you need some time to yourself and someone wants to chitchat - then do say. Be honest - if you need some private time, then say so. You might like to keep to yourself, but some people might see that as rude. If this is the case, try and learn who you have to make idle chitchat with every now and then. Conversely, other people just want to be left alone and your friendliness, however well intentioned, can be perceived as interference. It's not like you can't become great friends, but being sensitive will help achieve this.

  • Setting limits about guests at the very beginning. It might be a bit of an imposition if somebody's brother/sister/friend comes over almost every night because they don't have a place to stay of their own. Guests are one thing, unpaying tenants another.

  • Taking the other person's schedule or timetable into consideration when having friends over. The other person might have gone to bed early because they have to go to work the next morning.

  • Making cups of tea. If you're making one for yourself always ask if anyone else wants one. If you are going to the shops always ask if anyone else needs something.

Come to an Agreement About the Following

Think about the problems before they arise, come to an agreement and stick with it. Here's how to deal with a few problem areas:

  • Music. Think about what music your flatmates like. And of course - more importantly, ask them what music they don't like. No one will appreciate you blasting Genre X at volume 11, whatever time of day it is. You are not a mobile disco.

  • Make sure you avoid arguments about the bin by making a rule about it. The first person who finds a full bin throws the bin bag out. Always check if you are running close to the end of the bin liner roll, otherwise it's overflow time. Playing 'Bin Buckaroo' just isn't clever or hygienic.

  • Toilet roll gets used up quickly in a shared household, and so you have two options - there is a rota whereby one person buys a huge pack of loo roll before the other pack runs dry or each person has their own supply.

  • Avoid being locked out by safety-conscious flatmates, by leaving a Post-it note on the inside of your front door saying that you'll be back late.

  • Always inform others of the times of important dates or exams well in advance, not the night before, so then your flatmates have had a fair warning of an impending quiet time. Use those Postit notes again, if need be.

  • It is not advisable to live with your ex or soon-to-be-ex partner. Potentially horrible for you, them and your housemates, no matter how well you think you'll be able to get on.

So as long as you avoid exes, complete sociopaths and establish and respect each others' physical, financial, and social boundaries, then you should be fine.

Mixed Sex Sharing

There was a time, probably in the mists of the 19th Century when young single people only shared with others of the same gender. But people don't segregate themselves anymore, which is probably a good thing. For the most part, there is little difference between mixed gender arrangements and single-sex sharing. Romantic trysts between roomies will tend not to occur, because people generally don't feel comfortable living casually with a person they're attracted to. And while there may be heightened concern about privacy, all the usual rules about being considerate apply here. Knock first when approaching a closed door. Put down the phone immediately if you find the line is in use already. And don't walk around the house completely starkers. If you haven't already, buy a robe or some casual wear that you can throw on easily.

The only place where modified behaviours are necessary is a shared bathroom. The 'up or down' toilet seat issue can become a source of tension, so it's best to discuss it upfront. Also, women are not generally used to seeing shaved hairs in their sink in the morning. And men may be surprised by all the space taken up by women's personal items and the amount of time women can spend bathing and preening. Same goes for men incidentally, some of whom can spend an inordinate amount of time on their hair.

As with all tensions between housemates, a combination of compromise and understanding is in order. If everyone keeps their roommate's feelings in mind, shared living with mixed genders can be surprisingly comfortable. And it can also arguably be good experience towards one's (perhaps distant) future negotiations with the ultimate mixed gender household - the family.

Otherwise Known as The Socialist Way

To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities, a successful model for some, as this Researcher shows:

I share a house with four others. It is a very satisfactory arrangement which enables all five of us to meet the primary needs of shelter and sustenance without dispute that would otherwise jeopardise our relationship.

We eat together, thereby demonstrating economy of both effort and resource. There is rarely any dissent. All our washing and ironing goes into one figurative communal basket. In order to avoid disputes over household chores, we have someone in 'who does'. We never argue over bills. We just pay them. All financial inputs derived from external sources are shared or are invested for the common good. Fiscal allowances for discretional expenditure are allocated on a case by case basis. In this regard it is the epitome of egalitarian fraternalism, although throughout all areas of our existence there exists a natural hierarchy, in which there are leaders and obeyers.

Some household members have restrictions on access to certain areas, ie the balcony, the roof and the kitchen, but these prohibitions are for safety and no-one would argue with that. I prefer the library. Old Spice (the wife), seems to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. The kids spend all their time either in the garden or in their playroom. It's a good system, but it will only work with certain types of people - it is all too true that 'Some will always be more equal than others'. This is true all the way down to bill paying and grocery shopping.

The problem with this is it works very well for a family (or else the family splits up...) but it doesn't work very well in non-family situations. A family with 'someone who does' is not a realistic model for a roommate situation, where everyone is an adult and planning to stay together indefinitely. How do you share expenses when some of the people are going to go there own ways after a year or two and will want their fair share of the funds to go with them? When you buy things communally, they belong to everyone - fine in a family, bad when people leave a household. Communism/socialism is a perfectly good idea when used in families, but tends to break down in larger groups.

Paying Bills

The best way to deal with them is decide what costs you're going to split (from utilities to toilet paper) ahead of time, preferably before you move in or immediately afterwards. The phone bill always seems to be a problem for dissent in any shared household. ('OK, somebody called Timbuktu.. 'Fess up..') So if at all possible, get separate phones. Mobile phones, different lines, calling cards, whatever. Otherwise operate these rules of engagement...

  • Get an itemised bill from your supplier, for all calls if possible, then you can work out when the phone has been called and by whom.

  • Put a book beside the phone/s for all residents (or residents' friends) to log their calls.

  • If you're in the US, AT&T offers a service free of charge, whereby everyone can have their own personal pin number that you can dial before making outgoing calls. Then, on the bill, it lists the calls made with each account. Same idea as the book or coin box, really.

  • If possible get a phone tariff that includes free calls in the evening. This will save a lot of bickering.

  • Once the bill comes in all sit down together to sort it out, line rental and communal calls can be spilt evenly among you before dividing the bill.

  • If disputes continue, either stop outgoing calls or install a coin box phone for outgoing calls. The phone bill is not worth the bloodshed.

Not Communal Food

Buying your own food and keeping it on your own shelf is only fair when you're living in a shared household. If you have any kind of dietary restrictions (medical, religious, or simply lifestyle choice) it's probably best to buy and keep food separately.

Borrowing and sharing food can be rather tricky - it depends on the people you're living with. If it's someone else's foodstuff and it's hard to obtain or expensive, best not to touch it without asking. Likewise, if you have a dietary restriction and want to buy your food separately - do just that. Don't filch from your housemates thinking, 'Oh, they have plenty since they buy it in bulk'. That's not always the case.

Some people buy their own and then everything gets shared once it's past the threshold. Then there are some things that people don't mind sharing like coffee and baking foil.

For some reason, the fridge is a particular bone of contention. If it drives you mad when other people take your milk then consider labelling it 'milk experiment'1 on your carton of milk. Alternatively, if you are a medical student, get one of those large urine sample bottles (they're sterile when you first open them - don't worry!), put your milk in there. Really go to town, adding to the authenticity of the thing. Make a sticky label with a supposed hospital number on the front and another convincing-looking label with '24-Hour Urine Collection' or 'Semen Sample' or 'Culture Medium' on it. Works a treat. No one will touch it. In fact, you might free up a whole fridge shelf in this way...

Sometimes even more drastic measures are required as this story shows:

I share a house with a wife and three teenage children. If I buy a sixpack of beer I get to drink one - the rest evaporates somehow. A bar of chocolate hidden away under the cabbage/broccoli won't survive the night and my tub of yoghurt is always empty in the morning.
I came across a usable old bar fridge at an auction and I slapped a hasp and staple with padlock on it. End of problem!

Communal Food

For some, though, there is nothing more depressing than opening a fridge and finding four different bottles of milk and three different bits of cheese and trying to remember which one is yours... that's just wasteful. Doing the communal cooking thing can be a pleasant, sociable thing to do; it's usually a good laugh, and you'll probably end up eating things you'd never think of making for yourself. It can also work out to be reasonably cheap, especially if you have room to cook extra portions and have a freezer. Plus the practice will make you all very competent chefs.

The biggest downside is that you have to agree on the kinds of food you can all eat. Sometimes this is easy enough, but you could find yourself among a group whose tastes are so incompatible that you end up eating bananas and reduced salt sweetcorn for a year.

The obvious solution is not to share cooking duties with people who are really fussy, but if you really want to eat together there are ways around this. Cooking together for perhaps four nights a week will bring your food budget down, while leaving you free to sate your craving for deep fried sprouts on a regular basis.

Make sure than more than one of you goes shopping and it can be fun. You'll probably find that you end up spending the same amount each week, because you'll buy the same things every week. It can be a companionable event:

Me and a former roommate used to go shopping together. Anything we'd both be using got thrown in... toilet paper, cleaning supplies, dietary staples like bread, milk, cheese... and anything we wouldn't be sharing also got thrown in... shampoo, snacks that were not a shared taste... and we'd roughly divide the price at the counter.

So we had just one package of cheese and if it ran out, we bought more next time, and didn't concern ourselves with who might be eating more cheese. If there was something in the kitchen that was exclusively mine, he knew it, because it was something he didn't want anyway.

The one item we kept absolutely segregated was beer. We both kept our own beer in the fridge and made sure we had different brands to avoid confusion. Even then, if I'd run out and didn't want to rush out to the store, and I saw that he wasn't going to run out soon, I'd help myself to some of his, and buy him another sixer as a courtesy when I replenished my own stock... and vice-versa.

Final Advice

If all else fails, then take this advice:

I always used to make sure that I ate quickest, slept least and drank the most...
1An idea first expressed in William Gibson's books.

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