To Share or Not to Share: Housing, Part I

There are so many different approaches to housing these days, the possibilities can be dizzying. From tiny houses to off-grid living to cooperatives, the alternatives to owning a home with your nuclear family are so diverse it can be really hard to compare them. Like apples and elephants. I'm not going to try to compare them all in one blog entry, so this whole "housing" topic will be broken up into multiple parts. Let's build in some room for expansion -- for right now, we'll start out only looking at shared housing.

I've been experimenting with shared housing since I graduated college. I've lived with partners, with friends, with strangers, and with partners and friends and strangers all at the same time. I've heard warnings about how hard living with friends can be, and how hard living with strangers can be. I've worked out the financials of living alone compared to sharing. And I strongly recommend living with other people -- for at least a few years, if not your entire life -- just for the contrast it will provide to most folks' experience of growing up with family. More than any other experience, sharing housing with friends is a (mostly) fun introduction to moving through the world like an adult.

PROS of shared housing

  • Financial: significantly lower costs per person. For example, in Chicago the lowest cost studio I found was about $650 (2013 prices). Add in utilities for about another $100, for $750 / month. In a shared home ($1500 for a 3-bedroom house with 4 occupants in 2010), costs were closer to $450 / month / person including utilities.
  • Social: you have a built-in group of people to spend time with (if you like them), or at least not-be-alone with. Especially if you're moving to a new city, knowing a few people to start out with can be a huge benefit. If you're like me and enjoy board games, you've also got a built-in gaming crew. (Another round of Pandemic, anyone?)
  • Adulting: making the transition from living with your family, or living in a dorm, to finding and renting your own place to call home? That's a big change. Figuring it out with friends is a great introduction not just to the nitty-gritties of adulting, but also in working out sophisticated compromises that leave everyone (relatively) satisfied. Now that I think of it, living in shared housing should probably be a requirement for holding public office...

CONS of shared housing

  • Time: most household decisions take longer to make. Depending on the structure of your shared home, and how closely you all want to track household expenses, even simple decisions like what toilet paper to buy can become excruciating. On the other hand, setting up some simple ground rules in advance can stave off a lot of pain in the future -- for example, if Elyria wants to buy the slightly more expensive 100% recycled content TP, that's fine, but she can only count the cost of "regular" TP as a shared household expense, and the extra will be only her expense. It all depends on how much you care about your time compared to your money; I've also lived in perfectly functional households where no expenses were tracked.
  • Different standards of clean: this is the beast. The thing is, when you and your housemates are setting the rules, you don't have anyone to blame but each other (or yourself) when things don't work. You also don't have anyone with executive power to fix the problems. So how do you deal with the one person who just won't clean up after themself? You'll resent them more and more if you have to clean up after them. They'll resent you if you tell them they're not pulling their weight. One solution I've used was to have a whole-house-cleaning day where we rotated chores around. That way, we all spent at least 2 hours a month on the spaces we all used. But ultimately, when you live in a shared space where people do not share standards of clean, you're going to have clashes from time to time.
  • Personal: you will be in the middle of other people's lives, and they will be in yours. If those people run into crises, they may turn to you -- and you might not have somewhere else to be when you want to be done listening to them. Even if they're not talking to you directly, the walls in houses are not particularly thick. Everyone is going to know exactly what your abusive boyfriend yelled at you last night, and everyone is going to hear when you have raucous sex with that cool new person you met.

Tips to make shared housing work better

1) Vet potential roomies. Visit the place they're living now, or ask to talk to one or two of their friends. Be wary of people who are aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, or who seem to move from crisis to crisis. Seek out people who are assertive, easy-going, willing to pitch in, and share at least a few of your interests.

2) Make your intentions clear from the start. Are you looking to set up a house of friends to save money? An intentional community? A place that will host a lot of gatherings of people who don't live there? Make sure every potential housemate is on board before you get attached to your ideas -- or your housemates.

3) Stay flexible. Living in shared housing is just like living in the rest of the world, only more so. Things will change. What will you do when one of your housemates gets a job in a different city in the middle of your lease? When one of your parents gets sick and you need to take care of them? When someone loses a job and can't pay their share of rent? While it's a good idea to prepare for this kind of thing, life has a way of continually surprising people. Be prepared for surprises, stand up for what you need, and be respectful of what your housemates need.

The Bottom Line

Living in shared housing made me a better person. It took a few years, and a lot of conversation, but I have more respect for other people's opinions and experiences now than I used to. That single thing has made me a better listener and communicator, and I've used that skill in several jobs, as well as my relationships. For that reason alone, I strongly recommend spending a year or five (or 50!) living with people you're not related to.

It isn't always smooth sailing, but it's always worth it.

What about you?

Have you lived in shared housing? What about it worked for you? What didn't? Would you recommend it to everyone, or only some people?