Considerations for Communal Living
Owning your own home is part and parcel of the classic American Dream, but it’s a parcel many people struggle to afford. Whether you’re a current student, fresh out of college, or striving to hold down multiple low-paying jobs while getting the rent in, living somewhere decent on a budget on your own can be a massive pain, not to mention the significant financial risk if something goes wrong. But there’s an economy of scale to housing – one two bedroom apartment is cheaper than two one-bedroom apartments, and a three bedroom apartment is even better. Or perhaps you want to seize that dream and get a home with eventual room to grow – but you just can’t guarantee you’ll be able to afford the mortgage.
One classic and increasingly popular solution is communal living. Whether four friends renting a house together during their college days, or apartment-mates in a two-bedroom place, or even a new homeowner filling those empty bedrooms, living in groups can make sense financially. Not only can you split the cost of a house, but you can also split chores and home maintenance – a job that can take an average of 11.3 hours per week for a two adult household according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While adding adults will increase some of that load, most of the more time-consuming chores remain fixed, and the more people you can split them among, the better. If you have an unusual situation, such as a productive and complicated home garden, that number can easily increase. But for all the benefits, there are significant considerations to keep in mind before and while moving in with other people.
Who’s On the Hook?
Most people who have tried communal living will agree that it’s generally a good idea (and required by some landlords) that you have only a single person, or married couple, on the lease – unless you’re all renting the rooms separately from a different landlord. You may be thinking, wait a minute, doesn’t that leave one person on the hook and at risk if things go poorly? Yes and no, depending on how the rental contract is worded. Establish a system where everyone else pays rent, with some possibly paying more for the bigger rooms. Consider utilities… If one person is on the lease, perhaps others can be on the utilities, spreading out the risk among roommates. Get a contract in writing that stipulates who is responsible for what, and most importantly the consequences for non-compliance. If Joe loses his job and can’t afford a month’s rent, what are the consequences? How does his share get covered? If Maria moves out with no notice, what options do the others have to fill that vacancy? These are the sort of things you want to discuss before moving in. But having one trusted person on the lease gives oversight to the process and ensures a single point of contact in negotiating with the landlord.
Buying Versus Renting
Buying is a lot riskier since you might be financially responsible for the entire investment if all your friends bail or lose their jobs. Have a very solid idea of how reliable everyone is before going in to buy (rent to own, or renting a separate house for a while before buying, might be ideas to consider) or buy a house that you alone could afford. If no one’s having kids, a lot of starter homes have three bedrooms – and are priced to be within reach of a single couple – so might be a better option than something grander, even if more incomes means you could technically afford it. It’s always a good idea to live below your means, even when combining incomes. In renting, you can often have people renting the rooms separately from the landlord, which means minimal risk to the rest of the household, but if you can’t and are instead renting as a unit many of the same considerations apply as with buying.
Decide on chore divisions for common areas before going in together – and get that in writing, too. Even a simple spreadsheet broken down by chore and day of the week, initialed by all housemates, can significantly help reduce misunderstandings in the future regarding who agreed to what. And again, take the time to discuss what the process will be if chores are left undone. Will you have a built-in grace period of one day to get chores caught up? Three days? What recourse does the group have if one person fails to uphold their share of work? One option is to have everyone chip in for a weekly house cleaning service, to minimize arguments and ensure the common areas are kept clean.
Realize this could strain a friendship – think hard about how much you trust someone to be responsible, not just as a friend, but financially and in everyday life. If you’ve lived together with them before, like in a dorm situation, you probably have a better idea of what they’re like domestically than if you haven’t. But again give some thought to the reality that living together creates stress, and what impact that stress might have on your friendship.
Consider space for cars – or else distance to public transportation. Potentially each person or couple will have their own car, or even two for a couple unless you’re in a big city, and standard two-car driveways might not cut it.
If people are working from home, does everyone have space for that, too, whether an office or a desk in their bedroom?
How many people are going to want to be cooking at the same time? Is the kitchen big enough? What about groceries? Will the cost of food be shared equally or will each roommate need their own space for perishables and dry goods?
What about schedules for going out – is everyone getting ready for work at the same time? How will that change demand for the shower and bathroom vanity? While a posted bathroom schedule might seem over-the-top, it’s a system that some residents of communal homes have come to love to ensure that everyone can get ready for work on time.
Outline policies on guests – and consider different categories. A guest who stays the night then leaves after breakfast is an entirely different matter than someone’s extended family descending for several days over the holidays. Often roommate agreements will stipulate that the behavior and action of guests is the responsibility of their host. If a guest breaks a window, does everyone understand whose responsibility repairs will be?
While this list of concerns and warnings may seem daunting, I hope that this will not dissuade you from considering all the benefits of living communally. While rent-sharing is one of the biggest advantages, communal living also brings new opportunities. Need to leave for a week for work or to visit family? You’ll have a built-in pet and plant-sitter. A full house can also give you the chance to interact with friends, play video games as a group, share the burden of chores, and enjoy a variety of meals made by many hands. From waking you up if you’ve overslept to letting you back in when you lose your keys, having roommates can be a wonderful addition to your life in many little ways.