Sharing space can be a wonderful first step to independent living. Whether single or in a couple, it can also be a great way to save money and share the responsibilities of running a home.
Whether you are in school and want to get out of the dorms or you are transitioning from school or your parents’ home to a place of your own, or you don’t want the hassle of home ownership or can’t afford it, it’s important to understand the different shared housing arrangements available to you. Be clear about what kind of household you are joining or creating and you’ll spare yourself tons of grief down the road.
Here are three of the most common shared living arrangements for those who can’t or don’t want to own their own home:
Ownership: You rent a room in a house or building from a landlord. This option requires the least amount of interaction with others who live there.
Expenses: You pay your monthly or weekly rent, which usually includes utilities. You are not responsible for whether others in the house pay theirs.
Use of space: Your room is your private space. If there is common space like a recreation room or a kitchen, the landlord determines when and how it will be used.
Food: You’re on your own. Some rooming houses have kitchens people can use. You either keep your food, dishes and a pot in your room or there might be a designated shelf for your stuff in the kitchen. Some rooming houses don’t have kitchens and do have rules about whether you are allowed to have a dorm fridge and a microwave in your room. Check your agreement.
Responsibilities: You are responsible for keeping your own room in habitable condition and to be respectful of common areas. The owner provides reasonable janitorial service in common areas and maintains the property.
Decision-making: The owner gets to spell out rules in your rental agreement. Each roomer agrees to abide by the owner’s rules.
Whose house is it? The landlord’s.
What part of the house is your home? Your room.
Ownership: Most group living situations are cooperatives — a group rents or leases an apartment or house together. You are financially entangled with your roommates for the life of the lease. Since you are sharing all the common spaces, the ability to get along and to work out problems that come up makes the difference between a comfortable home and one fraught with tension.
Expenses: You and your housemates are renting as a group. You are each responsible for the rent in its entirety. If one person doesn’t pay their share, the rest are responsible for coming up with the difference when the rent is due or they are in violation of the lease. Co-signers (such as parents) need to be aware that they will be holding the bag if your housemates don’t come through. Needless to say, financial responsibilities need to be carefully negotiated and understood before anyone puts their name on a lease.
Rent is divided by the bedroom or by the square foot of your bedroom (since some rooms are bigger than others). Sometimes utilities (heat, electricity, water) and cable are included, sometimes not. Be sure you understand from the get-go how bills that are not part of the rent will be shared and what you expect of each other. If one person wants the house to be kept at 80 degrees during cold months, for example, the rest of you will be footing the bill as well. Make sure you all agree on some basics.
Use of space: Your room is your own but the rest of the place is shared equally.
Food: Decide as a group. In some coops, people keep their food separate and make their own meals. In others, food is purchased as a group and shopping and food prep is done on rotation. In still others, people generally take care of themselves but occasionally make a group meal. It’s important to be clear about what is a private stock of food and what is available to everyone so no one feels like they are being taken advantage of (“Who took my cheese?”).
Responsibilities: How inside chores are distributed (and to what standards) needs to be agreed upon by everyone who lives there. The landlord is responsible for property maintenance and usually for such things as trash removal, lawn mowing, and snow removal.
Decision-making: Decisions are divided between the owner and the coop members. The landlord spells out rules in the lease about such things as whether you can alter the property, how many people can stay over and for how long, whether you can have a pet, and how many parking spaces come with the place, etc.
Most landlords will assess damages if you paint, do carpentry, or in any way change the structure of the building without approval, even if you think you improved the place. Read your lease very carefully so you know what you are agreeing to. Once you sign it, you are legally responsible for what it says. Within those constraints, the members of the cooperative then decide how to live together, usually through a regular house meeting.
Whose house is it? The landlord’s.
What part of the house is your home? Your room is your castle but the rest of the house or apartment is equally shared.
Ownership: Collectives usually purchase a property together. Sometimes everyone contributes equally. Sometimes people pay in “shares” with consequent differences in power in decision-making. There’s no one way to do it. It’s essential that the arrangement is clear. Usually, there is a legally binding contract.
Expenses: The group develops a clear contract about how the mortgage, taxes, and insurance are paid and how equity is shared; how people join the group and how people can leave it. How utility bills and repairs will be covered is part of your collective agreement. Deciding on property improvements, when they are necessary and how to pay for them often is a challenge.
Use of space: Your room is your own but the rest of the house is shared equally.
Food: Usually (but not always) food is purchased and prepared by the group. Often there are regular communal meals. Sometimes preparation and cleanup is done on rotation. Sometimes particular people are designated as cooks.
Responsibilities: Everyone needs to agree on how chores (both inside and outside) are distributed. Everyone in the group is a part owner, so the group is responsible for all chores and maintenance, both inside and out.
Decision-making: Usually by consensus in regularly held house meetings.
Whose house is it? Everyone in the collective.
What part of the house is your home? The whole place. You have say in what goes on in every room and throughout the property since whatever people do will affect the value of the whole.