Co-Housing Do’s and Don’ts

In this economy, it’s not unusual to have friends lose their homes. This past year, we took in an empty-nester couple who had lost their home to give them a place to land, recover, and reenergize themselves. We’ve had many other folks live with us before, but it’s always been a short-term stay, measured in weeks. With this couple, their stay was measured in months – and if we had not introduced some “tough love” to the relationship – potentially years.

They are moving out at the end of this month, but only after we had several difficult, heart-to-heart, “welcome to reality” conversations. I think they had planned to stay for years.

Lessons learned:

  • Before taking someone into your home to live free of rent and utilities, do your due diligence. There is a reason why they’ve become homeless; you have ever right (even duty, as their friend) to drill down into those reasons.
  • Have several face-to-face conversations prior to their move-in about their *specific* goals re: jobs, refilling savings accounts, eliminating debt, how use time, when they expect to leave, etc.
  • Set a weekly check-in meeting so you don’t allow unspoken frustrations to boil too long. Try to “clear the air” daily, if possible.

Unexpected appreciations found:

  • I appreciate the calm, wise counsel of my wife is now more than ever. Granted, she’s a professionally trained social worker, counselor, and coach, but that’s for helping *other* folks. Applying those same techniques and principles to your own home and family members is a challenge for anyone. She came through this challenge with flying colors, and has taught me many helpful life lessons along the way.
  • The laziness of the “housewife without a house” who refused to even seek a job taught me to appreciate my mother more, as they are the same age and both empty nesters. While I love my mother dearly, she drives me crazy on some issues. This experience of having a capable adult sitting around my house all day, not doing chores, but reading books, surfing the web, and talking on the phone, clearly showed me how much I value my mom for her professional/personal devotion to educating high school students. She’s an amazing woman who I now appreciate more than ever.
  • I perceived a new, extreme attitude of entitlement with the husband of this couple, despite knowing him for ~10 years. He’s a smart person with good, Big Picture ideas, but has failed for the last 15 years to turn any of those ideas into a reliable revenue stream. For the last three years I’ve counseled him to continue this Big Picture adventures, but in parallel with getting a workaday job to pay the bills (work at a local big box like Home Depot, clerk for a local attorney, tutor high school students in math, anything really).His attitude that a workaday job is beneath him irks me, but also gave me a new-found appreciation for my father. My father always had a primary day job which paid the bills, but he also pursued Big Picture adventures (teaching, community service projects, etc) which may or may not have revenue streams immediately attached to them. That set him up to pursue those adventures full time now that he is retired. I am emulating my father in this aspect, which is one of the highest forms of flattery I can think of.

This experience has not soured us to taking folks into our home again, but it made us realize we need to be more wise in how we do so. Should you be considering the same for your friends when they are down and out (I hope you do), consider using this template we developed based on our miscues to start the conversation:

The new few [weeks/months] will be stressful for you and we’d like to help by having you live in our home.

We expect you to work harder, smarter, and longer than you ever have before, in order to refill your savings account and move into your own place on XX date. In exchange for that level of effort, you can live here free of rent and utilities, with a full bedroom/bathroom suite and unlimited access to a full kitchen of appliances until XX date. You can have as much land as you like to plant crops to offset your grocery bills.

We expect all family members that can physically work to be working – whether that is for monetary income or barter – as you return to the point of housing independence. We expect you’ll cut all expenses to the bone in order to maximize savings. We expect you to give us updates on employment, debt burden, and savings account status each week/month. We expect you to complete a Dave Ramsey course/book.

We also expect you to labor beside us in these specific chores, without having to be reminded:

– Trash and recycling out to side of house and then down to road to pickup spot (weekly).
– Weeding the front and side yard decorative beds (infrequently).
– Weeding the vegetable garden beds in the side and back (frequently).
– Hauling in firewood during the winter (weekly).
– Raising/lowering the western shades for solar gain (daily).
– Do your own dishes, sweeping, etc (daily).

If that sounds like an attractive deal, you are welcome to move in with us.

It’s clear to me that American families will begin to do much more co-housing in the coming years due to hard economic times. Whether it is grandparents-parents-adult children living together again, or simply friends helping friends, we need to get smarter about how we do these living arrangements. This last year taught us that we will only take in folks that bring a “net gain” to the household, folks that you would be glad to have living under your roof in good times or bad because they don’t introduce an overabundance of stress into the household nor bad role-modeling for our kids, and because they help with the much-needed food production chores.