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How To Choose Housemates Who Won’t Ruin Your Life

Humans are inherently self-interested and also quite gross—especially in the comfort of their homes. So how do you know if you can coexist with someone?
November 8, 2016, 3:34am
Illustrations: Ashley Goodall

This article is presented by V Energy as part of our Mad Skills series

Share houses used to be a very temporary thing. You'd spend a few years of your undergrad splitting rent between approximately eight people, eating cereal for dinner, and revelling in a filthy but parent-free paradise. After graduation, you'd ascend to glorious adulthood, get a nine-to-five job, and your own place.

These days however, share houses aren't a brief debaucherous phase so much as the status quo. If you want or need to live out of home, you'll be sharing a bathroom and cleaning roster for at least the next decade. So it's a good idea to make the best of it, and choose your living situation wisely.

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Believe it or not, it is possible to live with people who are both fun and respectful. The types of housemates who will share their Netflix password and do the dishes. VICE asked some share house veterans for their advice on finding the perfect rental family.

THE FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIA'S BIGGEST SHAREHOUSE

Sam Manson is the founder of Melbourne's Crunchy Town, a 30 person-strong sharehouse that harbours both short term couchsurfers and long term renters from around the world. Community spirit makes Crunchy Town work—the housemates grow their own food, and it's compulsory to pitch in on chores. The rent is extremely cheap and the vibe is extremely good. What's the secret?

Many residents are travellers, and Manson says every sharehouse should consider adopting a backpacker/international housemate if they're looking to emulate the Crunchy Town lifestyle. "You can expand on your culture, you learn from them and they from you. When you're living with people from all over the world, it's open-sharing in a way," he tells VICE. "I think it's really important to have cultural exchange, just to open up your mind."

Obviously, living in a small-ish Coburg share house with 30 other people could easily go wrong. Manson says that the most important factor in maintaining the harmony is picking housemates with care. He advertises spots in the house on couchsurfing.com, and has become pretty good at sussing out the best types of people to live with.

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"I'm definitely quite picky with my choices, but if I get an idea or feeling from someone—it can be just one word that they use in their application—then I'll accept them," he says. Manson isn't looking for people who are necessarily similar to him, and that's key. Instead, he says you should always live with those who are willing to accept your beliefs and way of life regardless of their own views.

"There's kind of like a border—if they're too different to you and they're not willing to be open to different ideas, then that doesn't work," he says. "But really it doesn't matter if they're different to you—it's more about whether they have an open mind to new ideas. I think that's the most important thing."

When you're inviting someone to live in your share house, Manson says you should make sure they understand what living with other people actually means. Many people move into share houses hoping that they can keep to themselves and not have to interact with anybody—these types are best avoided. Because while shared living arises from a need to split rent, there's much more to it than that.

"This is more than just somewhere cheap to live. It involves quite a bit of community, and community is work. Because it is cheaper, you have to put in a little bit more effort. You need to live amongst people, and in harmony with everyone around you. When people aren't on that level of living, sometimes it's kind of hard."

If things aren't working out with a housemate, Manson says the solution is relatively simple. Just have a conversation: chances are, they're as unhappy with the situation as you are. "I'd tell them how maybe it's not working from my side, and honestly it's usually a mutual thing that it's not working for them as well," he says.

The number one rule of housemates is that they come and go, and that doesn't matter. "Don't be too attached to people," Manson says. "See it as an appreciation of learning from that person and meeting them when you did, or experiencing their friendship when you did."

THE RACHEL/MONICA

Everyone likes the idea of living in a New York City sitcom-style BFF apartment utopia, but realistically the Monica and Rachel dynamic only ever seems to work out for fictional white yuppies. Your friendship may endure through primary school, high school, and university—but a decade of cherished memories can be tarnished within weeks of having to put up with someone's selfish bathroom habits. Right?

Maybe not. Lucy, 22, has lived in share houses for four years—before moving cities, she spent three of them living with a revolving door of uni buddies. She insists that it's totally possible to live the sitcom dream, as long as you make some careful casting choices.

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"I wasn't worried at all about living with good friends when I first left home—actually it was one of the big motivators to do it," she says. "When I moved in with a friend I also worked with, people all around us made concerned noises and said we'd end up hating each other. Initially I let that colour my feelings, but ultimately we ignored the naysayers, and of course they were wrong."

Lucy says that sharing a house with good mates isn't a non-stop rave so much as a chill sleepover party. "Living with your best friends is like having the comfort of family, but more fun. Your social life comes to you, you hang out and party with all the same people. Everyone is welcome all the time. It's blissful."

"You don't waste time tip toeing around each other and asking if it's okay if your friends come round, because your friends are their friends."

So what to make of all those best friend break up share house horror stories? "I think it worked out so well for us because when you live with people you genuinely like, petty things don't annoy you. Nobody's getting annoyed because their best friend left a dish in the sink," she says.

"It works like this for everyone. This weird myth that hangs around that says it's hard to live with friends was created by boring people to try and keep us from choosing our own families, organising our lives according to our own values. Sharehousing doesn't have to be some unpleasant blip halfway between the family home and moving in with a romantic partner."

THE BAD HOUSEMATE

"Be the scapegoat," says Isobel, 28. She's lived in and out of share houses for five years, and insists that being the scumbag has its benefits.

You think this is bad advice—and sure, being the least reliable and therefore most reviled person in a tiny terrace house with an astroturf garden is a little bit dystopian. But the key here is actually just to make sure you live with people who aren't as annoying as you are. As long as you obey this cardinal rule, you'll always be at peace: it takes way more energy to passive aggressively hate someone than it does to be passive aggressively hated.

"Always be the worst housemate, and the poorest."

Plus, living with people who have money and life skills is enormously beneficial. Live with someone who has a car—they'll give you lifts. Live with someone who knows how to cook—Mi Goreng has very little nutritional value. Live with someone who has an adult job—they'll pay for a flat screen TV and a dryer.

"It's good to live with a 'doer' too," Isobel explains. "I once had a housemate that had a lot of hobbies and practical skills like pottery, textiles, painting, and cooking. This meant that there were lots of house dinners with incredible food, we always had new cushions covers and curtains and artwork popping up around the place, and we were always drinking out of cool cups and eating off beautiful plates. Just make sure the doer has good taste or it could also probably ruin your life."

THE MIDDLE MAN

It's all very well to recreate How I Met Your Mother in Western Sydney, but if you're really going to embrace the sharehouse lifestyle, at some point you'll need to roll the dice and allow a stranger from the internet into your painstakingly Ikea-filled home. There are obvious perils here, but Facebook rental groups and online classified services make everything a lot easier.

Flatmates.com.au, Australia's biggest house sharing website, has been around since 1997. CEO Thomas Clement says that if you take the right precautions, sharing with internet strangers can be a lot of fun. "About a third of our users actually say they want to live with complete strangers—it's on the rise," he says. "People want new connections, and I think a lot of them do end up with amazing friends."

"I have a general rule: commonalities bring people together, but differences make things interesting. If you end up living with someone like yourself, you do end up driving each other crazy."

Still, if you're searching for housemates on the internet, you should have some idea of what you're looking for. "Don't have a long list of what's important, but pick out a top 2-3 deal breakers," Clement says. "They might be having similar schedules and waking hours—or cleaning, or quietness, whether they have partners. You need to find out what the deal breakers are early in the search."

It's also good to establish the kind of mood you want to set. "Chilled, party, or social—a lot of people actually just want a place where they can eat and sleep, and not socialise much. It's important to say that," he explains.

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According to Clement, one of the biggest mistakes people make when creating profiles on flatmates.com.au is being too detailed. Don't try too hard: approach the whole thing as you would online dating. Be cool about it. "Put in the major bits about yourself—overall things like what you do, what sort of industry you're in, any specific hobbies or interests. It's always nice to add personality but you really don't need to go overboard. Think of it as a starting point for the conversation, get people interested, and go from there."

Clement also suggests that you be open to the fact your prospective roomies will stalk you on social media. Anticipate this, and provide links to the profiles that most reflect you. "Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter—choose which one you want to show. It's a great way for someone to get more information about you without asking 50 questions," he says.

TAKEAWAYS

Sharing living space with someone is extremely intimate and weird, most of the time. Some things that are absolutely guaranteed to happen in any given share house situation: you will walk in on someone having a sexual experience, not necessarily involving another person. You will realise, after a period of two or so months, that you've been using a toothbrush which, while extremely similar to your toothbrush, is not in fact your toothbrush. Oh, and you will repeatedly and without guilt eat food belonging to your housemate, but become extremely angry when they do the same thing to you.

In case you hadn't heard, humans are inherently self-interested and also quite gross—especially in the comfort of their homes. The perfect housemate does not exist, and the sooner you realise it, the more chill everything will automatically become.

V Energy has compiled a bunch of hacks around crucial life skills. You can check them out here.