House sharing has become a way of life for many renters who have been priced out of the property market. But coping with fellow house mates' odd behaviour can lead to extreme responses.
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
The first time Jessica met her male housemate he woke her up at 3am, perched himself on her bed and tried to kiss her.
"I said 'You'd better go' and he did," she recalls. "The next day I told him 'That can't happen again' but it did, twice."
Three months later, Jessica, in her early 30s, moved out. "It was a really cool and quirky house but living in that kind of situation meant it went very rapidly from something quite fun and adventurous to something that was quite depressing."
Although perhaps an extreme example, such conflicts and moments of awkwardness are commonplace in a society that is renting shared accommodation in greater numbers.
Robbie Williams and Jonathan Wilkes (above)
Ant and Dec
David Baddiel and Frank Skinner
Tony Blair and Lord Falconer
A nervy housing market, more single people and increased immigration are factors contributing to the strongest demand for tenants in years, according to letting agents.
Students are used to sharing but communal living can be a part of life for a decade while careers get off the ground and deposits are saved.
There can be clear social benefits to being thrust together with others - countless friendships, relationships and marriages have a "Housemate wanted" advert to thank.
But sharing a fridge, a kitchen sink, a television remote and a bathroom with others who have a different perspective on life is destined to be for many people a tense experience.
Fashion lecturer Oonagh O'Hagan has compiled a book I Lick My Cheese based on 120 notes left by flatmates during 10 years of renting and the housemates of friends.
They include barbed missives such as "I pay the rent, what do you do?", "Has anyone seen the kitchen?" and the more sinister "You know, that I know that you know that I know that you took it... So give it back".
One of the more bizarre complaints was about leaving toe-clippings on the cover of Vogue magazine.
Writing a note can be cathartic, she says, but usually only makes things worse.
"It can be aggressive because you've crossed out the intimacy of talking to people. It's a very peculiar thing. The writer could be very pleasant to you in the hallway but then you find a note outside your door or on the fridge."
Sex, fury and intrigue - is this life as a tenant?
The two biggest sources of friction, she says, are food and money.
"Sometimes people are living hand to mouth and not earning much, and they come in and find something they looked forward to eating has gone. There's nothing worse than being hungry but the other thing is money, which is an awkward topic."
Unpaid bills are what came between Carrie and a school friend with whom she shared a flat. Their property was served with a possession order because the flatmate had been falling behind with rent.
"The first I heard of it was when the caretaker rang to say the landlord was evicting us and when would we be out," says Carrie. "I said 'They've never written to us or anything.'"
But they had sent a letter two months before and Carrie had been kept in the dark. She moved out four days later, counting the total cost as about £800 and a wounded, though still existent, friendship.
"She's chirpy and warm and interesting and good company but her attitude to money is so different to mine. I earned much more compared to her so I always felt that money was a sensitive subject."
House sharing is such a rite of passage these days it's easy to forget how recent a trend it is. Not long ago, singletons taking their first tentative steps away from home would likely find themselves in a bedsit or boarding house, where a watchful and ever-present landlady would ensure order at all times.
Who can imagine a modern sitcom based on the dynamics of TV's Rising Damp, with Rigsby, the nosy landlord, its central character? Instead, the exploits of Jeremy and Mark in Channel 4's Peep Show strike a more familiar note for today's young professionals.
One of the most acutely observed TV portrayals in recent years was This Life, a drama set in the late 90s which revolved around the antics of a bunch of young lawyers sharing a house in south London.
Its creator Amy Jenkins, who drew on personal experience in devising the programme, says she once had a housemate who rang a premium rate phone line and accidentally left the receiver off the hook.
A £350 bill arrived after he moved away and one of the housemates had to bail him out.
Terry and Bob shared a council flat
A house-sharer herself for 10 years, Ms Jenkins employed the tactic of throwing dirty crockery on the bed of those who didn't wash up, and she thinks the key to a happy household is to establish boundaries early on.
"Have that difficult conversation at the beginning, before the deal is done, when it's much easier to say things like 'This is my TV, you have your TV in your bedroom.'"
It's harder further down the line to lay down rules about food in the fridge, who takes out the rubbish and when the central heating should go on.
But having rules requires someone taking on the role of leader, she says, and it was usually her.
The names Jessica and Carrie are not the real names of the interviewees.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Living with another human is the hardest thing ever to do even with your partner, I am really anal about certain things and drives people mad, to be honest as much as I love my partner and son I would rather live with my cat!!
kellie simpson, london
Find the book "He died with a Falafel in his Hand" written by an Aussie who lived in shared houses for a decade. They made a film of it. very funny.
I always find that after about 6 months, even the nicest people have odd little habits that drive me crazy. My house mate has a bowl of mushy cereal every morning and rather than putting the remains in the bin he throws it on the garden stones which then turn black. Also leaves lights on constantly. Drives me nuts, but he is a lovely guy! I am planning buying a house in a much cheaper area and suffering a long commute rather than live with house mates any more here in London. I have had drunk guys wander into my room at night in previous houses. It completely sucks and can really put you on edge. People often share houses with people they dont know so its impossible to tell what will happen and is always a risk.
A "nervy housing market"? Now there's a funny euphemism for the gross social inequality that sees millions of would-be buyers priced out of owning a home.
Susi Quinn, Shoreham-by-Sea
Hate to be pedantic, but are you sure Bob and Terry shared a council flat, as per your picture caption? My recollection is that Terry stuck to home comforts with his Mum before the army, though Bob and Thelma may have put him up for a while in their house afterwards. Terry would certainly be the flatmate from hell!
I live in a rented house with 3 people I don't know. The landlord tried to evict all of us because one person would not tidy up after himself and I got the blame. In another flat I shared one "flat-mate" invited two friends around who ended up living with him in his bedroom for nearly 6 months. They were from the Middle East and kept an electric radiator on 24/7 which saw the electricity bill quadruple! I wish I could get a place of my own but affordable housing in Bath is only available if you are on a salary of £30,000+.
Matt, Bath, Somerset
I bought my house in 1994 and have only ever had it to myself for the first 4 months. I aquired one lodger by accident early on, (stopped for one night, moved out 4 years later), and since then the lodgers have just kept coming. (Most I've had is seven under my roof in one go). Being the live-in owner of the house with lodgers has its ups and downs and is much easier in your late 20s early 30s. I turn 40 soon, and got to admit I'm ready to have the place all to myself. That said having somone who has the added authority of ownership in a house share arrangement is possibly easier than when everyone has equal shared responsibility. You can sometimes settle arguments and lay down reasonable ground rules.
Tony, CUMBRIA, UK
I lived with a bunch of professionals. None of us knew each other. But somehow we managed. Actually this was better, less expectations! But the key was the cleaner once a week. Without the cleaner I don't think we would have spoken to each other.
Everyone blames everyone else etc. At least the house was clean every Tuesday.0 But even with this, when we tried to have group shopping - eg. toilet paper, light bulbs etc. there still would be some arguments. Once I went house shopping and bought some light bulbs. The expense was larger than normal. One of the housemates said that I was overcharging them (even though I had a receipt). Then he said I got the most expensive light bulbs. To make matters worse it was me - the only female that actually put the light bulbs in. He was in his 40's and a pain - better not say more! The others were lovely but did not have the balls to stand up to him.
While sharing a house with five other students I was accused by one girl of "sleeping in her bed". I was absolutely livid at being accused of such a bizarre thing on absolutely no evidence whatsoever - she apologised some days later citing a "misunderstanding" but I never quite looked at her the same way again.
Andrew Marshall, Cambridge, UK
"....and they come in and find something they looked forward to eating has gone." That happened to me & I kicked the fridge in anger.... & broke my foot!!! I still remember what it was as well - a pot of yogurt. I had been looking forward to it the whole walk home!
Jake P, SW London
Brought the book a few weeks ago and it made me laugh. In my first year of uni and already the notes are out. It's true somethings are better not said, that's when pen and paper come in usefull
Sarah, Sudbury, Suffolk
There's nothing new about flat-sharing. It was the norm, at least in London, for young professional single people up until the Thatcher era when they started buying instead of renting.
Anne, , london
The dynamic in a male shared property is different. Cleanliness is not an issue generally until you want you deposit back or you are exspecting guests. Food similarly as there probably isn't much edible there. Noise and neighbours may be an issue but bills and beer definitely can be. Finally entertainment whether TV, games console or music could be a divisive factor but generally all male shares seem calmer just noisier and dirtier.
James, torquay uk
If you think sharing a place is bad enough, try sharing a place with its owner! The high cost of living in UK is forcing many people into a miserable existence, and this is only one manifestation of it.
Surely a small price to pay for not being stuck in negative equity for the next decade or so?
Aaaah... I remember a housemate in the '80s who would never take her keys with her because they made the line of her clothes look odd (Yep, I know...) and would ring the doorbell at 3am wanting to be let in, with a pathetic excuse based on "I must have left my keys at home/ lost them" or whatever. I disconnected the doorbell - poor woman spent a VERY long night on the doorstep. She never did that again. Or the other housemate who would go out leaving her clothes drying in front of the communally paid-for gas fire repeatedly - she would call up and ask one of us to turn off gas/move clothes away - one day I shifted them just that bit closer to scorch her stuff before moving them away - sorry Siobhan! But you were a lazy mare!
After living in a house share throughout university and for 3 years afterwards I encounterd many a messy housemate or annoying trait of an otherwise good pal. I found that notes had a hostile air about them so resorted to poems to get my point across. One, directed to a male housemate who peed on the loo seat almost nightly went;
If you're needing to pee in the night-time,
To ensure you perform with some class,
Please wipe the seat off, or lift it up,
Else in the dark I will get a wet a**e.
And just one more thing my dear fellow,
Please flush, for you won't wake this girl.
In the night-time I always wear earplugs
And I'd rather wee weren't left to swirl.
For I find it a little bit yucky,
When I'm getting my morning on track,
To see the pee pee of another,
And I do fear the dreaded 'splash back'
Other topics over the years included bills, bins, food, vacuuming and washing up - all issues I'm sure my fellow house-sharers will be nodding their heads at. Thankfully I now live with just my boyfriend, and he knows better than to pee on the seat!
Nikki Tilmouth, Brighton
About 10 years ago I used to live in a shared house in the centre of Cambridge and although the majority of the time things were cool there were a few issues. One used to bleat on about being skint all the time and wash his underwear in the sink and leave it to dry but strangely enough he always had full cans of Stella to hand, ovbiously when you work diff times loud music late at night used to be a frequent prob. With regards to the fridge back in the days of glass pints I used to pop a few drops of food colouring into mine to ensure I always had milk for brekkie & tea.
As a student it does help, when moving into shared accomodation to lay down the rules at the very beginning. What also helps however is to have a certain amount of passivity. Things otherwise turn rapidly petty to the point where you can't speak to a housemate over the use of some salt. You are your own person but then again so are other people!
Alex, St Andrews, Scotland
House-sharing isn't new. We all did it in our early to mid twenties, and I'm 56 now.
chris monniot, Crawley, Sussex
I had a crazy Spanish housemate once who ate more food than the rest of us put together (female in a house of 3 men) and got mad psycho about security. Kept asking the landlord to do DIY for her because she couldn't do it herself, and ended up asking him for a lock on the door because she was scared of us men... Crazy and paranoid; moved out soon after a shouting match where said landlord put her in her place. Yeah!
Ben E, Mexico City
I was living in a student house, all the crockery, cutlery, pots and pans were mine and so it seemed was all the washing up duties. I warned the rest of the lads living there if things didn't change and they started doing their fair share there would be consequences. After a couple of weeks without change they all returned home to find only 1 spoon, fork, knife, bowl, mug, saucepan and plate left in the kitchen. The rest I'd locked away in my bedroom - the Kitchen remained near spotless for the rest of the year
Chris, Soho, London, UK
"A nervy housing market, more single people and increased immigration are factors contributing to the strongest demand for tenants in years." What is "the strongest demand for tenants"? That means landlords are demanding tenants. In other words an over-supply of housing and a shortage of tenants. I think that you mean the opposite. I wish that the BBC would learn to write in english.
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