With more of us house-sharing into our 30s than ever before, Stylist investigates the pros (and some cons) of having flatmates.
There are certain things only a person in an adult flatshare can know – for one, there can never be enough spoons or space on the airer. The intricate timings of each household’s morning shower dance are to be disrupted at your peril. Posh peanut butter is not communal, and neither are knickers.
In our 20s, sharing can feel like the way life is meant to be: heady, spontaneous, disastrous and heavily romanticised. The crusty cereal bowls by the side of the sofa are easily forgotten when slinking onto your housemate’s bed on Sunday mornings to shed crumbs of old mascara and a litany of regrets from the night before.
Yet, for increasing numbers of us, housesharing is no longer a stepping stone to ownership, or even to renting alone. Statistically, more of us than ever are living in shared accommodation well into our 30s, 40s and even 50s. A survey published in 2015 showed the number of housesharers aged 35-44 rose 186% in just five years. Last year, the flatshare website SpareRoom reported that searches by people aged 35-54 had increased five-fold over the past 10 years.
Home ownership among young people has “collapsed”, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. House prices have risen at seven times the rate of wages in the UK, its research says, so our chance of buying somewhere has more than halved over the past 20 years. It is, perhaps, the reason communal living spaces – for “childless millennials” who rent a small, cheap room and share facilities, a bit like a grown-up halls of residence – are gaining popularity, as shown by the many companies (Roam, The Collective, Fizzy Living, Uncle and Lyvly) offering this type of space.
In Leeds, there is an innovative way of sharing called LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) – a new community of young people in 20 eco-build houses. The project aims to minimise negative impact on the environment and encourage social interaction, while still providing residents with their own space. They share everything from meals to transport to veg from their communal allotment.
“We’ve got more bedrooms per person than ever before in theUK,” says Danny Dorling, a British social geographer and professor of geography at Oxford. “There isn’t a lack of housing, but we have more and more empty bedrooms– elderly people living for longer on their own in houses with three or four bedrooms. And lots of empty places people can’t afford any more. Income inequality has gone up: we were the second most equal country next to Sweden in the Seventies, but now we’re the most unequal. That means while some people can afford houses bigger than they need, most of us will have to compromise.”
But for many of us, this contrasts uneasily with the way we were taught things were supposed to work out. While 10 years ago it might have been embarrassing to flatshare in your 30s, now the stigma has gone with married couples happily living with singles or other couples, despite society’s expectations.
“Humans are a social species by nature,” explains psychologist Sam Gosling, author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. “Our original mechanisms were to live among people who were related to us – family, extended family. But we seem to be also very good at living with people we don’t know so well. This is likely down to a pack-like mentality – when we house ourselves with others, we form a bond.”
That sort of social interaction, research shows, is critical for our mental and physical health.
“You could say that as humans we are better equipped to live with multiple people than living alone or with just one partner,” Gosling says – a theory that is derived from the behaviour of our ancestors long ago. Back then, our natural instinct to be social became a key strength for the primate ancestors of humans, when we stopped hunting at night. We found mates to protects us so we could also hunt by day, when light made us much more vulnerable.
Financial worries are also lessened with the sharing of rent and bills for a safer, more pleasant place to live. Also, Dorling adds, “There are lots of environmental benefits to sharing. When you increase the amount of people using one place, the energy used, and therefore the cost, to us and the climate, is less.”
What’s more, as a friend once ventured, flat-sharing is wasted on the young: as we get older, more considerate and more responsible with our time and spaces, it can be a joy to come home to company we value. And when life becomes more stressful, and curveballs like redundancy, bereavement and break-ups come faster and linger longer, living in a collaborative space can become a lifeline.
Shared housing can be “a demonstrably positive living arrangement”, Gosling says. “There is a significant psychological function of spaces. In our homes we want to feel protected and provided for and safe, we would like a sense of feeling loved and, crucially, a sense of our own identity,” he explains. “As long as we are able to express ourselves adequately in the place that we’re living (a bit like we used to hang posters on our walls as teenagers), then we can, in theory, create a comfortable environment for ourselves. Plus, as housesharing becomes more normalised, the societal stigma of sharing later in adulthood is quickly waning.”
As result, less of us feel the tug of being ‘behind’ in adulthood, and we’re happier for it. We’re surviving, thriving. And, like never before, we really are all in it together.
A problem shared… We might be better off living with others, but it’s not always private jokes and cosy nights in. Stylist staff tell their stories
“My flatmate asked us not to WhatsApp him or message him. Ideally, he said, we would just post notes under his door if we needed to contact him as the government was tracking his phone. He would sit in the dark in the kitchen in the middle of the night, eating an entire loaf of egg mayonnaise sandwiches. This sometimes followed two different pizza deliveries. One night, I was woken up at 4am because he was talking loudly next door. The next day I asked him if he could not make phone calls at four in the morning because it woke me up. He looked perplexed – because I was apparently mistaken. He wasn’t on the phone, he was practising his monologue about his life. I’m all for people having quirks and would never hold them against anyone, but then things went a bit downhill.
“I asked if he could stop leaving a light on in the room near the front door. He told me that he left it on intentionally to spot intruders and he had already removed two intruders this month. He started talking about all the potential points of entry. This included an air conditioning unit as well as something in the basement. We told the landlord, but they just said it was our word against his and there was nothing to be done. One lasting line of comfort was, ‘If he gets violent, call the police’.”
Going home again
“I’d been living with two male friends, one of whom owned our flat. I moved out to live with a boyfriend. After two years said boyfriend and I broke up. I phoned my friend at 11am on a Tuesday morning, looking for nothing more than a sofa to stay on for a few nights. ‘We broke up!’ I said, crying. ‘Of course you can stay here,’ he said, without me even asking.
“I moved back in and stayed there another two years.”
Stamp it out
“I had one very odd housemate in the room above me who would stamp her foot on her bedroom floor every time I coughed. Obviously, I then developed a very serious, persistent cough.”
“I got home on a Sunday evening at around 10pm. The front door was wide open. I cautiously walked around the house. Nothing. Half an hour later, my flatmate walks in accompanied by a policeman.
“I asked to speak to the policeman outside and found out that my flatmate had ordered a pizza which had arrived without the cookie dough ice cream he’d asked for. He rang up and complained, but then the delivery driver went to the wrong address, an embassy building around the corner. This descended into an argument, and my flatmate ran out to find him without shutting the door. The embassy rang the police who came and broke up the fight.
“Our landlord decided, since the police had been involved, that it was OK to ask him to leave the flat. Mysterious people then started emailing abuse to the landlord under a variety of pseudonyms.”
“My flatmate is a 26-year-old virgin and I myself have been a very late bloomer. I’ve suffered with vaginismus, struggle with anything sex-related and have never been in a relationship. My heart melted when my flatmate told me that she thought moving in with me was meant to happen. That we were meant to end up together because finally she had someone she could talk to and someone who understood. When her friends brush off her issues or tell her they just don’t get it, she thinks, ‘Well stuff you, my flatmate understands.’ We were strangers when she moved in and with me she finally has the support she couldn’t get from life-long friends.”
“I used to share a flat with brothers (not mine, thank god) one of whom had apparently no sense of smell as he kept bags of rotting rubbish in his room, along with plates and mugs growing various lifeforms. The other had the worst-smelling feet on the planet – the smell would hit you as soon as you entered the flat. So, along with the rotting grossness, I spent most of my time with my windows wide open, even in the middle of winter, to stop my room smelling like a landfill.”
The vanishing millionaire
“I agreed to live with a girl at university. As we discussed finding a place together, she revealed that her dad was a multimillionaire and was willing to buy her a flat outright. We moved in and I thought all my Christmases had come at once. She told me that his interior designer would completely furnish the place and so I should hold back on buying any sort of furniture. She went home for her 21st birthday a few weeks later, with promises she’d be back soon. All I had was a mattress to sleep on. No sofa, wardrobe, table or even cutlery. Turns out she was so rich that she’d gone off the idea of working for a living altogether, and it took her a whole month to get up the courage to tell me she wouldn’t be returning. We were on the phone and she started telling me about all the great ideas this interior designer was having (lies). By the end of the phone call she crumbled and admitted that I had three months left and then her dad was selling the place. This left me without anyone else to live with (all the other students were sorted with houses) and living in this strangely decadent house that had literally nothing in it. I never saw her again.”
A false start
“I met my current flatmate in a coffee shop a month before I moved to Paris in 2015. She was a pal of my friend Alice, who I was moving over there with, and we had decided it made sense for her to join us as she was moving to Paris, too. Pilar was blonde, petite, full of energy – we didn’t hit it off straight away. Four years (and two more apartments) later, our lives feel totally meshed together. I spent my birthday last year skinny dipping on the beach next to her place in Majorca. Her mum – a redhead among a family of dark-haired, deeply-tanned Spaniards – often tells me I could be her daughter. She’s a friend I know will be in my life forever.”
“My flatmate took my camera and took a photo of me in my towel (discreetly, so I had no idea) and uploaded it to Facebook. When I saw, she claimed she had no idea how it had happened. She then dated a friend of mine who was a huge ladies’ man. When I tried to warn her – in a friendly, girl-code way – she blew up, telling me I was jealous. We had a massive falling out and I moved out of the house while everyone was at work because things had become so bad.”
Making a murderer?
“I lived with a man who was in his late 70s. He had three lodgers: we were 24, 26 and 28 and all relatively normal. But when I came to view the flat he had framed photos of at least 15 past flatmates all out on the dining room table, so I insisted on calling previous tenants to make sure that wasn’t a shrine to all the people he’d killed.
“He also had a door that opened onto a room that was full of concrete, which he said was where they didn’t dig down when they made the basement extension…
“When I found out that I wouldn’t get my inheritance from my grandad until my grandma died, this guy started suggesting ways to kill her. I thought it was a joke until he showed me the poisonous berries in his freezer.”
Help to buy
“I met my current housemate on SpareRoom, we’ve lived together for almost six years and now we are looking at buying a house together because we’re both single and it’s impossible to do it alone in London.”
“I lived in half a shed with an archery enthusiast, a hacker, my landlord’s family and a midnight baker. It was strange. The low point? The shed was divided with a paper-thin wall. I felt very involved when the girl in the next room was having sex with her boyfriend.”
Served sunny side up
“I used to live with a tennis coach. He was dedicated to his diet, so much so that he would live on tins of tuna and egg whites. Instead of throwing away the yolks like a normal person, he would keep them in the cupboard for me to unearth weeks later, mouldy as all hell.”