How to Make a Multi Family Household Work

Ohana, multi-family living, “boomerang children”. No matter what you call it, extended families living under one roof or on one property can be a cultural norm or a way to cope with the financial difficulties that many are facing. Many say it’s “Easier said than done.” They are correct. There are many issues to work out and compromise is necessary. Stronger personalities and pride will make this even more difficult.

My husband and I are near experts on multi-family living as we lived in the same house as my mother and stepdad for three years. In fact, my husband, dog, business, and I lived in approximately 250 s.f. along with use of the “guest” bathroom and community areas (laundry, kitchen).

During this period of time, we were relieved from the pressure of rent and utilities to help my husband to finish school and for us to pay down some debt. In exchange, my husband and I do a significant amount of the cleaning, food shopping, and cooking on most nights. We managed to create a genuine symbiotic relationship. I really don’t think my family would have ever gotten to know my husband if we hadn’t done this.

Three Tips To Make Living Together Easier

However, it was three long years of discovering and enforcing boundaries, finding additional patience when we were down to our last thread, and learning what real forgiveness means. The following made it easier:

Active Listening

Many times I found that I construed my own experience upon what is being told to me. There were times I felt absolutely unwelcome, when the issue was truly a simple request; there were also times where a small thing was blown out of proportion to the extent that the environment became truly unpleasant. Confirm what you are hearing is correct before you act on it.

Beware the Balance of Power

While my folks deeply enjoyed having us there (so they say, at least) it was difficult to be under a roof that was not our own. We would’ve liked to be in a position to help more, but at least we did contribute our labor if not our dollars. It’s vitally important to never bring up the “help” that is being given in anger, as that can make one side feel like leaches instead of contributors. It’s important to have mutual respect for all households, but also acknowledging everyone’s assistance with gratitude.

Don’t Be Cumbersome

The key to multiple households living under the same roof is recognizing that they are all individual households. They will each make decisions that you don’t agree with; they will work wonderfully together one day, and not so well the next. At one point we finally agreed to the following: “I will treat you every day as if you are a guest in my house, and you will do the same. This way we always know we are looking out for the best interest of the other, we will allow each other privacy, and treat each other with care.” It’s easy to over-invest in a life that is not your own, especially if it is under your own roof, but no one likes to live in a soap opera.

The Concept of the Tiny House

While it overall works very well, there will always be a reduction of privacy. Tricia at Bloggingawaydebt introduced us to the concept of the tiny house, and I swear, there was a shed with a full foundation in our backyard and I thought about knocking it down and creating our own little place. I always felt guilty that my folks were in some ways helping to support us instead of saving for their retirement. Although my mom told us that they would have the mortgage and utility bills regardless of our presence, I wished they were able to slow down sooner. I take comfort in the knowledge that they helped give us a boost now so that we will be better able to help them when they need it in the future.

The benefits far outweighed the negatives for all of us. We had a supportive environment, and we worked together to build our respective businesses. I built a website for my stepdad’s business, and my mom made marketing calls for our wellness business. We took care of each other when we were sick, and there was always someone to pick up the ball if someone drops it.

On a side note, when my folks went on vacation, we realized how little of the house was actually used. If we hadn’t all lived together, about 800 s.f. (out of 1980) would never get used. How wasteful!

About the Author

By , on Jan 29, 2010
A. Black writes about graciously building wealth through thrift and putting the stereotypical notion of a "tightwad" on its tush at Modern Tightwad. For frugal tips and money management solutions with a tightwad twist visit her website or subscribe to her feed..

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Leave Your Comment (6 Comments)

  1. As long as you are living in a supportive environment, this situation is absolutely workable. Although things may be tough from time to time, I would see the positives far outweighing the negatives.

  2. A. Black says:

    @Cari: I think what you’re talking about is a cooperative living arrangement, a little different than everyone living under the same roof. You can do research on “farm shares” which is where several people live and share in the work of a single farm, and there are communities in Portland that focus on small space living and reduced waste. Is there something specific you’re looking to find?

  3. Pinyo says:

    @Cari – I think it could work with your own family, e.g., parents or siblings. I am not sure if it would work with other people (even a very close friend) when you have young children in the house.

  4. Cari says:

    I live in Tempe AZ with my husband and two young sons. I have always thought that it would be so much easier if families and/or friends would join together and live on one property. Think of the savings, think of how finding the right people could enrich the lives involved. My friends think it is a crazy idea- or most think they would go for it but their spouse would not… Any feedback or comments on the topic would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you, Cari

  5. George Thistle says:

    We used to live in caves, forests, etc. in large groups. I don’t see why it’s such a problem to give in a large household even in a small house. Good article though

  6. Mark says:

    Mankind can adapt, survive and even make a living in the totalitarian economies.

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