How to set up a “community house” as a shared rental

(shared with permission, though author wanted to be un-named)

[College town] had a lot of community houses 12 years ago. It was easy to get invites to their house parties on weekends. If a person wanted to rent a room, there were lots of houses to choose from. If you had a group of people, it wasn’t hard to find a house to rent. A lot of that has changed. It is still possible to start your own community house; it just takes a little more work. Community houses help support artsy people, activists, and musicians. This creates a better vibe in the neighborhoods than family houses, and single people sharing 2-bedroom apartments.

I’m providing here a background on community houses, and a strategy for how someone can create their own community house, specifically in [College town] in 2021.

My Background

I’ve been living in community houses since 1987, almost constantly. I’ve lived in houses and apartments of all sorts, with many other people. I’ve also visited lots of community houses to spend the night or a few days. I’m always interested in how different houses work. With different types and qualities of houses, different governance structures, and different ownership types.

I have established 10 community houses over the last 30 years, with various governance and ownership structures:

  • 5 rented directly from individual property owners
  • 2 rented from corporate property owners
  • 3 owned by me

I’ve experienced different lease structures:

  • 2 myself and the other residents were all on the lease together
  • 1 myself and some housemates were on the lease, but we sublet rooms to people who weren’t on the lease
  • 3 I was the only person on the lease, and I sublet rooms
  • 1 I was not on the lease, but other housemates were, and they sublet a room to me

I’ve experienced different types of governance:

  • horizontal shared governance
  • a subset of people make the decisions (part horizontal, part vertical)
  • I make all the decisions (vertical)

I’ve experienced different levels of communalism:

  • 5 were shared food, with some shared meals
  • some have had shared gardens, no compensation
  • in some I have paid people for gardening
  • various other levels of structured community activities

Short term vs. long term:

  • Most have been a mixture.

I have lived in all of these types of community houses. I have set up all of these types of community houses. They all have advantages, and they all have disadvantages. I had set up five community houses as a renter before I bought my first house. The dynamic is different with each type. Let’s look at these types in detail.

Housing Age

  • Old, worn-out house: The classic community house is a big, well-worn house with lots of bedrooms, a garden, and some craft space. These are harder to find in [College town] than in the past, but they are still available. It just takes some work to catch one. Upsides: (a) rent is low per square foot, low per bedroom, (b) you can usually modify the house however you like, and (c) pets are usually fine. Downsides: (a) usually renters must put up with some cold in the winter, heat in the summer; (b) they are hard to clean (you can clean for an hour, and everything will still look about the same, as the floors are scratched and keep dirt, the kitchens are old material, with peeling countertops).
  • Renovated older house: These are common in [College town] now. To me they are not as much fun to live in, because the landlord will be fussy about carpets and paint. But these houses will be more comfortable to live in with regard to temperature and cleanliness.
  • Newish house: There are many big duplexes and townhouses in [College town]. You don’t get as big of a yard, but you get a modern house.

Ownership Types

There are different types of ownership, each with pros and cons:

  • Owned by a professional landlord: The landlord owns about 20 houses and does a lot of renting and repairs. They will have a fairly stringent application processes, but they will also take care of problems pretty well. The houses will feel less homey, as they are all repaired with very basic parts, since they need to keep things durable and easy to replace if damaged.
  • Owned by individuals: These are often houses that someone bought to to live in, then moved out of town  or into a bigger house. They don’t want to sell the house, because they might move back or keep it as an investment. These houses have much nicer finishings. The landlords will be fussier about care, because it is more expensive to repair damage to a nice house than one that was built or renovated as a rental house. However, these landlords will also likely be more flexible on lease terms if they like you and think you will take good care of the house. They are not trying to make as much profit as the professional landlords. They may be more flexible in terms of income, pets, and gardening. They often welcome gardening.
  • Living with the landlord: These are usually nicer houses than rental houses. They’ll be more eclectic in terms of rules, but often more flexible in rules. If you want to set up your own community house, you might find an empty-nester that has a couple of empty bedrooms and garden space, and is willing to have a group of people move in, in exchange for rent and help with maintenance, possibly including errands and driving for them, if elderly.

Identify Housemates

  1. See what sort of a core group you can muster up. Ask your friends, colleagues, current housemates, or put up an ad on Craigslist [or join ICmatch.org]. Try to get a core group of 2 or 3 committed, and an orbital group of maybes. 
  2. Identify potential roommates who agree on options for housing type, cost, and location. If you have a range of locations, prices, or housing types you might find acceptable, some of your possible housemates will be limited in one way or another. One might be happy in a run down house, another will only want a renovated house. Some might be willing to live far-out; some only close-in. To get a good house in a tight housing market, you’ll probably need to make some tradeoffs.
  3. Discuss with roommates what you can agree on in a shared house: conflict resolution, governance structure, pets and support animals, cleaning, noise, security, guests, parking, how one can get out of the lease,  conflict resolution, guests and partners, and COVID policy.

Governance Structures

Community houses may look similar to each other, but they may have completely different governance structures. The basic ones are as follows:

  • One person (or couple) is on the lease or owns the house, and rooms are sublet. The one person (or couple) makes the decisions.
  • Everyone is on the lease, with collective decision making.
  • Some people on the lease, some people subletting. If you have two or three solid core people, you can likely talk a landlord into renting the house to you and allowing sublets. There may be main decisions made by those on the lease, and minor decisions made collectively.

Other governance decisions, best made at the outset:

  • Different levels of shared things: Shared bulk foods? Shared garden costs? All foods shared? Regular community meals? All of these options can make the house more interesting and affordable for people.
  • Conflict resolution? How to minimize conflicts? What to do when difficult conflicts come up? How to have someone with irreconcilable differences move out?
  • Changes to house rules and policies?
  • Meeting schedule?

I currently most enjoy a type of community house that accommodates shorter-term rentals because (a) most of the rooms feel crowded if people start to accumulate things, and (b) I like living with a rotating cast of characters. As a result, my current Beech House is less consensus-based in governance. It’s difficult to have shared decision making with a large, changing, and diverse group of people.

How to Find a House

With patience, you can snag a great house when one comes up! Be prepared to wait for your ideal house to come up for rent. You probably won’t get the first one, but eventually you’ll get one that works out well for you and your peeps.

  1. Start surfing Craigslist to see what is available. Typically, in [College town] 2021, it’s $3000 per month for a 4-bedroom house. It varies a bit with how big the house and yard is, the desirability of location, and the quality of finishing.
  2. To see what options are available in each classification, start surfing Craigslist for 4+ bedroom houses, price $2000 to $4000 per month, and see what is on the market. Make note of how fast different types of houses get rented.
  3. For a low-cost shared house, the key is to find one that can have a 5th bedroom converted from a garage, a basement, a family room, or an RV parking space. That way, the $3000 will be split five ways, for $600 each. Look for these features on potential rentals.
  4. Plug in these search terms: “3+ bedrooms, house, $2200 – $3800.” Go out and look at these houses. See what you get for $600 to $750 per bedroom. Even if you’re not ready to rent, you can see what is available and know how much house you can expect to get for a given amount of rent.

How to Successfully Apply for a Rental as a Group

There are some property owners who have had bad experiences with seemingly qualified applicants in the past. Some are reluctant to post their homes for rent because the laws are such that they must rent to the first qualified applicant or risk being accused of some kind of discrimination. Some may be waiting for a word-of-mouth connection. Some look through the “housing wanted” posts to try to poach the best tenants.

  1. Create “housing wanted” ads, including on Craigslist.
  2. Get all possible roommates to complete a joint rental application. Download a rental application from the internet and fill it out. It will ask for social security numbers (for credit checks), bank accounts, credit cards, pets, musical instruments, cars, waterbeds, and lots of other questions. It will take an hour or two to get it filled out.
  3. Collect a current resume from everyone. Print it out on good quality paper.
  4. Get everyone to fill out previous landlord history and letters of recommendation.
  5. Put together a cover letter for your group. Include pictures, hobbies, why you all want to live together, and what you plan to do with the house. Make “eye contact” in the photos.
  6. Use social media, if you like. You might include a professional portfolio, art, and music from the group.
  7. Share your Craigslist “housing wanted” ad on your social media platforms. When a house comes up that you are interested in, give them the link to your housing wanted post when you reply to their “housing available” post.
  • Make assignments so that the group is checking Craigslist twice per day, looking for the perfect “4-bedroom with garage” or “4-bedroom with basement” type house. When one comes up, and you are interested, you want to be the very first applicant. Call them up, have a subset of your group go and see it within 24 hours, and if you want to try to rent it, have your stack of printed application forms ready. The landlord’s application form will likely be a little different, but you’ll have all the information you need. You can hand them the stack of resumes and the cover letter. Scan or photograph the completed applications to your co-applicants, so they can digitally sign them and get them back to the landlord within a couple hours.
  • A strong application may also mean you can negotiate a concession such as the following: convince them to let you have a cat or a dog, allow you to have one subletter who is not on the lease, plant a garden, get a $100 break in rent in exchange for making a repair or modification, or add another bedroom if needed.

To be a highly desirable group of tenants, you want to put all of your material together before trying to rent a place. Do a lot of extra preparation. It will impress landlords; they will want to rent their house to you. A landlord’s nightmare is a group of people that can’t figure out how to pay rent, can’t report small problems before they become big problems, bother the neighbors, and don’t keep the place clean. If you have a sleek application package, they will assume that you’ll be decent tenants.

Add a Bedroom

I have converted at least 13 bedrooms out of other spaces over the last 25 years. A basement partition can be done with $500 in materials: 2x4s, sheetrock, paint, weatherproofing. Same with a garage with a loft. Sometimes all it takes is a door on a family room and you have another bedroom. Make it look good; figure out heat, insulation, and ventilation; and you now have a 5-bedroom house for the price of a 4-bedroom house. You can add extra outlets for about $200. You can do this in a way that it can be completely removed in about 2 hours if at some point you must reverse the construction. You can also have an RV if there is a driveway. You might build a tiny house on wheels or in the back. People in outdoor “bedrooms” can come in the house for living space.

We need more community houses! Best of luck creating yours.