Living with roommates doesn’t mean you have to live in a cluttered space full of mismatched decor choices. Bonus: The right design choices can actually decrease roommate squabbles.
Living with roommates is easier said than done. Sure, you enjoy cheaper rent, you save money on basics like toilet paper and paper towels, and you have someone to chat with after a long day at work, but you also have to share your space and everything in it—sometimes with people who have very different tastes and habits than you.
Resolving roommate conflicts is its own beast—have you tried our guide to splitting up household chores?—but creating a cohesive space that has room for every roommate’s distinct style and includes intentional furnishing selections can help eliminate some sources of tension before tempers even begin to flare.
Real Simple spoke with Sophie Wilkinson, the head of design and construction at Common, a co-living residential company, about how she and her team develop shared spaces that are both tasteful and capable of diffusing roommate arguments. The learnings they’ve gained from Common’s 650 members (living as roommates in 20 different homes across the country) can probably help you, too.
1. Pick Neutral Palettes
You may be tempted to express your own design taste in your space, especially if you (or a family member) owns it or you’re the longest-present tenant, but that may not always be conducive to roommate satisfaction–especially if your tastes tend to be a little edgy.
Rather than force your passion for leopard-print tapestries on everyone you live with, stick to large features that are more neutral, such as sheer or pastel curtains and un-patterned rugs. (This is where the standard, if bland, fixtures of rentals come in handy.) You and your roommates can work together to add details that bring personality to the space without going in any one design direction, and everyone will feel like they have some say in the space, removing any tension caused by one roommate holding all the design control.
2. Leave Room for Personal Touches
"When you have a lot of people, everyone brings their little things. All of a sudden, it goes from intentionally full to totally cluttered,” Wilkinson says.
To keep the curated, shared spaces neat, Wilkinson and her team cut down on the amount of knick-knacks they added to leave space for residents to add their own personal touches.
In your shared space, be cognizant of how detailed you get with the décor. Your roommates likely have personal touches—like favorite books, movie collections, record-players, and more—that they’d like to put on display, too. Even if your roommates aren’t the types to collect odds and ends, you’ll likely pick up more items during your time renting there, and you want to leave plenty of space for your collection to grow.
3. Invest in Durable Items
Sharing a space means more people are around all the time—and everything is more heavily trafficked. This means high-traffic spaces such as entryways and shared bathrooms will need more frequent cleanings, sure, but furniture and tools will also get heavier use. For that reason, Wilkinson stays away from budget furnishings in favor of high-quality items.
“We wouldn’t get a veneer coffee table, because that would chip in the first six months from people using it,” she says. “We’d get a real coffee table that would look good, and withstand, and wouldn’t decay.”
High-quality furnishings may cost more up-front, but they last longer and often look better. If you and your roommates are willing to pool your money to buy them (or even if one of you is willing to make the financial sacrifice for a high-quality piece), they’re worthy investments—especially if you pick something that can grow and change with you, like the versatile Sactional.
4. Create a Private Retreat
The key to sharing a space is getting out of that space sometimes. Depending on where you live (and the weather), spending most of your free time at cafes, coffee shops, and parks may not always be possible, so you need to find a place in your home where you can find some peace and quiet.
Common’s homes offer residents private bedrooms of various sizes, something Wilkinson prioritizes. “When you remain with other people, there’s that community, there’s that social aspect, but you want to be able to have a private retreat as well,” she says.
Fill your private space with items that make you happy and calm (or fill it with nothing, if you’re a minimalist). Whenever you need a moment alone, stepping inside will instantly soothe any frayed nerves (and maybe even diffuse a brewing argument). If you share a bedroom, as in a dorm situation, do what you can to make your bed or desk area absolutely yours.
5. Cut Down on Duplicates
Roommates, especially those who have been living in apartments for a few years, have likely accumulated their own collections of apartment essentials: plate sets, coffee makers, shower curtains, and more. In most cases, you only need one set of any of these and extras do little more than clutter up a space.
As much as possible—because no one wants to ditch a tried-and-true coffee maker—work with your roommates to discard, sell, or donate any duplicative items. Your storage space will thank you, and you’ll be preventing arguments over which coffee maker guests can use.