Rites of passage in your joint home of contention
Share housing, where a group of usually unrelated people set up home together, is a rite of passage that for thousands of Aussies precedes the purchase of a home.
Disputes over money are one of the most common sources of conflict in share houses - but can they be prevented? Or are recriminatory squabbles over bills, bonds and whose turn it is to buy the toilet paper part and parcel of living with others?
Only if you want to live in a democracy, says nursing student Marcus Palmero, 29. Palmero left home at 16 and is a veteran of several share houses in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and London. He has been managing share houses since 2002 and believes a benevolent-dictatorship model, whereby one lead householder controls all things financial, is the way to go.
Palmero currently lives with four others, who pay between $150 and $180 a week each, inclusive of bills and Wi-Fi, in the near-city suburb of Woolloongabba, in Brisbane.
The lease and utilities are in his name and he liaises with the real estate agent, approves new tenants, takes charge of lodging and releasing bonds, collects the rent and supplies cleaning products and other shared consumables.
He owns the bulk of the furniture in the house, although housemates are welcome to furnish their own rooms, if they wish.
"A lot of share houses I see don't have a lead tenant - there's maybe four people and it's fair to have equal say, but it doesn't work," Palmero says.
His system does. Housemates pay rent two weeks in advance and he's never been late with either it, or the bills.
Letting the rooms for an all-in price goes down well with the twentysomethings who typically answer his ads, Palmero says.
"It's easier for people to budget their rent if it's a weekly sum, rather than saving for bills," he says.
"There's not too much hoo-ha. People like the idea they know what's coming."
There were 321,000 share houses in Australia at the time of the 2011 census. The figure represents about 4 per cent of all households. Women aged 25 to 30 comprise the biggest part of the market according to Craig Young, who has run a matchmaking service for sharers, Flatmate Finders, since 1987. Young believes Palmero's approach can work well for individuals who are up to the challenge of a role that can be part parent, part enforcer. While no one wants to appear Nazi-esque, easygoing types can find themselves on the receiving end of hard-luck stories and rent and bill contributions that dribble in erratically, late or not at all.
"If you're a forgiving person, it's a lot more dangerous - you have to be a hard taskmaster," Young says.
"There are financial risks, especially when you're the householder - you're essentially taking in a stranger ... You're assuming that they'll do what they say they'll do."
Flashpoints in less tightly run share houses include collecting money for bills, the belated emergence of sundry expenses, such as cleaning fees, and the handling of bond contributions.
The latter is a common source of strife. While, by law, any rental bond received must be lodged with the state's statutory body, many households don't comply, particularly if tenants come and go frequently. Getting someone to refund what had been paid can be difficult if things had not been done by the book upfront.
"People moving out can be blackmailed over their bond - they don't get it back until another person moves in and pays their bond in their stead," Young says.
"Lodging the bond does avoid a lot of issues later on."
Girlfriends and boyfriends becoming de facto, non-paying members of the household can also cause ructions among other tenants, who resent subsiding the living costs of a flatmate's squeeze.
Tenants Union of Victoria chief executive Mark O'Brien says outlining obligations before signing a tenancy agreement or giving a new flattie the key to the door can result in fewer disputes down the track.
"Try to be clear about who's paying what and when," O'Brien says. "Put it in writing, even if it's just between three of you and not legally enforceable." It's an approach that worked for Melbourne IT consultant Craig Lambie, who paid the mortgage on his three-bedroom inner-city apartment by running it as a share house from 2002 to 2012. During that time he shared digs with more than 30 flatmates, many of them foreigners in town for a short stint, and experienced financial issues with just a handful.
Before moving in, flatmates were required to sign an agreement detailing the rent and bills and asked to pay a month's rent as a "bill bond". Lambie retained these funds in his mortgage account as insurance against them skipping town.
Stringent record-keeping made for fewer arguments when the quarterly gas or electric bill was due.
"I kept a spreadsheet 'cause I'm a geek," Lambie says.
"That's how I tracked it because bills only come every three months and if someone moved out mid-bill cycle, it was painful."
For households that don't have a resident number-cruncher, technology can make this process less fraught. Apps such as Settle Up and Splitwise allow households to track and apportion costs within a group.
Cashing in on share-house squalor
A perennially popular theme for novels and television shows, share housing is usually portrayed as either grungy and anarchic, a la The Young Ones, or cool and convivial, a la Friends.
Author John Birmingham turned share-house squalor into a money spinner with the publication of his 1994 cult novel He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, a series of anecdotes based on his time living with a colourful parade of housemates. Finances were the least of their problems, Birmingham says. "Rent in those days wasn't as crippling as it is now and we tended to live in much larger houses with the burden spread over more people."
His standout financial memory involves a housemate who created a false identity to obtain credit. "We didn't know about it until she'd moved out, gone on a credit card spending spree and run up tens of thousands in debt," Birmingham says.
"Eventually the repo men and debt collectors — and even the sheriff — all started knocking on our door. It took a few visits for us to put together the story. I remember the disappointment in their eyes as we invited them in, sat them down and told them how they'd been gamed."