Monday, October 26, 2009

Houseguest etiquette - Ten tips that will get you invited back

When I was ten, my family emigrated from Scotland to Canada. Both of my parents had large extended families and we were the only people any of them knew who lived in the "new world". For the first ten years of our time here, our summers were chock-a-block with family - close and distant - who thought it was just grand that they now had a free place to stay in Canada. The letters from relatives would start coming in the spring - one-page missives that started off asking after our wellbeing and would finish with a line or two about how they were planning a trip here in July and would it be okay if they visited us for a few days. Translation: they and their offspring intended to take over our home for three weeks, during which time, we would be obligated to ferry them to Niagara Falls, the CN Tower and other tourist traps. Some summers would see us hosting three different families.

My parents were too polite to refuse and while they enjoyed catching up with close family members, they both worked hard and it was hard for them to spend their entire hard-earned vacations waiting on others when all they wanted to do was relax. I made the decision then and there that I would never be taken advantage of by a houseguest and, either by circumstance or design, I have been successful. I am not averse to guests but it's possible I give off a vibe that suggests I prefer their visits to be brief.

If you would like to enjoy someone's hospitality, follow these tips for houseguest etiquette and you'll be guaranteed a second invite.

1. Ask, don't tell - Never take for granted that you are welcome in someone's home at the time of your choosing. If you're interested in staying with someone, or using their property, you need to request their permission. Your current relationship with the potential hosts will dictate the level of formality required for the request but you do need to ask if it's convenient. Announcing that you will be there next Friday to stay for the weekend is simply not appropriate.

2. Eliminate surprises - Under no circumstances should you show up unannounced! Your hosts might be delighted to see you but your presence in their home is still a disruption to their routine and they deserve the opportunity to plan for it ahead of time. Same goes for your entourage - whether it's your darling children, harmless pooch or sweet-as-pie girlfriend - don't bring another person unless you clear it with your hosts.

3. Share your itinerary - and stick to it. Don't force your hosts to go into a corner to whisper about when you're going to leave. Tell them. Let people know when you'll be arriving and when you plan to leave so they can reorganize their schedule. There's nothing worse than a houseguest who arrives with the words, "I'm not sure when we'll be going. Let's take it day-by-day and see how it goes..." Even if you will not be expecting them to entertain you, they want to know when their house will be their own again.

4. Get your hands dirty - This is not a hotel. You are staying with people who undoubtedly have busy lives and having you there should not add to their workload significantly. When you arrive, inquire about the routine for cleaning up, putting out the garbage, grocery shopping, etc. and offer to pitch in. Always offer to help with meal preparation and, if you have any culinary skills at all, make a few meals.

5. Contribute financially - This summer, we had guests who stayed for two nights. When they arrived, the first thing they did was unload a cooler from their trunk which contained a variety of snacks picked up on the way. Hallelujah! Nobody likes a mooch and if you stay in someone's home for more than two days and don't offer to help out with the expenses, that's what you are. You don't need to write a cheque for thousands of dollars but you need to be aware that an extra mouth to feed costs money. If possible, arrive with gifts of wine or food, offer to purchase groceries, take your hosts for dinner or simply give them some money to help pay for expenses while you're there.

6. Be invisible - When you depart, there should be no evidence of your stay, save perhaps from the pleasant scent of some flowers or a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge. Unpleasant reminders of your visit at any point in its duration - hairs in the sink, towels on the floor, dirty dishes, unmade beds, soiled laundry, items borrowed and not put back, long-distance charges - will put you on the DNI (do not invite) list for the future. Regardless of how you operate in your own home, when in someone else's you need to be pristine about your sleeping quarters and any other part of the home you use, especially the bathroom.

7. Cover up - You may love the feel of the crisp sheets on your naked body on a summer night but you'll have to suffer in pyjamas when you're a guest. Some people have a bit of an eww factor thinking of someone else's body parts on their clean sheets but, that aside, you need to be prepared for any eventuality - a 3 a.m. bathroom run, a fire alarm, whatever. Staying at someone's home requires you to dress appropriately at all times. They should not be treated to an early-morning vision of your bare behind as you rummage in the fridge for milk.

8. Respect the rules -Unless it's a college frat house (and even then), every home has rules. While they're not usually posted at the front door, they are there and some are more significant than others. Before you arrive, or shortly after, it's polite to ask if there are any rules of the home. These might include no smoking indoors, no television after 11 p.m., no overnight guests without permission, that certain rooms are off-limits. Whatever they are, respect them. If you don't like it, stay in a hotel.

9. Expect nothing - If, during the course of your vist, your host offers to take you to a local attraction, show or party, you are very fortunate and should thank them accordingly. Other than that, please don't expect them to drive you around town or accompany you to your list of must-see tourist traps. Chances are, they've seen them all before and would rather not spend their day off there. Do your homework ahead of time, collect information, research subway routes and be prepared to travel solo. Let them know what your plans are and invite them to come along. If they decline, don't push it.

10. Take a taxi - Remember that your hosts are under no obligation to pick you up from and drop you off at the airport. A trip to the airport involves a commitment of time, energy and exorbitant parking. If they offer to do this, thank your lucky stars (and them) but by no means, should you expect it. They're already opening their home to you.

BONUS tip - Always, always, always, send a thank-you card within one week of your stay. This is one of those situations in life when thank-you cards are non-negotiable...and I'm not talking about the e-mail kind.


  1. Amen to the thank you card and not the email kind. I received an e-card thank you note yesterday and I have to say that it wasn't as special as a hand-written note. Those e-cards are okay in some circumstances, but I'm not a huge fan for most occasions that warrant a thank you.

  2. My dear, this is so refreshing to see! Thank you!

    I now have a great many people to whom I will enjoy e-mailing this well-written, clear article.

    Bless your heart for having taken the time to set it all down & to lay out the minimum ground rules for guests.

    Warm regards...C.E. Grant

  3. Thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoy the article. I have been casually mentioning to the houseguest offenders in my personal network that they might want to "check out my blog". We'll see.


  4. This is a great list. We've had our share of houseguests - especially when we were living in NYC. And very few adhered to more than two or three of those tips. If you can believe it, we had one guest who broke every one of them (and when they asked if they could visit six months later, we simply declined).

    I would like to add one other suggestion. Unless you're immediate family or a really close friend, limit your visit requests to one per year (maximum) rather than everytime you're in town for a conference or a meeting.