J.D. is on vacation. This is a guest post from Alison Wiley, who writes about more joy and less consumption at Diamond-Cut Life.

Friendly married couple, both professionals in sustainability, seeks one competent, friendly person to serve as Home & Garden Manager in exchange for free rent.

That’s the opener to the Craigslist ad that has saved us about $5,000, turned our weedy front lawn into a beautiful garden, and freed up six hours of our time per week.

Conversely, two bright, energetic college graduates have each repaid about $2,500 on their student loans that they would still owe if they hadn’t been (one at a time) our housemates, working in exchange for rent. A work/rent exchange can be a win-win for both parties, especially in this tightening economy, and could revolve around child care, home repairs, cooking, painting, etc. rather than gardening. While some people would craft this as a landlord/tenant arrangement, especially if living quarters were completely separate, it works nicely for us as a housemate arrangement.

Here are the common-sense rules that have worked for us.

The recruitment ad should be specific, giving a clear picture of what both parties should expect. Here’s the rest of our Craigslist ad:

We’re offering:

  • Pleasant house with spacious, sunny bedroom for you
  • $16-$21/hour in rent/util. for skilled, reliable work
  • Great location by Mt Tabor Park

You are:

  • Organized and able to keep an accurate work-log
  • Available to work 5.5-6 hours/week
  • Experienced at gardening & housekeeping
  • Able to make vegetarian meals and enjoy them with us
  • Experienced at living with others
  • Equipped with references, both employment and housemates
  • Comfortable with green lifestyle, i.e. CFL’s, low hot-water use, composting

If you are qualified, please email a letter of interest and your phone number. I’ll call or write back if I see a possible fit. Thank you!

The “hiring” process is similar to that for any job. If their written information looks good, do a phone interview. If they sound good, have an in-person interview. Volunteer lots of information, including downsides (“Sorry, but your bedroom will be hot in the summer.”) If everyone is seeing a fit, arrange a paid trial work-session. (Seeing the person actually work is the most important step.) Finally, check references from both employers and housemates.

The applicant must feel right to you at each stage in order to move to the next stage. Past experience in hiring is great, but even without it, you can generally tell if a person is responsible and has the work ethic and social skills you need in a working housemate.

The paid work-session tells you much more about a person’s actual work-skills than either their resume or references – but references are still crucial. Also critical: do you like the person and feel comfortable? The housemate fit is probably more a make-or-break than their work-skills.

Have all parties sign a simple, written agreement. Ours was a single page and included cost of rent plus utilities; rate of starting pay and possibility of raises; our groceries agreement; spreadsheet-based work-log to be updated and turned in every Sunday. It was for six months, with either party able to cut it short with 30 days notice.

Be willing to supervise your housemate who is working for rent. They can only succeed in their role with your active involvement, especially in the beginning. Be clear on what tasks they will do. At the same time, don’t micromanage, or expect perfect performance. Be quick to praise and appreciate.

Practice healthy boundaries. When they are not working, they’re off duty, i.e. your housemate and not an employee. It’s not a 24/7 job. Conversely, if the agreed-upon work isn’t getting done steadily, the person may need to pay the difference in cash (if that’s in the written agreement), or eventually be asked to leave. I once wrote a note to Steve when he was temporarily slacking off: “This is a real job, despite the fact I like you. Do these tasks today.” He did them.

Have fun with the new, different situation. Our ‘working housemates’ have brought lively, positive energy into our home, and plenty of laughs. Two out of three have remained our friends after moving on to other living situations. Someone asked me once about the wisdom of having a ‘stranger’ live in my home. I replied, “Well, all of my friends were strangers — until they became my friends.”

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