When my husband and I built our dream home in Park City, Utah, six years ago, we had no idea there was an etiquette to being a house guest. At that time, we were so excited about our home that we told everyone — friend or acquaintance — “Come visit us when it gets hot in Houston.”
And visit they did.
During our first summer as Park City homeowners, we had no less than 30 guests in a 10-week period while we both worked fulltime in Texas. And no, our house is not a big house.
After that exhausting summer, we learned to pace ourselves, realizing we could not work all week and fly into town and have house guests waiting for us only to leave with them to fly back home on Monday morning.
Ninety-nine percent of house guests are wonderful but it is the exceptions you remember. Some of the stories are just too wild for someone to make up.
When I told some of my friends I was writing an article on house guests, I was barraged with “please tell them not to chatter endlessly," “tell people not to mess with my remote control” and so it went. Hosting house guests is a lot like the executive search business in which I have worked for the last 30 years. You remember the few awful candidates longer than the mostly good ones.
And so it is with house guests. Ninety-nine percent of them are wonderful but it is the exceptions you remember. Some of the stories are just too wild for someone to make up.
With that in mind, here are some do’s and don’ts:
1. Run your itinerary by your hosts before booking reservations
My husband casually told a distant cousin, “Come see us this summer,” only to get an email two weeks later saying that he would be arriving Thursday morning and staying for a week. If your hosts works (yes, this is us), don’t plan on taking the flight that arrives at midnight on a weekday or showing up on a Wednesday unless you plan to be totally engaged on your own.
2. Be self-sufficient
This rule encompasses a wide range of activities and starts with getting your own ride from the airport. If we can pick you up, we will offer it. But make it easy on your hosts by grabbing a cab, bus or, better yet, renting a car.
Once at the house, ask your host for suggestions on what to do but don’t insist your host accompany you. My friend Sue went to the Olympic ski jump — a prime Park City tourist attraction — with six different sets of guests last summer.
"If I go one more time, the skiers are going to make me jump and I will gladly do so not to have to show up there again,” she says with a rueful laugh.
Under this same topic is don’t wait for your host to cook you breakfast. Having said that, be self sufficient in the kitchen and don’t ask obvious questions like, “Where is the microwave?”
3. Don’t make unreasonable requests
Our first house guest walked into our house after arriving at 2 a.m., took one look at our guest room and exclaimed, “I do not sleep in queen beds. I must have a king.”
My friend Sue bested me on this one when she told me of a married couple who did not sleep in the same bed but insisted upon sleeping in the same room. My friend went out and bought an air mattress at 9 p.m. Yep, you can’t make this stuff up.
4. Be flexible
It is not your house, not a hotel and it is free. With that in mind, you may have to do or eat some things you would not do if you were on your own. One friend, as a special gift, scored tickets to the Symphony last summer for her guests. The guests announced, “We don’t like the symphony.”
5. Conserve resources
My friend Jim recalls an obsessively tidy guest who woke every morning at 6 a.m. to do a load of wash. The washer woke up the entire house. They solved the problem by jokingly telling the guest that on his next trip he was getting three tokens for his week stay.
6. Buy some groceries
Most hosts will want to have food in for you to eat. Having said that, if you are visiting with six children, do not go to Costco with your host and sit silently by while she purchases $250 worth of Gerber baby food and juice in a box.
7. Be nice to our pets and/or children but please not too over familiar
If you hate cats, try to disguise it and make a feeble attempt to remember their names (Maxine, Margaret, and Major Orange in my case). As my friend Jane put it succinctly, “Our dogs were here before you — they will be here after you and truth be told, we like them better than you.”
Having said that, please do not feed your hosts’ kids or dogs without checking with them. Andrea couldn’t understand why every time her sister Alison visited, the dogs threw up. Little did she know that in an effort to be a good house guest, Alison was bringing bags of doggie treats each visit.
8. Choose that house gift wisely
I personally don’t care about house gifts, but if you do bring a gift for the host, make sure it's not something that hangs on the wall or must be displayed on future visits. I know one guest who didn’t get a re-invite because the owner embarrassingly could not find the knick knack that the guest had brought the previous year to display.
The best house gift is a gift to the owner’s favorite charity, a nice bottle of wine, or something that works well outside, like plastic glasses or trays.
9. Respect your host's space
Doug loves his in-laws but hates when they go in his bedroom and adjust the blinds while he is at work. Don't turn on Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly if your host is watching something else. Don’t fiddle with remotes/TVs/stereos/alarm systems, etc. if you don’t know what you’re doing.
And don’t let your children wander into the host’s bedroom or bathroom while the host is bathing, sleeping, or otherwise doing what those rooms are for.
10. Tidy up when you leave
Look at your accommodations as you would upon leaving a campground — do no harm and leave the house in better shape than you found it. That means, returning patio furniture to the place it was when you arrived, not leaving shoes for your host to have to mail back to you and washing dishes, stripping beds, etc.
And if you cook your special omelet in the morning, clean up after yourself. Otherwise you'll leave a lasting impression that ensures another invitation will never arrive.