How to decorate like a grown-up when you have flatmates

When the cost of living makes it impossible to live alone, this is how to create a stylish shared home without feeling like you’re a student again
Alicia Waite

It doesn’t seem too long ago that sharing a house with friends (or complete strangers who arrived on our doorsteps via the matchmaking abilities of the internet) was a rite of passage reserved for our university years and twenties. It was all impromptu kitchen discos with cheap wine in mismatched glasses, repulsive landlord-supplied sofas hidden beneath large throw blankets, a full suite of IKEA crockery and a few forgotten-about plants in corners.

It’s fun and nostalgic to look back on those times with fond memories, but what if you’re actually 38 and still living with two fully grown adults who are neither your life partner nor blood relative? It’s not so unusual to be in that position anymore, especially if you live in a city.

According to data from Rightmove, the average rent for a property in London is now at a record high of £2,257 a month, with a near 16% price increase year-on-year. Between that and skyrocketing energy bills, it’s not surprising that adults of various ages have little option but to share the cost of living – and the decorating decisions – with others. It’s more Friends and less Bridget Jones. So, how do you create a mature and aesthetically pleasing home that feels a world away from student digs?

Approach things with a more mature mindset

When you’re sharing a home with friends in your early or mid-twenties, you might not trust your flatmates – or yourself – to respect your belongings, plus you likely don’t have a vast disposable income to spend on home accessories, so the easiest thing to do is bulk-buy affordable, mass-produced pieces in high street shops such as IKEA. Sure, you won't cry over the odd broken cereal bowl but on the flip side, your home won’t look unique or say anything about you. On top of the predictable furniture (hello, Billy bookcase), through choice or necessity, you potentially inherited some hand-me-downs from family, which might be nice quality but are they your taste?

A few years down the line, if you’re still flat sharing and you want your home to feel more discerning and design-led, this is where some creative shopping and a good clear-out is needed. Any pieces which you own personally but no longer love, either because they’re tired or you were indifferent to them in the first place, make the effort to part ways and invest in smarter replacements that don’t feel so homogenous or tatty.

You should be able to have nice things by now without walking into an unexpected house party and you don’t need to spend a lot. Whether you choose things together and split the cost or buy individual items (the latter is recommended – no one wants a fight over half a dining table), you can pick up some seriously great bargains on eBay or at antiques markets. Replace that old Next coffee table with a vintage piece from the local boot sale, swap the posters on the wall for original art from that emerging artist you discovered on Instagram. Bulk those pieces out with a few practical high street buys from places such as Zara Home and then invest in a few lovely and versatile higher-end decorative bits such as cushions, candlesticks and lamps.

When your home looks like you care about it and everyone who lives there has contributed time and effort into making it look that way, you’ll naturally care about and respect it more. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Don’t get too personal in shared spaces

Of course it helps if you have similar taste to those you’re living with, but it’s best to keep very personal things, such as framed family photographs or trinkets collected on holidays, on your bedside table rather than the living room mantle, or ticket stubs and handwritten notes in a keepsake box, rather than stuck to the fridge door. What feels meaningful to you might feel like tat to your flatmate and vice versa.

Likewise with big decisions such as painting a room in a bold colour – just because you feel confident that a forest green dining room will be cosy, it doesn’t mean your housemate will share the same enthusiasm, so discuss decorative changes in advance before putting roller to wall.

Can your home handle your hobbies?

Consider your individual interests and hobbies when planning what to buy and make sure you accommodate them in a way that won’t create conflict or mess. If your flatmate is a serious cyclist, do you need a ceiling-suspended hook to keep a bike out of the way? Are you a household of voracious readers? Even if just one of you is, don’t carefully orchestrate a minimalist living room with no storage space and hope for the best. You’ll need bookshelves, a stylish sofa-side magazine rack, perhaps a coffee table with a flat top where you can stack large coffee table books, or store them on a shelf underneath. Aside from keeping things in order, there’s nothing lovelier than books on view.

Dean Hearne

Is your furniture fit for purpose?

Think practical thoughts when investing in furniture or accessories for a shared home. Sofas with washable covers are a lifesaver (failing that, a pattern goes a long way in hiding spillages), inexpensive jute or seagrass rugs look great and they don’t show dirt too easily, vintage dining tables with existing wear and patina won't be ruined by everyday dinners and if you paint the walls, use an intelligent emulsion that’s wipeable if needs be. These are simply a few examples, but don’t waste money or sleepless nights on things that are precious and can’t withstand normal use (or buy them anyway but keep those pieces in your bedroom).

Make it easy to keep things tidy

It sounds obvious, but the key to a chic and tidy home is to make incredibly easy for everyone to keep their things in order, so there’s simply no excuse for surfaces laden with odds and ends, or piles of shoes littering the stairs (the flatshare shoe-mountain is always a thing to behold).

If you have the space, buy a well-designed coat stand or wall-mounted coat hooks to avoid the inevitable clutter of coats and jackets strewn across every banister and chair back. And dedicated shoe storage is crucial, so whether it’s a full-height set of shelving that holds 40 pairs, or a few neat pigeon holes under a hall bench, make sure you have a spot for shoes and actually use it.

Storage containers in all shapes and sizes will keep even the most mundane objects looking organised and in order. Lidded boxes, jars and baskets look great on display but they also hide all manner of things – from boxes of tampons in the loo to gaming gadgets in the living room and communal flour in the kitchen – so keep them dotted around and agree what each one is to be used for.

Trays and dishes are always a handsome accessory to have around but they also make lone items look purposeful and neat. A TV remote on a coffee table looks untidy, a TV remote on a tray on a coffee table looks like it should be there. The same applies to bathroom bits and bobs; make sure there’s a toothbrush holder, dishes for jewellery, jars for cotton wool pads and a way to store and dry your respective towels. Don’t forget about the hall table, either. Make sure there’s a smart-looking spot for everyone to put their house keys and loose change, then there’s no temptation to leave them lying around.

If you always have mugs and tumblers dotted around then stock up on coasters and make sure they’re easy to grab when you need them. You can buy really lovely cork or raffia designs, or even stylish ceramic tiles, and they’ll save many resentful glares when the cover of a design book or a beautiful piece of wooden furniture has been ruined by a misplaced drink.

Do you own the place? Do they?

Just because you live with flatmates, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all single and renting together. You might be a lodger in a couple’s home, or perhaps a friend moved into your spare room to save you both a bit of dosh. In either case, if one of you owns the property, of course that person has the final (and only) say in how it’s decorated, however, this is where your decisions should be based on realistic expectations. It wouldn’t really be fair to carpet the whole place in dove-white wool or choose a flawless cotton velvet sofa and not expect to see some normal signs of use from the other people living there.

If you’re the homeowner, design to please yourself but make it practical and liveable for other people. They shouldn’t live in fear of accidentally marking your perfectly oiled wooden worktops, for example, so buy trivets and pot stands and tell them what they’re for. Your flatmate might not even realise that a hot pan on a marble table will scar it for life, so clear communication is key. They’re little things but they can go a long way in avoiding upset when something is damaged.