How to Be a Good House Guest: 7 Rules When Visiting Family and Friends

Updated on April 6, 2018
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Our lives are made infinitely richer by our relationships. I love finding ways to strengthen them at home, at work, and with friends.

Seven Dos and Don'ts for House Guests

If you regularly host overnight visitors, you might agree with Benjamin Franklin who once famously quipped, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Having lived in Napa, California (known for its world-class wineries and restaurants) and Bend, Oregon (known for its epic skiing, beer tasting, and paddle boarding), I've hosted my share of visitors and appreciate Mr. Franklin's point of view. However, in my opinion, a guest's stay is not made tolerable or intolerable by its duration but rather by the degree of self-sufficiency and courtesy shown by the guest. I've had friends and family who could literally stay a month without getting on my nerves and I've had those who've driven me nuts within hours of their arrival. That's why I've created a list of 7 Dos and Don'ts for house guests to guarantee you'll always be greeted with open arms.

I loved having visitors when we lived in Napa. Because I had two little boys, I appreciated guests who were self-sufficient and adventurous.
I loved having visitors when we lived in Napa. Because I had two little boys, I appreciated guests who were self-sufficient and adventurous. | Source

1. Don't Expect Your Host to Become Your Full-Time Tour Guide

My biggest peeve is guests who expect me to drop everything and become their full-time tour guide. This is when self-sufficiency and courtesy come into play. Before you visit, research the destination and formulate a plan—what you want to see and where you want to go. When you arrive in town, stop at the visitor's center to ask questions, pick up maps and brochures, and get the lay of the land.

Don't rely on your host as your only source of information. When we lived in Napa, I had two preschoolers (one with autism) and definitely didn't frequent wineries and fine-dining establishments. However, when I'd tell guests I didn't have knowledge of those places, they'd act surprised and disappointed. Now living in Bend, known for its award-winning beer, many guests want to visit breweries such as 10 Barrel and Deschutes. However, I'm not a beer drinker and of no help in that arena. Put in the time and effort in advance to get the most from your stay and take that burden from your host.

2. Don't Expect Your Host to Become Your Chauffeur

If you're without a car or reluctant to drive in unfamiliar surroundings, figure out how you'll get from place to place. But don't expect your host to become a chauffeur (I'm comfortable loaning my car but not everyone feels the same). While you have your heart set on seeing Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco—a popular tourist attraction—I've been there too many times to count and would rather pass.

Remember to study up before-hand to familiarize yourself with the surroundings. I've had visitors who thought San Francisco was just a short drive from Napa and got shocked to discover the two cities are actually over an hour apart—longer when traffic is bad (and in the Bay Area, traffic is always bad)! Appreciate that driving from place to place in a large metropolitan area is stressful and take that into account. Public transportation works best and expect to do lots of walking!

Plan on using public transportation, renting a car, or calling Uber but don't expect your hosts to drive you everywhere.
Plan on using public transportation, renting a car, or calling Uber but don't expect your hosts to drive you everywhere. | Source

3. Do Make Positive Comments About Your Destination

We've all had experiences of visiting a placethinking it will be a certain way and feeling disappointed when it's not. However, when staying with your host, try to keep upbeat about your adventures and not overwhelm her with complaints. While living in Napa, I had many visitors from Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota who groused about too much traffic, too many people, snotty wineries, and high-priced restaurants. Out of respect for your host and her hometown, curb your grumblings and focus on the positive.

4. Do Get Out and Explore

There's nothing worse for a host than visitors who don't take the initiative to get out and explore. Sticking around the house with your host puts an awful burden on her when she still needs to get things done such as cleaning, making beds, and preparing meals. On top of that, she may have her regular day-to-day obligations of a job and child-rearing.

Once I had a guest who insisted I take her to Dean and DeLuca, the upscale grocery in St. Helena. While she leisurely strolled each aisle to gape at the specialty foods, I was trapped with a baby and a two-year-old in an environment that was anything but kid-friendly. Don't make your host chose between you and her responsibilities to her kids.

My favorite part of being a host is when my guests arrive back at my place— exhausted but exhilarated after a long day of fun and adventures. As we eat dinner together, I get tremendous pleasure hearing about the places they went and the things they saw. It's a special treat if they've brought back something to share at the meal: a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, or some fancy chocolates for dessert. That kind of thoughtfulness makes a huge impact.

If you're an older guest with physical limitations and can't do much exploring, come prepared with activities to keep you busy during the day: knitting, reading, taking photos, doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles. Offer to make a meal or bake some cookies. Don't just plop yourself in front of the TV or expect your host to keep you company all day. Help out in any way you can but don't get in the way of the tasks she needs to accomplish. If she has young children, offer to do something with them such as playing a board game, tossing a ball outside, or taking them to the park. Once I had an older relative watch reruns of real-life crime shows all day long while my two little kids were in the same room—not cool!

5. Don't Expect Your Host to Babysit or Pet Sit

When I was 9 months pregnant and had a toddler, my husband's friend, his wife, and their little girl visited us in Napa. We had never met before, but that didn't stop them from leaving their child with me all day long while they took off wine tasting. They didn't return until late in the evening and, needless to say, my feelings toward them had turned resentful. Dumping their kid on me during the first day of their visit set a bad tone that was difficult to overcome.

Never expect your host to watch your children or pets. If you bring children and pets, it's your responsibility to include them in your adventures and take care of their needs. Remember to research the destination before-hand to understand its culture. Napa Valley is an adult playground with magnificent wineries, fine dining restaurants, art galleries, and boutique shopping. It's not kid or dog friendly. Bend, however, is an outdoor recreation mecca that embraces both children and dogs with hiking trails, river adventures, parks, community pools, festivals, and family-friendly dining.

It's your responsibility to take care of your child and pet. Don't expect your host to do that!
It's your responsibility to take care of your child and pet. Don't expect your host to do that! | Source

6. Do Mimic the Habits of Your Host

When you're staying at someone's house, study how they live and mimic their habits. For example, if their television is mostly off, don't turn it on and watch for hours on end. I've quite purposefully placed a TV in our guest room so visitors can watch there. Yet, some guests still sit in our family room and watch until late into the night.

Unless your host is a real extrovert, it's best to retire early so she has some quiet time to herself. Eight 'o clock is a reasonable hour for guest and host to part company and have some private time. In addition to a television, I stock my guest room with books and magazines so guests have reading material to enjoy.

7. Do Show Your Appreciation

Whether people love entertaining house guests or simply tolerate it, hosting takes a lot of time and effort. Guests who acknowledge that fact will score major points and get invited back. Those who don't realize the work involved usually fall into one of two categories: 1. Those who are young and inexperienced and have never hosted house guest themselves or 2. Clods who have never even considered the work that goes into hosting. Fortunately, most people are appreciative so here are some thoughtful ways to say thanks:

  • Arrive with a gift—a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine, a houseplant. This sets a positive tone for the visit.

  • Make a meal for your host—a Sunday brunch, a picnic basket to take on an excursion, a special dinner.

  • Take your hosts out for dinner or give them a gift certificate they can use later.

  • Present a thank you note and gift when you leave.

  • Send a unique gift from your home town. I once hosted a couple from Cincinnati. A week after they left, I received some scrumptious pints of ice cream from a famous ice cream maker in Cincinnati. It was a nice touch and much appreciated.

Final Thoughts

So when visiting, remember these 7 dos and don't for house guests so you'll always be greeted with open arms. Do your research. Make plans. Show self-sufficiency and courtesy. This way you'll make a positive impression and get invited back for another stay.

When you're a house guest, do you prefer your host to go on excursions with you or stay home?

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Questions & Answers

  • How do you handle your sleep habits when they are different from your hosts?

    That's definitely a tricky one from my personal experience. Since I had many guests visiting throughout the year, I needed to establish what was negotiable and what was not. For me and my young family, sleep time/quiet time in the evening became a non-negotiable. As an introvert (and an exhausted mother of two), I needed to wind down after dinner, have time alone, and decompress. So, in advance of their visit, I'd tell the company that 8 p.m. was the hour that the kids went to bed and our entire household shut down. While being assertive like this didn't come easily to me, it was necessary because some folks were watching television in our family room (right outside our bedroom) until the wee hours of the night, causing me to lose sleep, grow frustrated, and get downright grouchy (not a good combination when you're entertaining).

    Even though I put a TV and reading materials in the guest room, some people just didn't get the hint. But enforcing the 8 p.m. rule really worked. I'd take the kids off to bed, turn out the lights, say goodnight to our guests, and ask them if they needed an extra blanket or pillow. I'd ask them to keep the volume down on the TV in the guest room.

    Being assertive, spelling out the rules, and having open communication is key for a successful visit. While we certainly want our guests to feel relaxed and comfortable, we also need them to respect our schedules. They may be on vacation, but we're still working and keeping a routine.

  • At the end of my nieces' and nephew's trip I felt so hostile. These kids have never done a chore in their lives and they are 19 and 20. They left cups everywhere and never once offered to help load the dishwasher or wash their plates. It felt very uncomfortable to say anything although I should have. Is it their fault for being clueless or their parents for never teaching them how to clean up after themselves?

    I think most of us have had bad house guests like that and feel your pain. In fact, it was experiences like the one you described that prompted me to write the article. When my husband's friends (who I had never met) left their daughter with me all day to go wine-tasting, I knew I had to grew a spine and speak up. They were totally using me and didn't give one whit about my welfare (I was 8 months pregnant and had a 2-year-old at the time)! With that experience, I declared: “Never again!” You may be at that point as well.

    While I'm unwilling to label your teenage niece and nephew as rude and lazy, I will say they were totally clueless. With their limited life experiences, they have no idea all the effort it takes to prepare a home for guests (and the expense to boot). They have no notion how stressful it can be when people are messy, inconsiderate, unhelpful, and take everything for granted.

    If their parents were also staying at your home, they should have instructed their kids to pick up after themselves. If they didn't, they were being negligent and the blame should be placed on them, not the teens. If the parents weren't willing to act as parents, there's not a lot you could do without causing a huge family rift. Scolding, instructing, or criticizing other people's kids never goes over well-- no matter how well-deserved it is!

    If they come again, I'd give them the names of a few good motels in the area, explaining quarters were just too tight during their last visit. After much trepidation, I did this with my sister and her kids when they were growing up. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did. We all enjoyed the visit so much more, focused on doing fun activities together, and all my resentment faded away. We all felt a lot less stress.

    If their parents weren't there, you should have spoken up and set down some basic housekeeping rules: put your dishes in the dishwasher, make your beds, set the table for meals, or whatever else you thought was reasonable. You would have been doing the teens a favor to teach them proper etiquette when staying at someone's home. From your frustration with them, I imagine they also neglected to take you out for a meal, bring you a gift, or express their gratitude. A lack of awareness and appreciation really takes a toll on a host.

    I'm sorry you had such a stressful experience with your bad house guests. But please use this it as the impetus to establish ground rules for the next set of visitors. If you don't speak up about your expectations, you might have another frustrating time. Good luck!

  • How do you handle your dinner being a whole lot earlier than your brother's family?

    Good manners dictate that the one preparing the meals (doing the shopping, fixing the food, and covering the cost) is the one who sets the time and menu for meals. A good houseguest bends and is gracious. I, for example, am a vegetarian. I would never in a million years expect my hosts to cater to my special dietary requirements. I tell them I'm a vegetarian in advance and then I'm grateful for whatever they serve and whatever I can eat.

    While it's especially nice when my host has a vegetarian entree for me, I certainly don't expect one. My 80-year-old mother and 78-year-old mother-in-law love me dearly, but they don't accommodate what they consider to be my “crazy” eating habits. They're used to serving meat and potatoes for dinner. Therefore, I stop at the farmer's market before my visit and pick up fruits and vegetables for everyone to enjoy. A good house guest does her best to be low-maintenance.

    With that being said, if you're staying with your brother's family and they eat later than yours, don't hesitate to discuss this with them before your visit. Explain your concerns and try to reach a compromise. If you have little kids who are accustomed to eating at 5, they may not be able to make it until 7 without getting crabby. If you're on vacation and want to wake up early for sight-seeing, you may want to eat earlier as well. Communication is key to preventing misunderstandings, frustration, and hurt feelings.

    Most hosts will bend over backward to make their guests feel at home. The only exception is when they feel taken advantage of and disrespected. A good houseguest acknowledges and appreciates their efforts in words and deeds.

    I've had people in their early twenties stay with us and, because of their limited life experiences, they're often unaware of all that's involved in preparing a home for guests: making up the beds, scrubbing the toilets, buying the groceries, planning the meals, etc. It's that lack of awareness that makes hosts feel overburdened and used. If you pitch in with the meals—cooking, ordering pizza, or taking your hosts out to a restaurant—you'll make a good impression.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers

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