Aliens in the guest room

Duane Hoffmann /

Dear Well-Mannered Traveler:

Help! Summer is just about here and since we live near the beach all manner of “friends” and acquaintances will soon be showing up at our door, suitcases in hand. How can I be a Well-Mannered host, but still keep my house  — and sanity  — intact? — Sandy in Southern Florida  

Dear Sandy – and anyone else welcoming summer guests into their home:

As the summer travel season kicks into high gear folks living in desirable destinations do seem to become quite popular. Funny how that works, huh? And while opening your home to a vacationing buddy can put a strain on the best of friendships, if handled well even a friend-of-a-friend crashing on your couch can end up as the houseguest you invite back each year.

Last week we offered instead of an irritating, freeloading pest. This week we tackle strategies for being a Well-Mannered host — the sort whose houseguests leave thoughtful presents, who clean up after themselves and who leave you feeling as if you’ve been on a little vacation as well.

Happy Hosting
What’s the timetable?
If you’ve decided to open your home to guests, the first order of business is to determine when your guests plan to arrive and — even more crucial — when they’re scheduled to leave. A set arrival time allows you to make sure your house is tidied up and ready for visitors. A set departure day helps you calculate how much extra food and other supplies to lay in. And if things get testy, that agreed-upon exit date can serve as a calming reminder that your personal space will be returned to you soon.

If you’re comfortable having outsiders in your home for just a few days at a time but your guests announce that they plan to stay the week or just “play it by ear,” that’s your cue to speak up. Don’t be shy.  You can just say no. Or you might suggest another time for a visit (“The week of January 15th is open …”), offer suggestions of nearby hotels or announce that you’ve already promised the extra room to another set of guests. If that doesn’t work, mumble something about how hard it was to get that fumigation appointment. 

Most folks will get the hint.

Set the ground rules: You and your houseguests will have a more enjoyable visit if the ground rules are clear.  Do you allow smoking, drinking and cussing in the house? Are your friend’s rowdy children, shedding pets or beer-swilling friends invited?   Is it lights-out and all-quiet weekdays after 10 p.m. so you can be fresh and perky when your alarm rings at 5 a.m.?  Must that smelly cat stay indoors at all times? And is it “Help yourself to anything you fancy in the refrigerator and liquor cabinet” or are you saving that steak, box of chocolates and pricey bottle of champagne for next week’s anniversary dinner?

Set the tone: It’s a houseguest’s responsibility to stay out of the way, but it’s your responsibility to make your guest feel at ease in your home.

If you’re all about being super-mom or practicing for the day when you run your own five-star Bed & Breakfast, then by all means don’t let your guests lift a finger.  But it’s a safe bet that you and your houseguests will be most comfortable if everyone gets involved in the routine of the household.  Show your guests around the kitchen and encourage them to make their own coffee and snacks, include them in the preparation of meals; let them know about the morning rush hour in the bathroom; and don’t protest (too much) when they jump up to help clear the dishes, empty the dishwasher, or offer to take out the trash or better yet, you and your family out for dinner.

Make space: If you do have an extra room to offer your guests, lucky you. And lucky them.

If you don’t, try to carve out a bit of private space around the futon in your living room with a curtain or fold-out screen.

Make up the guest bed before your guests arrive and, please, use the good linens and the nice matching towels that you’ve ideally set aside for just these occasions. Clear out a drawer or two or set out a small table so your guests can unpack their things. Stock a bedside table with useful stuff, including an alarm clock, box of tissues, reading material and a lamp.  And while your house is not a hotel, a nice touch in the bathroom or the guest room is a bowl filled with extra toothbrushes and toothpaste, new combs, shower caps, fresh bars of soap, razors, and other goodies your guest may have left behind.

Your house is still your home: Of course, while guests are about you shouldn’t ignore them, eat your meals alone in front of the TV or walk around naked. But your guests can’t expect you to totally disrupt your household routine to entertain them every moment of the day.

Set aside some quality time to spend with your guests and, if you can, join them out on the town for an activity or tour.  A friend who lives near Washington, D.C. who regularly opens her home to friends and family visiting the nation’s capital says, “We love houseguests and understand if they’re really not coming here to see us. But if people want to see the D.C. sites, it’s helpful if they arrive with a list of ideas before they get here.  We can give suggestions and directions, but to get the most out of their visit some preparation on their part is appreciated.” 

Hold your tongue:  I’m still sort of grossed out by the houseguest who sat down in the middle of my living room to floss her teeth and polish her toes. And I’m sure my friend’s not-really-so-angelic four-year old put one of my antique toys and a fresh dent in the dishwasher.

But I kept mum.

Why? These people, after all, were invited visitors in my home. And, according to the timetable we’d all signed and joked about posting on the refrigerator, I was confident they’d soon be on their way.  

And, I kept reminding myself, when that four-year old grows up she may have her own dishwasher and her own beach house. And I might need a place to stay. 

Have some tips to share with other about how to be a good host or a great houseguest? Or perhaps a story to share about a good or bad guest?