Houseguest Etiquette: The Do’s & Don’t’s When Staying at a Friend’s or Family Member's House

Sep 17, 2018 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Bedroom with flowers
Image: Whyframestudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

You may know the basic etiquette rules: show up on time, don't put your elbows on the dining table, don't talk with your mouth full, hold the door open for the person behind you (or in front of you, if you see them coming), etc. We may break these rules from time to time, but for the most part, they're still important in this day and age.

There are etiquette rules applicable for nearly every aspect of our lives, from dining out to being a houseguest. And with the holidays quickly approaching, now, more than ever, is a great time to brush up on the latter — because no matter how comfortable you are with your host or hostess, there's no excuse not to be polite.

To get the latest on houseguest etiquette, we spoke to Lizzie Post of The Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, an American author famous for writing about etiquette. Appropriate, right? If anyone were to know the do's and don'ts of staying at a friend's or family member's house, it's Post.

More: A Guest’s Guide to Wedding Etiquette

Is etiquette really still relevant?

The short answer is yes! Being polite never goes out of style. And Post agrees.

"From an Emily Post perspective, we really believe that etiquette helps us build better relationships with each other," she tells SheKnows. "Manners can help us learn, know and expect what to do and what to expect from others. And the more that we, as a culture, come together and try to have positive interactions, whether it's holding the door for some stranger that you're never going to see again or whether it is two families being joined via marriage, we live a life where you're a connected species and therefore valuing those connections. Making sure that they're positive is imperative to us getting along and being able to be healthy, happy human beings."

Now let's get to the rules...

Rule No. 1: Bring a gift

It's a rule most of us know: Show your appreciation for your host opening their home to you with a gift. But what you may not know is you don't have to bring it to their home upon arrival.

"It doesn't have to be something that you bring with you," Post says. "It might be something that you're inspired to get after the trip, but you do usually want to make sure that that gift is given within a week or two of your visit."

That doesn't mean you can't bring something with you, though. For gift ideas, Post's go-to store is Marshalls, where you can find all kinds of fun, unique home decor items.

"Gifting can be really easy. It can be really, really fun, especially when you can head to a place where there are a lot of surprising finds that can inspire you on your trip," she says. "I know that when I know the person whose house I'm going to go stay at, I love going and thinking about what really works for them and might be there and see that it's like bathroom slippers or it might be something from the kitchen department if you know that you guys are going to be doing a lot of cooking together over the weekend or the vacation, but it's a nice way to get inspired."

Post recommends starting with kitchen items, specialty food items, picture frames, candles and candle sticks — as these are pretty easy, universal items virtually everyone will find useful. But remember: You know your host best. What would they want?

"Think about your friends. Think about the things they like to do. Think about what you know about how they enjoy their home," she says. "If they aren't big foodies or if they really don't cook that much, getting them stuff for the kitchen might not really make any sense. But it might be something like a diffuser or it might be a picture frame or tchotchkes, something for their home."

Now, on to answer the question we know you must be asking yourself at this point: "How much should I spend?" 

While there is no minimum or maximum spend amount, don't stretch yourself too thin.

"This is my favorite piece of advice to give — is that you should always shop within your budget," Post tells SheKnows. "It is really, really important that you never feel like you were overextending yourself or purchasing items that you can't. It's really important to stick within that budget."

She continues to say that purchasing something that's way out of your price range could make a big difference on how you're going to feel about the whole weekend.

"That kind of pressure can then make you feel really put out for the rest of the weekend if there are other things you're asked to contribute to," she says.

Houseguest quote

Rule No. 2: Ask questions

Before you head over for the weekend or for an extended stay, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Basically, communicate with your host and ask them for their expectations. Do they have fun plans for the both of you? Do they want to keep it pretty relaxed? Talk to them, "because for some trips, sometimes you're staying at someone's house because they're doing you a favor, and other times it's really a trip to spend time with them. So it's important to make sure that you know the difference between what trip you're on and to actually ask your host, 'Hey, I just wanted to check in. What are some of the things that we're planning on doing?' Or maybe it's more along the lines of 'What's your schedule while I'm visiting just so that I know how to operate and how I can set myself up during the trip?' Those kinds of things," Post recommends.

In short: Get the conversation rolling.

Rule No. 3: Keep it tidy

"Make sure you are aware of the space that you get to be in," Post says, and keep the area clean.

For instance, if your bedroom is the pullout couch in the living room, make sure the living room is clean and how you found it upon arrival.

Same goes for the rest of the house.

"Keep track of your belongings. Make sure you aren't leaving a mess in the bathroom or in the kitchen," she says.

Just because you're the guest doesn't mean you can do anything you want. You still need to do your part.

"There definitely is a good, strong rumor out there that guests should be catered to 100 percent, and I would say it should definitely be nixed," Post says. "A host should not feel like they have to cater to every single whim that a guest has."

Rule No. 4: Ask first

Don't just assume you have free reign of everything in the house just because you're the guest. Want a snack? Ask if they have anything you can munch on. Need Wi-Fi? It's perfectly appropriate to ask for the house Wi-Fi according to Post. She says you should always ask before you use anything you haven't been invited to use.

"If you're the host, it's really nice to add on, 'Please feel free to help yourself to anything in the kitchen' or whatever it is that makes sense for the situation."

More: 6 Party-Hosting Mistakes You Don't Realize You're Making

Rule No. 5: Build in some downtime

If you've ever been a host, you've likely felt it before: that feeling like you need entertain your guest 24-7. And the same goes for the guest, feeling like you need to be with your host all the time. But according to Post, building in some downtime is absolutely encouraged.

"It's OK to say things like, 'I think I'm going to take a nap this afternoon for about an hour or so,' or 'I'm going to go read by the garden for a little bit.' It's OK for either the host or the guest to say or do those kinds of things," she assures. 

Rule No. 6: Chip in

"Guests often make the mistake of not offering to chip in on anything," Post tells SheKnows. "A lot of hosts feel so much pressure to provide everything for you, and it's really nice to offer."

For instance, if your host is heading to the grocery store while you're there, tell them you're more than happy to contribute. If they don't say anything, just offer it. And don't worry if you feel like you're interfering with their routine — it's enough for the host to know you're recognizing just how much he or she is doing.

"It's good to get involved or a little bit curious. Saying things like, 'Oh, my gosh, he's just gotten the most amazing food for us all week long. Is there some way I can contribute?' Or, 'I'd love to do something in return!' Even just hearing that really makes the host feel like, a) they're doing a great job, and b) that that job is so appreciated that someone was willing to offer to make it even easier. That's a good relationship-building moment there."

Another gesture Post recommends is taking your hosts out for dinner.

"Those are all just nice gestures that show that you're aware of the impact you're having on someone's day-to-day, and I think that's really important," she adds.

Rule No. 7: If you have a pet, bring everything it'll need

If you've received permission to bring your pet to your host's home, make sure you pack every single item your dog might need. Even if your host also has a pet, it should not be assumed that you can use their pet's food and water dishes or toys.

"Obviously, you need to make sure that you bring all the foods, the toys, everything — even if the people you're going to [visit] have their own pet. It's not appropriate to lean on all of their pet items to then be shared with your pet. Dogs get territorial over their food dishes," Post says.

"You want to show up prepared."

Rule No. 8: Send a handwritten thank-you note

It may seem like an antiquated tradition, but it's still so, so important — especially to Post.

If you bring notes with you, leave it in the guest room or leave it with a gift before you leave. You can also send it to them via snail mail within a week or two after the visit.

"I love that tradition of the handwritten thank-you note," she tells SheKnows. "It means so much when it shows up in your mailbox and that someone actually took the time to sit down and hand-write it and then go mail it."

Of course, you can send a text message, an email or make a phone call too. "They aren't worthless by any means, but that handwritten thank-you note, it really, really does make a wonderful impact. It's a nice way to express your gratitude."

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