How to live with your in-laws while still feeling like an adult and maintaining your autonomy

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Ang
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
For financial reasons, my family and I recently moved in with my in-laws. We currently have two rooms of our own but can't do anything permanent to add our touch to them (ex. painting the walls, hanging up too many pictures, moving a majority of the furniture) and we definitely can't add much decor to the rest of the home.

So my question is, what do you recommend for a family looking to express their style when they live in someone else's aesthetic?

Sleepy time (and still Christmas).
Boobaandbird shared her set up with the in-laws on our Flickr group.
Oh honey, I feel you. I really truly do. I've lived with my in-laws (my mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law) for about six years now, and it is rough.

In fact, I was supposed to do a home tour for Offbeat Home and I wrote to Ariel in tears that I couldn't do it… the situation stresses me out so much, the house is always a mess, and the post would be all angsty and grumpy pants.

But don't worry, there are options for you to totally take your spaces and put your mark on them!

Taking the Sweet Route (Adhering to the spirit of the law):

  • Textiles — Temporary textures and color are a great way to inflict your character in a space. There's the obvious: drapes, throw pillows and blankets, but try to think of other ways you can use them, too. Cover your dresser with an awesome scarf for a color pow, pile pillows in a corner for a relaxing loungey feel. Get fabric clips and those nifty 3M Command Strips on the ceiling to create room dividers. And never underestimate the power of a good area rug. Even if the room has wall to wall carpet, an area rug can add extra dimension and dictate areas within a room. Baskets and bins for storage fall into this category too.
  • Accessories — With only two rooms to work with, we focus on large impact pieces to avoid clutter. A kick-ass floor lamp frees up tabletop space for sculptural art, and bowls or containers to hold little junk like keys, jewelry, stuff left in your pockets before you go to bed. If at all possible invest in good lighting, and art pieces you feel like you could live with forever. Keep in mind accessories can always be spray painted, so those mundane $2 deer figurines can easily become fuchsia and tangerine modern art for just a couple of bucks extra.
  • Movable Furniture — Since big furniture pieces are out, get smaller pieces that are wicked you. Scope Craigslist and thrift stores for trunks, small chairs, end tables, and benches. These can be easily moved — I have a nasty habit of throwing them in my car for a few days if they need to be out of the way.
  • Visit your dump (bear with me) with the focus on eco-friendliness. Many dumps have areas where people bring items that they don't want, but are still too useful to throw away. Most of my favorite pieces have come from my dad's trips to the "Still Good Shed." Check with your municipality to see if they offer this and what the regulations are.

Take the Devious Route (Thinking outside the box / Asking for some leeway)

  • Shelving — One option is a wall unit, but I would see if your in-laws would be open to letting you put up small floating shelves. The holes are very easy to fill and they might like the look. There are many DIY options for this: salvaged wood, molded plastic, MDF… and of course, you can always paint them. The shelves themselves add artistic elements, and they give you an opportunity to show off more accessories and pictures. If you have an extensive book collection, show them off with an invisible book shelf. Storage and pretty!
  • Offering to increase the house's value — We had fugly, nasty, ratty carpet in the living room. For some reason, my mother-in-law decided 12 years ago (when she had three teenage boys) that she wanted a white carpet. It barely resembled carpet anymore. I found out there were hardwood floors underneath, so my husband and I paid to have the floors professionally refinished. The hardwood floors are much more my style, and they boosted the house's value. See if there are any small projects you could take on around the house that would benefit your in-laws.
  • Offsite storage — See if your in-laws are open to having you store some of their furniture safely in a storage facility. This gives you a chance to purchase pieces that you feel represent you better, and it protects their furniture from daily use, dings and scratches. Many storage places have great deals for new clients: we rented a truck to move furniture for $32, and they gave us the first month and a half of storage free. Prices vary depending on where you live, and what size and type of storage you decide on.

For those of you living with family, what are your best tips for making the home feel like yours, while still respecting your family's space?

  1. These are awesome ideas. I wish I'd thought of some of this when I was temporarily living with my mum.

  2. When in doubt: build up. I have a ton of books and I had two bookshelves. I bought a third and added to the top of all three.

    And take insipration from more expensive space saving brands, but see if there's a way to make it yourself or find it cheaper. My dresser was a beautiful antique that my grandfather had, but it was taking up too much space. I wanted to get rid of it and put drawers under my bed. The Pottery Barn version was perfect, but too much money. My mom built me a custom bed so I could fit all my clothes but my matress is now so high off the ground, I need step stool to get to sleep (though I just jump in most of the time). And I still used the building up concept, in that my headboard has shelving as well for even more books.

    …I don't have a problem…(I have a staircase in my closet and I put a few books I don't read anymore in there). I-I'm serious, I don't have a problem!

  3. Textiles are huge. We invested in a lot of rugs and fabrics. I put colorful fabric on every surface I wasn't allowed to touch or move. It made me feel better to know I had control of the color with out being able to paint. I also invested in good bedding. I had no money to live, but god damnit I was going to make my bed my sanctuary. I did a lot of DIY on throw pillows and such, but I bought good sheets, and put a pretty duvet cover on my $20 comforter from wal-mart. It made me feel sooo much better.
    I also made a list of the top 5 things I needed to feel at home. Mine included- A picture of my family, this lamp that is in the shape of a kick ass elephant, candles, an old pair of slippers, and MY family! (meaning FH and Puppy). As long as I could walk into our 10×15 square and see my hunny and puppy I knew this was worth it.
    If this is just a temp thing until you get over a bump, I really reccomend that you develop a savings plan. FH and I did that and it made every day exciting to see how much change we could add to our "crayon" bank.
    Good luck!!

  4. This post is right up my alley. My husband and I got married last June, 3 weeks after I graduated college and in the full swing of recession. I have (still) been unable to find a higher paying job, so we have lived with my mom and two brothers, saving our money. Then we bought a cheap car, so we stayed longer. The whole time I've felt guilty for imposing on my mom, but also feeling guilty to having dragged my husband out of the city to not even have our own place yet. We're moving out with my brother in a few weeks. We live in the basement here. Part of it is storage and laundry. We hung up a tapestry to create a wall, and my brothers and I had already painted some LOTR stuff on the walls when we first moved in. It hasn't really felt like ours because it's so cold down there, there are a couple windows, but we get no light. The main problem is that we have little space and lots of stuff for when we move. My solution? I don't spend time down there.

    • Hey it's me, Jessica, i love all of these ideas the fabric sounds great and between that and "new" bedding (because to be honest that takes up like 90% of the room) i see a fabric store trip in my near future. My husband is currently working on building shelves so we will have more storage space and a surface to put decorations i would have otherwise hung up. A few shelves are less holes than a ton of pics or paintings (Our old apartment i had a whole wall covered in photo frames) We'll have to look into off-site storage because currently no furniture in the room is ours except my son's crib so it still feels weird in there. And we are def. sticking to a pretty strict savings plan so we can be back in our own place in about 2 years (ggrrr student loans). Besides that thanks for the awesome ideas i can't wait to stop by and read some more. I love the idea of the top 5 things you need to feel like home, i feel a weekend project in the works 🙂 thanks :):):)

    • You made it a pretty nice space though from what I gather. I also thought I'd spend less time in my in law's converted basement but ultimately… it started feeling like home and now I am ALWAYS THERE. But hey! You have laundry! A+!

  5. My mister and I are currently living with his parents. Our bedroom — the only part of the house we don't share — is about 9×9' and completely cut off from the rest of the house. His parents own a two-family home, and they rent out all of the upper level except for his/our room. To go to the only bathroom, we have to take our keys, walk downstairs, unlock their front door, and then pray no one else in the six-person household is using it.

    Being poor as dirt totally blows, let me tell you.

    That said, I've managed to be pretty creative about getting two people's worth of stuff into a slightly-under 9×9 room and not making it unbearably, inhumanly cluttered. The Mister's mother has zero tolerance for anything of ours being in any visible area, so everything we have has to stay up here with us or in the very leaky, moldy basement. The Mister on his own lets it turn into a stinky teenage-style pig-cave, but I have reclaimed all 15 square feet of floor space we can possibly have in here.

    • Yeah i hear you on the awkward space thing, i forgot to mention that the 2 rooms we have 1 is on the top floor and 1 is in the basement…i go up and down more flights of stairs then anyone should ever have to and with a 5 month old it's about as fun as you can imagine….

  6. Himself and I live with my cousin and his partner. They've always been very inviting of our things – and to make the place feel more like "ours" I took them up on it whenever and where ever possible. I added some of my small knick knacks to the living room decor, and hung some of our art on the walls. I also added a few of our favorite kitchen thingies (olive dish! mortar & pestle! knife block!) to the kitchen. Since the homeowner is my cousin, lots of the furniture/decor is actually handed down from my family anyway, so I feel at home with all of it. This post reminded me that I should ask Himself how he feels about being surrounded by other people's stuff.

  7. Hey dat's mah house up der!

    Boy do I know this feeling. We only really have a room, no real kitchen and it can be real tough. But as soon as we moved in we painted and just put our stuff everywhere and made sure it was our own. I'm pretty sure the person who lived there before us did lots of things that aren't legal to their bodies (ok so I'm talking about drugs) and after sifting through the PlayBoys and religious figurines, it is now our house. YOU CAN DO IT!

    Here's my blog post on our blog about living with the inlaws: http://boobaandbird.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/were-home-baby/

    And that was at Christmas! So festive!

  8. Can we start a support group for couples living at home with parents? We have a 5 month old and moved in with my folks when she was born, on the understanding that the basement apartment they were so generous as to build us would be finished in a month. It's been 5 months and no end sight, so we live in the master bedroom and my DH only leaves the room to go to work. Respecting each others' space (and each other) has been a real challenge, and we have to keep this room exactly as is. We are trying so hard to continue to express our gratitude that while retaining our independence that defining our own space has totally fallen by the wayside. Great ideas, thank you for them. Any ideas for decorating a basement apartment would be great too!

    • I have no advice on living with in-laws but I did live in a basement apartment for 2 years! Here is my personally informed list of things that are important for happy basement dwelling:
      1) Maximize all light sources, natural or not. Consider buying alternatives to any pre-existing fluorescent fixtures, and position sitting/eating/etc areas next to windows.
      2) Expect the ceiling to be low and plan accordingly
      3) Look into cheap ways to personalize the space. We used paint,stencils, and removable floor tiles to great effect.
      4) If there is unfinished or uncovered concrete floors, invest in
      area rugs. Also, consider painting the floors. Seems crazy, but
      a few coats of porch and floor paint were so much better than
      unfinished sad grayness.
      5) Invest in space heaters if there is no heating system, and get a sense for where leaks or other problems might exist before they happen.

  9. I can relate!
    I am living with my inlaws right now: in our case, since we are planning an overseas move within the year we have decided not to buy anything we don't actually need since we can't take it with us as luggage. My own stuff (bedding and decorations and lovely fluffy towels) is in a different country altogether, so I don't even have my own things around me.
    My mother in law insists in coming into the room to pick up and clean and part of our room is home storage. Because my in-laws have been super welcoming and accommodating and have gone out of their way to make me feel at home, I'd rather not bring any issues up with them, they are doing their best in a difficult situation when money is scarce all around.

    What has helped is to realize that this is temporary, and that stuff or decoration is not as important as being together. So we repeat to ourselves that we'd rather be a bit uncomfortable now and save for when we make the big move. It is hard sometimes but it won't be forever.

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