How Do You Politely Set Boundaries With Overnight Guests?

We've all been in that uncomfortable situation where we just don't know how to say "no" to an overnight visitor.


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Dear Lizzie,

A few years ago, my husband and I moved to an area that is a worldwide tourist destination, a couple of days’ drive from where we had lived for decades. We have been happy that so many friends and family members want to visit, but it has not been an unmixed blessing. In the past two months, for example, we’ve had five sets of visitors, several of whom have never been to this famously beautiful area before. Here are our questions and observations, which I guess all fall under the general rubric of “how do you politely and lovingly set limits on what you can and will do for visiting houseguests?”

 Ken Gutmaker Architectural Photography, original photo on Houzz

1. Most people fly here, so they are without a vehicle, and my husband and I end up playing tour guide and chauffeur, which we are happy to do, but not every single day of someone’s visit. Related issues: Who pays for the gas, admission tickets, meals on the road during day trips, etc.? We end up visiting some famous attractions several times a year (and paying to do so each time), something we would not be doing on our own.

While our visitors are on holiday, and often want to see and do the many wonderful things available, my husband and I are not on holiday, and still have family, household and work obligations (we both now work part time from home), which are inevitably neglected when we have guests. We also find it exhausting to take people to see the sights every day of someone’s visit, as people often seem to expect.

2. Many people are staying a week to 10 days, since they are often using a week’s vacation. This can be a long time to have houseguests, especially if there isn’t much of a break between guests. Given the cost to fly here, we understand why people want to make the visit worthwhile.

3. Few people appear to recognize the costs associated with having frequent visitors, perhaps understandably, since they are paying us perhaps one visit a year and don’t think about the fact that they are just one of many visitors. We are semiretired, so the costs of feeding, housing and driving guests add up. Thoughtful visitors will often take us out for a meal (or two) and leave a gift, but we would honestly rather have them contribute to the grocery and gas costs. We don’t need any more host(ess) gifts to find places for.

4. When people visit, they often want to go out for meals. My husband and I don’t eat out a lot, for a number of reasons, so this becomes a financial burden and a health issue.

 Sarah Natsumi Moore, original photo on Houzz

5. We have two cats and an elderly dog. On three occasions, we have boarded our pets during someone’s visit, in two cases because of cat allergies and in one case because of a fear of dogs. My husband is not willing to do this again, since he feels it’s unreasonable for guests to expect resident pets to go elsewhere. By the way, these visitors thanked us profusely but did not offer to contribute to the boarding costs.

Lizzie, I’m sure I sound like a total Grinch as a host! Actually, we enjoy hosting people, and work very hard to make everyone’s visit special. We have been told we are warm and welcoming, so at least our growing frustration isn’t spoiling our time with people we do love. It’s just that there have been so many visitors on rather long visits that we need to figure out a way to keep it manageable for ourselves and our budget and our available time.

 Coburn Development, original photo on Houzz


Related: Accommodate More Guests by Outfitting a Spare Room With Bunk Beds


Dear gracious host,

Your question is one many people sympathize with and agonize over. We love having friends and family visit, and of course we’d like to help out in any way possible. However, it’s just not possible (both in regard to time and money) to host guests week after week. It sounds as though you and your husband have been more than generous with your time and resources to your guests, which truly is admirable.

However, it’s time to set some boundaries. And they start before anyone even calls to hint at possibly coming to visit. I’m going to tackle this in two articles. The first will be about setting boundaries on your end, and the second will be about gentle suggestions that help get the point across in the moment to your guest.

A quick disclaimer: This question is in regard to hosts who are overwhelmed with the amount of hosting they’re being asked or assumed to do. We would all love to be the type of person who can afford the time and money to host our friends and family endlessly. But as much as hosts should be making their guests feel comfortable and taken care of, it’s also the guests’ responsibility not to overburden hosts or take advantage of their hospitality. This is the host-guest dance.

 Highland Homes, Inc., original photo on Houzz

Establish boundaries with your partner. Your husband has already decided that he won’t be boarding the animals again. And I tend to agree with him. It’s one thing when you’re trying to accommodate an elderly parent who can’t stay alone at a hotel or inn, but these visits are of a different nature. A guest who is on vacation and allergic to your pets is out of luck. “Oh Jane, we would love to have you stay with us for a night or two during your visit. However, I have to let you know that we have two cats and a dog. You’re allergic? I’ll send you some suggestions for nearby hotels and inns that are worth staying at.”

Set time limits. The old phrase goes: “Fish and houseguests stink after three days.” As nice as it is to offer up your home for as long as 10 days, you don’t need to by any etiquette standards. You may decide that a two-day visit is reasonable for some guests, while for others, with whom you get along fabulously, a cap on the visit isn’t necessary. (You know, those dream guests who do the host-guest dance with you so well that you never want them to leave!)

Either way, be clear about what you can offer. “Elise, we would love to have you and Joe stay with us while you’re visiting our area. We can offer our guest room for the 11th to the 14th if you’d like to stay with us for that portion of your trip.” If you need to check in with your partner first, by all means say something to the effect of “I’ll have to check with Kevin about the best dates on our end, but I can get back to you later this week!”

 MasterBrand Cabinets, Inc., original photo on Houzz


Related: Keep a Bin of Clean Bedding Handy for Houseguests


Limits also may need to be set around the time you spend together. For some visits, you may choose to take time off work so that you can be there for your guests the whole visit — a staycation for you! Other visits won’t allow for this. It’s OK to let your guests know before they book their trip that you won’t be available each day. “Karen, we would love to have you come for those four days, but unfortunately we will both be working during the day, so you’ll be on your own until we get done around 6 p.m. But we’d love to make some evening plans while you’re here!”

This way your guest knows what to expect in terms of your availability. You may also choose to do tag-team outings with guests. “Kevin is going to go with you to the Cliffs for the afternoon while I take care of some things around the house and get some errands out of the way.”

Have a plan for all that driving. When someone suggests coming to see you for a vacation, it’s perfectly all right to suggest that they get a rental car. “Dave, this trip sounds wonderful, and I’m so glad we’re going to get to see you. Now Susan and I have a car, but given that we will be at work during the day and that some of the local attractions are easier to see by car than bus, we would recommend that you get a rental car for the time you’re here.”

 Envision Web, original photo on Houzz

Now you may choose to be firm with your boundaries or lax with them. You may apply them to some visitors but not to all. It’s your house, your time, your money, your choice. I have known some hosts who spell things out very clearly for guests. They let you know right away that staying with them isn’t a possibility and that a rental car is a good idea, and they even have a list of attractions, what to expect and how much they cost.

Along with restaurant and cafe and sandwich shop recommendations, this makes for a clear message: “We would love to see you while you are here and to help with any information we can, but we are not available to be your tour guide and to supply you with food, lodging and transportation for 10 days.” This is often accompanied by an email or text that says something along this line: “Let us know what you choose to do [what your itinerary is], and we’ll find a time to meet for dinner [or go see an attraction] together.”

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