“How big does my home have to be in order to host an au pair?”—it’s a question that many families ask us, and with good reason. The trend towards downsizing these days means families are living in less square footage than in years past. Space comes at an even bigger premium in urban areas so this is a particular concern for families living in places like New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C.
In fact, there are no rules governing how big a host family’s home must be in order to host an au pair. The U.S. Department of State, which regulates the au pair program, dictates only that an au pair must have her or his own private bedroom.
That being said, there are still plenty of parents who express concern over hosting an au pair in a house without loads of extra room. The main worry is that their family will lose privacy—or the au pair won’t have enough of her own.
When I asked Krista Rietberg, a local childcare coordinator (LCC) for Cultural Care Au Pair in Seattle, WA, to speak on this topic, her reply was: “Sure. So many of my families are in small houses in West Seattle so I talk about this all the time!”
In addition to being an LCC, Krista was also a host mom for 6 years (she recently retired from the program due to her children’s ages). She lives with her three children in a 1,400 square foot house with 4 bedrooms and one bathroom.
Says Krista, “Our daughters shared a room on the main floor where the au pair’s bedroom also was. My son had a room upstairs with me. We all shared one bathroom and never had any issues in six years.” The Rietbergs also shared one car with their au pairs.
Krista adds, “In my experience once my au pairs made friends and started taking classes there was a good balance between time with the family and time outside the house. But we signed up with Cultural Care Au Pair knowing we wanted our au pairs to be a part of our lives so we always encouraged them to hang with us if they wanted. We also implemented a closed door policy—if the au pair’s door was closed the kids had to leave her alone so she could have her own private time.”
Jenn Guarracino is a Cultural Care host mom whose family has lived in both small and large quarters with their four au pairs. Ironically, she says, “When we were living in our 1,250 square foot condo in Boston we probably had the most privacy. Because of where our au pair’s bedroom was, her social habits and the fact that we were in the city, we actually saw less of Caty than we have of our last few au pairs.”
To ensure families and au pairs have enough alone time Jenn suggests outfitting the au pair’s room with what she needs to feel connected to the world. She says, “Our au pairs have their own laptop and television in their rooms so they can stay connected with friends and family and watch what they want on their own. While all of our au pairs are always more than welcome to join us for dinner or to hang out afterwards with the family, they often have plans with friends or are just tired from a long day with our girls and want to retire to their rooms. Before our au pairs arrive, we are insistent that on ‘off hours’ they feel comfortable doing whatever they would like to do. We don’t take offense if our au pairs don’t want to hang out with us and this has worked out well.”
Bob Mitchell, Senior Director of Placement at Cultural Care Au Pair, says that families should be upfront about their personal needs and expectations during interviews with au pairs to make sure whoever they choose is a good match. “Whether host parents really want an au pair to become an integral part of the family or if they prefer more private time with each other and their children, this should be discussed during the phone interviews. Families who do need more privacy will ultimately do better with a very independent, social au pair versus someone who is more of a homebody.”
From an au pair’s perspective, “It is about the family not the house,” says Krista Rietberg. She adds, “I think most au pairs are looking for a great family, not a huge house. They want to feel like a family member. My house is small and crazy and my au pairs have loved it.” Jenn Guarracino agrees. “Au pairs might be initially impressed with host family applications that include photos of big, beautiful homes, but they learn that what will really ensure a happy au pair year is a good relationship with their host family. “
Responses to a recent Cultural Care Au Pair Facebook post support these opinions. When asked: “What size house do you live in and how does it work out for you and your family?” au pairs agreed that the size of their host family’s home wasn’t that important.
Mexican au pair Adriana Lopez Garibay, wrote: “It doesn’t matter the size of the house, the most important thing is how you feel with your host family and the relationship with them…”
Marina Galhardi, a Cultural Care au pair from Brazil was an au pair for a family of five in San Francisco. She just returned home in August and says, “We were six people living in a three bedroom house and one bathroom to share between all of us. It worked out really well, and I stayed there for two years!”
German au pair Sophia Kröger also just returned to her home country this summer after a successful year with her host family in Boston. “I lived in a small apartment with three bedrooms. We had three children, the host parents and me and it worked out perfectly fine! I had my own room I could go to if I needed time for me but I loved my host family so much that I spent my free time with them anyways. So the size of the house really doesn’t matter if you have a good connection with your host family.”
Of course, some au pairs prefer a small house if it means they will be closer to a bustling urban community. Celise Buchmann is a Brazilian au pair spending her second year with a new host family in New York City. She posted: “I’m living in Brooklyn, NY. Do you think I care about the apartment size?!”