Updated on 05.04.09

The Neighborhood Cooperative

Trent Hamm

Last weekend, our town had a “city wide yard sale.” There was a bit of promotion of this event by the city council and quite a few homes participated (we would have, but unfortunately we hadn’t been at home for several weekends in a row due to my grandmother’s passing and several other family commitments, so we simply weren’t aware of it until it was too late). We were able to find a few really cheap interesting cookbooks, my daughter got a pile of My Little Ponies for fifty cents, and my son got a Batman mask (that he’s played with incessantly) for a dime.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that there were a lot of people out and about. They would simply go down a block, visiting several sales in one swoop. It was quite clear that the presence of a large number of yard sales in such a compressed space had really brought out the crowds – the collective nature of the yard sales had brought out more people than just an individual sale ever could have.

So, it occurred to me: why couldn’t any block or neighborhood do this? A group of people get together, agree to have a yard sale on the same weekend, each contribute a few dollars to advertise, and thus attract far more visitors to their sale than they might otherwise have (because of better advertising and the group effect).

It goes beyond that, even. There are many ways in which you can form a collective with your neighbors in order to save you both some money. Here are some suggestions for doing just that.

Babysitting If you have children and multiple neighbors have children as well, discuss starting a babysitting collective with two or three other families. One night a week, one of the families in the collective hosts all of the children, allowing the other parents to have a date night or another free evening – for free. Do this on a rotating basis and, in exchange for one evening where you have a small army of kids in your home, you have two or three evenings of free babysitting.

Meals Once or twice a week, have a meal exchange with your neighbors. Prepare a double amount of what you normally would make, then package the extra half and hand-deliver it to a neighbor. Then, in exchange, the other family could deliver a meal to you one or two nights a week. Of course, you could also simply eat together on a scheduled basis if that works well for you. Doing this enables you to use many ingredients in bulk, saving money on meal preparation and saving time as well (since half of the meals are simply delivered to you, ready to eat).

Household equipment Why not share a lawnmower with your neighbor? How about a snowblower? One great model for this exists in our neighborhood, where one person owns a snowblower and provides fuel for it, but is not in good enough physical shape to operate it. Thus, one of her neighbors actually operates the snowblower, using it to blow the snow out of both driveways (and often doing a large swath of the block’s entire sidewalk as well).

Gardening If two or three neighbors all have gardens, why not specialize the gardens and freely share the produce? This allows one family to focus specifically on a crop or two, making garden maintenance easier for all of the people involved. You can even carry this to the level of canning and/or freezing, agreeing to swap prepared garden products with neighbors.

This sounds intriguing, but how do I get started?
Ideas like this are obviously great ways to save money, but how exactly can one get this started?

The biggest obstacle for many people is simply bringing up the subject. It often seems uncomfortable to suggest such an arrangement with a neighbor.

So how do you get past that step? It’s easy – create a situation where it’s quite comfortable to raise such a topic. Invite your neighbors over for a casual meal and broach the subject when everyone is comfortable. This gives you the opportunity to figure out for yourself how comfortable you are with them, sets the stage for the issue quite well, and also provides for a nice social opportunity.

Another obstacle is making sure that one family isn’t merely taking advantage of others. Again, the best way to avoid this is to take charge yourself. Come up with your own plan and propose it to the others that might be involved, letting them decide if they want to go along with it. It’s usually easier to go for “simple” instead of “perfect balance,” though – instead of sweating issues of co-owning items for yard use, for example, consider a situation where one person “owns” the item and others share it easily and openly.

Another useful tactic is to make the arrangement very open and without extensive commitment. For example, don’t implement a tight long-term schedule for swapping babysitting evenings, at least at first. Let people get used to and comfortable with the arrangement, then suggest formalizing it more if everything works (so that people can plan ahead for certain weekends). This also makes it easier for the arrangement to end if it doesn’t work well. Remember, it doesn’t take much time at all for arrangements like this to begin to save you real money.

Good luck!

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  1. Matt Jabs says:

    I’m in the process of working with our developer and my neighbors to build a “community website” for our subdivision.

    I plan to really get people working together and taking personal responsibility for themselves and their community!

  2. LeeRoy says:

    Great Idea Trent. I haven’t thought about sharing gardening or lawn mowing equipment with the neighborhood. However, what might your solution be for that “ONE” neighbor. Every neighborhood has one, the one who always has their kids running around breaking things, the smell from their house is unbearable, and just in general are not very clean people. On the same note they butt into everything that happens around them and cannot be relied upon to hold their end of any commitment. This neighbor will undoubtedly crash the dinner party they were not invited to and insist to be involved in everything only 2 days later to generate a never ending stream of excuses.

  3. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    We have really great neighborhood mailing lists. These are completely optional, but are great places to buy and sell used things. We’ve been able to find great deals on used equipment, as well as have a market for some things that would have otherwise been a pain in the butt to sell.

    Regardless of what you use this for, this is a great idea. I only wish we had tapped into this sort of thing sooner.

  4. Emily says:

    My parents live on a circle that uses the sharing lawn equiptment method. When they first moved in (about 22 years ago), one guy owned a snow blower and an edger. He cleared all of the sidewalks and driveways in the winter and trimed the sidewalks in the summer. My parents were in charge of the garden in the center, anothing house had a pool that everyone could use, another was a handyman who fixed minor problems. All these years later, even though the families are mostly new, the system still works. In fact, the guy who owned the snow blower and edger gave them to the people who bought the house from him!

  5. My friends and I have been getting together the past few weeks to have a cookout, sharing the cost of food. It turns out pretty well, as we not only share the cost of food, but also the responsibility for cooking.

    It is a great way to spend time with our friends and since I love food, its good for that as well.

    Not to mention it is much cheaper than going out for dinner at a restaraunt!

  6. Michael says:

    Good post. Remember that if you specialize crops, you’ll need to rotate and give the soil extra care to make up for how a diverse garden benefits the soil.

  7. Kris says:

    These are some good ideas, but I know in my area it wouldn’t work out too well. I admit that after traveling much of the U.S. I can say that I do live in a selfish area.

    Neighbors start feeling that some of the other neighbors aren’t pitching in as much as they should, or they feel the neighbors don’t help maintain the equipment, or that they do 90% of the babysitting. There are always those who will take and take in a coop system like this, but not contribute. I remember a neighborhood BBQ we tried to have 5 years ago where basically only 4 of us contributed but over 100 neighbors showed up, we haven’t had a neighborhood BBQ since.

    I do like the ideas, but only if I could find neighbors who would contribute equally.

  8. Bill in Houston says:

    Our alley (ten houses share the same long driveway because our garages are at the back of hour homes) has monthly cookouts. Very nice. Funny thing is we’re the “young couple” in the area (I’m 48 and my wife is 35). We all lend out tools and offer help, too. It is a nice community.

  9. Anne says:

    I passed a neighborhood garage sale on my way to work this morning and it was already hopping!

    I’d also like to throw out that the neighborhood I grew up in had a similar system in place, just for the block though. It wasn’t as involved as some of your suggestions but it worked well and was able to evolve as the neighborhood changed. One person printed up a directory with names, where people worked, etc. And then there was an informal pool of shared tools. When my parents moved into a condo a few years ago they ceremonially transferred the hedge clippers to a neighbor across the street (just in case the new owners weren’t into sharing) and left the push mower with the house :D Another house had the really big ladder. Someone else had a chain saw. Another house had the table saw.

    Money never changed hands or anything like that. The household that needed the tool most would buy it and, if they were willing to share, advertised that they had it. Chain saw guy cleared trees on his land out in the country. Table saw guy did woodworking as a hobby. My dad got the clippers from an elderly friend when she sold her house. Etc.

  10. Dawn says:

    I do this with a circle of friends who aren’t neighbors but all live nearby. We have an open tool exchange and “extra set of hands” group. All of us own homes and all of us have home repairs that need to be done. We lend out tools to each other (especially for jobs that require odd ball specialized equipment like a tile saw), along with “I’ve been there” knowledge and a second set of hands to help whenever needed. It is fabulous!

  11. guinness416 says:

    Good post! All it takes is being the person to suggest these things. We are similar to Emily above in that of our little block of 11 houses we share gardening equipment – there is absolutely no need for 11 snow blowers and lawnmowers. We have hired gutter cleaning crews to do two and three houses at a discount. The guys on the street also take it in turns to buy and pick up beer, and some of us rotate hosting barbecues in the summer. And this is a big-city (Toronto) street where everyone is very busy. Even something as simple as feeding the cat and picking up mail when your neighbour is away is uncommon among some of my friends’ neighbourhoods, which is kind of sad.

  12. DB Cooper says:

    I’m surprised this is a “new” idea to you. Communities and neighborhoods around my home have been doing this for years. Just a couple weekends ago the neighboring town had their weekend rummage sale event, which corresponds with the local Walleye Festival. There are literally hundreds of rummage sales, with thousands and thousands of folks driving and walking from sale to sale. People plan for this weekend all year long. On a smaller scale, I often see neighborhoods that have coordinated sales.

    As for sharing other things…Maybe it’s just me, but I know I don’t want all the neighbors kids at my house for hours on end. And I don’t want to eat their food, either – I like our meals! I don’t like potlucks, either – I don’t know what the kitchens look like in which the food was prepared, so I don’t want to eat it!

  13. Jennifer says:

    I’ve been swapping babysitting with a neighbor whose kids are close in age to mine one a month. It’s very relaxing to know there is one night each month that I’m going to get a few hours with my husband. And they follow all our rules, too, because they know if they don’t, we might not follow theirs, either! I have yet to pay for a babysitter, and my oldest will be 4 in June.

  14. Kate R. says:

    This is a really common practice in Vermont, especially in the rural communities that don’t attract that much regular auto traffic. Many different towns and villages have town-wide yard sale days, and advertise in the local papers. I’ve driven up to an hour and a half to catch these, and have talked to many people who have done the same.

  15. Jon says:

    We’ve just launched a web application, at http://www.sharonimo.com, that makes the sharing of resources a lot easier. Anyone can sign up for free, create a list of shareable resource and invite their friends and neighbors to do the same. People who have permission to view each other’s lists can request and track items and plan projects and events using the software. If a group of people (like the condo association) wants to co-own resources, then the group can create a separate account to manage and track those resources.

    I hope you’ll all check it out, and let us know what you think. We’re always looking for more good ideas!

  16. Anne says:

    Another garden idea is to do it all in the same location. I have several friends who don’t have particularly good space for gardens, so they help with the garden at my house…I have 3 acres and full sun! This has been good for us in several ways. First of all, it is so much nicer to weed a garden when you are chatting with friends. It also allows us to maintain the garden while on vacation, as we have never all left at the same time. We plant a HUGE garden (at least 100 tomatoes, among other things), and start most plants from seeds. I haven’t bought a jar of spaghetti sauce, salsa or pickles for years!

  17. Mary Lou says:

    When my children were small I belong to a babysitting co-op for children younger than Kindergarten. You were invited into the co-op with two recommendations from two current members and given starting credits. Each child you sat for you earn 1 credit per hour and for each time someone sat for your child you were deducted 1 credit per hour. To stay in good standing you could not exceed the agreed upon limits for over or under. Most of the time the babysitter and the other parent would make the arrangement and the baby sitter would call in the credits to the secretary of the month for her account, which would become a deduct for your account. Members rotated being secretary, which also gave them an agreed upon credit for hat month served. At any time there were no more than 30 members and always a waiting list. It was a wonderful way to meet people in the area and it cost nothing more than an evening out once a quarter with the other moms.

  18. Marsha says:

    Well, sharing and cooperating are good ideas – but it doesn’t have to be on a neighborhood level.

    Besides not knowing my neighbors, I’m not sure I would trust them – parts of my neighborhood are kind of dicey.

  19. Keith says:

    The neighborhood where I grew up in PA had one of these every year – it was a great way to get rid of unwanted stuff. My sister and I even participated several times – my parents made a deal with us that if we worked the thing we would get all the proceeds from any of our old stuff, and a portion of the total hopper.

    My current condo association (we have garden-style walk-ups and large courtyards) has a yearly yard sale as well and we get some pretty good crowds. My downstairs neighbor made a couple hundred dollars last year on some old furniture and other odds and ends. I have noticed that because I sell stuff occasionally on craigslist, I have less of a need to participate than in the pre-Internet days.

  20. Katie says:

    On a smaller scale, a friend and I do meal prep together each week. We choose a couple entree recipes (and sometimes add a side or baked item) and each week one person hosts and the other buys the ingredients we don’t already have. We split the cost of purchased items.

    We cook the dishes together, split them and have a few meals ready for the next week.

    We like it because it guarantees we spend time together, we both like to try new recipes and with this method, if the recipe turns out poorly, we’re not stuck with a lot of food we don’t like. It is also economical. It ends up costing about $15 each week. The most obvious benefit is that there’s less planning and cooking on our own.

    I’m sure this could be done on a larger scale too.

  21. Jules says:

    We just had a neighborhood yard sale! :) I did a cute and funny flyer on the computer, and my husband knocked on everyone’s door and passed it out and answered any questions people had. We had a great response, great turnout, and a lot of fun yelling across the street at each other to see which family was making more money.

    We now talk to neighbors we used to only smile and wave at!

  22. SueO says:

    So sorry to hear about your grandmum’s passing!

    The site has been running seamlessly despite that extra ‘burden’.

    Thanks for this article. Wonderful suggestions.

  23. Meg says:

    The apartment complex I live in is having it’s first annual yard sale tomorrow. I am looking forward to getting rid of some clutter.
    I hope it turns out well and becomes a yearly event

    (Casa Tierra Apts just south of Osuna and San Pedro in Albuquerque, NM if anyone wants to stop by)

  24. Michelle says:

    We call it the neighborhood junk shuffle – yes, some of the stuff at our streetwide sale does leave the neighborhood, but many, many items just change addresses! We do it twice a year, and about 15 of the 30 houses on our street & the off-shoot culdesac will participate. We have a community paper/newsletter that we advertise the sale, everyone is set up by 7am and mimosas celebrate when the first neighbor sells something for more than $20 (we’re weird, I know). I know my immediate neighbors (2 houses to each side & across the street), but if not for this event 2 times a year, I would only know the rest by sight, if at all.

    Also, among our close friends, we have an barn-raising agreement – there are about 6 or so families involved and we’ve built: a roof structure over my 300sqft deck, and for others: an enclosed patio/sunroom, a mega-swing-set (you know, the kind with lots of 4X4’s that need their edges routed off and then sanded), re-roofed a garage, built a stage for backyard jams, and a permanent carport. Each project took the 12 +/- folks a weekend, where the individual family might have had to hire out the work or take several weekends. It’s great – the homeowner provides the PLAN, the building materials & his/her tools, water, sodas, burgers or someother cookout and everyone comes ready to work with their tools, too. I’m not allowed to use powertools due to clumsiness, so generally I get child-wrangling and kitchen duty – which is almost more than my fair share since among the 6 couples, if all offspring are around, there are 17 kids from 2 to 19! The 19 year old is the errand runner and handles the many trips to the hardware store…it saves everyone a bunch of time and money and has added value to our relationships – we’ve contributed to each others’ homes and that’s significant investment in our friendships.

  25. Denise says:

    I did the babysitting swap, with a neighbor, informally for years. Now that I am pretty much single, I do the meal swap with one like-minded neighbor. Once a week, I have her over and send her home with leftovers and the next week, she does the same for me. I am only doing extra cooking twice a month but i am getting extra meals and good companionship. I have tried this on a larger scale and it never works well.

  26. Betsy Aoki says:

    The idea of cooperative extends also past the more immediate notion of adjoining fences or neighborhoods. I’ve seen articles around successful business collectives come together where the skills varied – technical and hard goods, services and marketing etc – and the mutual exposure/trained help boosted folks further.

    Another concept on this is “coworking” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coworking) where different freelance folks share an office also has led to interesting combinations.

  27. clc says:

    awesome article, as usual – thanks!

  28. Sharon says:

    Consider using your local Freecycle network for trading and sharing. You’ll have to contact the moderator with your idea, and build a new Yahoo group for tool sharing and service sharing. It may not be as convenient as having one neighbor do the snow blowing, another the garden, etc., but it can work on a larger area. Also, if your neighbors are, shall we say, not so generous and frugal-minded, you can find some like-minded folks locally.

    One thing about making sure one family doesn’t “take advantage.” While this is certainly a problem, and you don’t want leaches, consider reaching out to families in need in the neighborhood. If they have one or more members with disabilities, or are quite elderly, or have some other needs they can’t manage, invite them to participate to the extent they are able and pitch in as a group to help them out. For the most part, they are willing to participate, although some will indignantly “refuse to take charity.” You have no idea until you’ve been there how having your lawn mowed can make you cry for gratitude, or how wonderful a few tomatoes can taste from a neighbor who actually cares.

    You can suggest that perhaps they do the tracking of who has borrowed what, or be the person who accepts packages when the recipient is away, or teach local children skills (crocheting, knitting, sewing, writing, math, music, etc.) as their contributions. That way it doesn’t feel like charity. And it isn’t.

    Incidentally, helping someone keep up their property who is unable to do so goes a long ways to keep up your property values as well.

  29. Wayward says:

    Our lovely (not) homeowner’s association usually puts the smackdown on anything we try to do like this. The CC&Rs have rules about running child care from your home, which on one hand I appreciate so that people aren’t running full-on day care operations, but on the other hand, shared child care arrangements and even babysitting has fallen under this rule. The CC&Rs also prohibit garage and yard sales and the home owners board of directors will not make an exception for a single, annual, community event.

    It seriously bugs the crud out of me that they block things like this hen residents attempt to go through the proper channels for an exception, and yet they do nothing to enforce the rules otherwise. Even when instances of rule breaking are reported to them. For instance, there’s also a rule that each unit is limited to having 2 vehicles on the property, and one of the vehicles MUST be in the garage. We have residents with 4 vehicles and nothing is done. There’s also a rule stating that the garage space can only be used to store a vehicle; it may not under any circumstance be converted to living space. bout 25% of the 150+ unit use their garages as additional living space, whether as a play room for the kids, an exercise room, and some even rent it out.

    I’ve never lived in a place with a homeowners association before, and I hope to never do it again. I had no idea how much frustration this would add to our lives.

  30. Sharon says:

    If you have the time, you can put together an alternative slate of officers and get elected to replace these bozos.

    You’re kidding — you can’t even babysit? Ye, Gods!

    We lived in a Queens co-op building, and I foolishly thought that the rules should apply to the Board members as well as me. It was a happy day when we moved out!

  31. Ilah says:

    Years ago when my husband was going to school a group of my friends got together and did a babysitting co-op. We produced a limited number of “chits” with a personalized stamp we purchased. For each hour of babysitting you paid one chit to the babysitter. Some people, of course ran out of chits quickly. If they did not reciprocate and earn chits they would be out of luck the next time they needed a babysitter and would have to pay cash or make other arrangements. It worked well as we were a small group and all friends, but would probably need some more rules if done within a larger group who were aquaintences, but did not have the ties of friendship.

  32. DCS says:

    The combined gardening/tools/babysitting/meals in a more extreme form is called cohousing. Google it and you’ll get tons of info. Not for everyone, including me at this point, but an interesting concept. I’ve walked through a couple (by invitation of course) and it makes for a very nice little neighborhood.

  33. My in-laws participate in a community yard sale– it is great idea, buyers get plenty of sellers to choose from and the sellers get a larger concentration of buyers than they would get by themselves . . .

  34. Chris Brooks says:

    We live in New Hampshire and joined a fuel oil coop a few years ago to buy cheaper fuel oil. Organized carefully, you can save substantial money. The flip side, however, was illustrated this past heating season when fuel oil prices dropped by more than half within a couple of months of our signing the agreement. Make sure you have a “downside protection” clause in your agreement that says that you get the lower price if prices should fall below what you’ve agreed to!

    More info on starting a fuel oil coop here: http://www.furnacecompare.com/fuel-oil-coops/


  35. stephanie says:

    In Southeast Missouri, there’s an annual 100 mile yard sale stretching from Jackson to Kennett! (Yes, you read that right: ONE HUNDRED MILES of coordinated weekend yard sales.)

  36. Kent says:

    It is incredible what you can achieve with a good tile saw. This has been helpful but I will keep looking to be able to compare the available machines. Thank you for posting this.

  37. GL says:

    Wow I’m impressed Trent. This does sound like a good idea. I assume that you live in the US however and as this is close to what Marx would have called a commune I can see it being rather hard to influence anybody into doing this without starting a witch hunt.

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