The time was right for the three 50-something women to pool their resources and buy a house togehter.
Louise Machinist, a clinical psychologist, was ready to move out of her house now that her children were grown. Jean McQuillin, a case management nurse, had just moved into a rental apartment from the home she had shared with her then-husband. Karen Bush's job as a corporate consultant required her to travel often, which meant making arrangements for her cat and fish — and returning to an empty house.
For the women, buying a home to share made sense. Said Machinist, "There's every advantage to be gained from it."
(Watch the video below to see how the trio make their shared household work.)
The House-Sharing Trend
Other older singles seem to agree. Increasingly, female boomers and older women — both bosom buddies and strangers — are moving in together as a way to save money and form a community.
Online home-sharing websites, workshops and meetings for prospective housemates are booming. One such event recently occurred in Sarasota, Fla., where people in the city's Living in Community Network met potential housemates.
At the online service Let's Share Housing, based in Portland, Ore., which provides a list of people who want to live in shared housing and homeowners who want to share, 80 percent of the clients are boomer women. Fifty-five percent of the women enrolled at the Vermont-based in-person matching service Home Share Now are over age 50. Online interest in the program has doubled since 2007 — likely due, in part, to many more people who have never been married enrolling.
Conditions are ripe to make home sharing an option for many women. Four million women age 50-plus live in U.S. households with at least two women 50-plus — a statistic that is expected to rise. According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, one out of three boomers will probably face old age without a spouse. Women, on average, live about five years longer than men. Adult children are often far away. And since 1990, the overall divorce rate for the 50-plus demographic has doubled.
Add the recession, rising health care and housing costs, and longer lives to the reasons for shared housing's popularity. "My hunch is that money will be the incentive to get over the fear of 'Me? Live with a stranger? Never!' " says Annamarie Pluhar, a shared-housing consultant and author of Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates. "But it's also having someone say, 'How is your day?' and having a social connection that feeds the soul."
Few could deny that there are emotional and physical benefits from friendship and social engagement — and research supports this. In a home share, the residents can also split household chores, feel safer with more people around, and grow older at home without feeling isolated.
The Logistics of Living Together
After conferring with attorneys, accountants and financial planners, McQuillin, Machinist and Bush took out a three-way mortgage on a brick, five-bedroom, $395,000 colonial in Mount Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. McQuillin has the third-floor bedroom, bathroom and office; Bush, a second-floor bedroom and private bath that adjoins her office; and Machinist has the master suite.
Every month, the women deposit the same amount into their joint checking account to pay for utilities, property taxes and repairs. They each contribute a $100 gift card, with which they buy and share groceries — if someone entertains family or friends, she pays separately — and they occasionally eat together. They have house rules, including no overnight guests for more than seven consecutive nights, with built-in flexibility.
"It's like living with two wonderful sisters," says Bush, 65. The three have coauthored a book titled My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household.
Another home sharer, Marianne Kilkenny, 63, not only owns a house-sharing coaching business in Asheville, N.C., and gives workshops (one is called "Women Living in Community: From Dreaming to Doing"), but lives with three other women ages 48 to 69; two are divorced, another never married. Each has her own bedroom and bathroom, but Kilkenny pays the most, $900 monthly, including utilities, because she has the in-law apartment with a separate kitchen. The other rents range from $550 to $650. They share living areas, including a screened-in back porch where they eat in good weather.
The women have a meal together at least once a week as well as a weekly meeting. There are rules, such as hours when they can't do laundry or must be quiet in the halls. Everyone must be notified before guests, such as boyfriends or children, visit.
Lorraine Chambers, 69, is one of Kilkenny's housemates. Chambers' son, Jason, is a college dean and father to young children, and he lives more than two hours away. "It's comforting to know Mom is in a safe neighborhood with people who genuinely care about one another," he says. "And it's the leveraging of each other's financial resources that makes it possible for her to share such a nice place."
When Kilkenny first moved in at night two years ago, someone left the light on for her. "I was so moved," she says. "It's the little things that mean so much." On her 62nd birthday, her housemates left cards outside her door. "Feeling cared about is worth going through some of the conflict that will occur," she says.
The Drawbacks of Home Sharing
Not having your own place can also involve compromise. Sharing means less privacy and dealing with someone else's habits.
Experts say problems usually occur when areas of conflict — household chores, communal property, pets, cleanliness, temperature of the house, noise, guests — haven't been addressed before the move in or within the first week or two. They also happen when expectations are unclear or there is no home-share agreement (see sidebar).
Zoe Morrison, 55, of Portland, Ore., who runs the house-sharing service Let's Share Housing, is divorced and has grown children. She has lived in cooperative households six times. One time she called it quits when her new housemate's lover moved in unannounced. Another time the bills turned out to be higher than she had been told.
McQuillin, Machinist and Bush say that if they lived alone, they'd have their parents, children and grandchildren over more often. "Living with anyone has trade-offs," says Machinist, "but I'm willing to make little trade-offs and have a little less freedom."
But as they get older, the three women realize that what they used to call the "old biddies commune" can't be their home forever. When they bought the house, they were in their 50s and weren't thinking about health issues. Now McQuillin has a knee problem and lives up two flights of winding stairs. Machinist says her next place will be more accessible for older people. Bush thinks she'd prefer to live in a warmer climate.
They'll worry about that later, say these converts, and remain right where they are. Says Machinist, "This is the best way I've ever lived."
Sally Abrahms writes about boomers and aging. She is based in Boston.
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