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The New Housemates

Whether widowed, divorced, or single, more and more women are finding a surprisingly practical living arrangement.

The New Housemates

— Brian Pieters/Radius Imgaes/Getty Images

An old German proverb goes something like this: "Two cats and one mouse, two women in one house, two dogs to one bone, will not agree long." Well, we can't speak for cats, dogs, and mice, but these days more and more women are living two, three, and sometimes more to a house. And they're agreeing on everything from how to split the electric bill to who gets use of the kitchen on Saturday night. Indeed, what was originally thought to be an impossible situation is turning out to be a godsend for many women. Take the case of Penny Bond, 59, and Kathy Austin, 52, two pioneers in what is becoming a hot housing trend for older women—home sharing. The two friends met more than 15 years ago when, says Penny, "we were both coming out of long, difficult marriages. After that, we spent so much time with each other that we'd often talk about moving in together as housemates. But because we both so valued our privacy and independence, we'd always end up getting cold feet."

Then in 1999 Kathy asked if she could stay with Penny for a few weeks while she had some work done on her house. Because of a long series of contractor disasters, those few weeks turned into nine months. During that time the women got along so well, they decided to make the arrangement permanent. "Living together just made sense, for several reasons," Penny explains. "As friends, we were already spending time together. And during those nine months we found out we each had as much alone time as we wanted. It just seemed ludicrous to keep paying for two households."

That was eight years ago. The two are still together and quite content as they share Kathy's house in Asheville, North Carolina. They even started a business together. Their respective kids—six in all, plus two grandchildren—come and go on a regular basis. "We've got a very comfortable system going here," says Kathy.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that about 500,000 women, or a little more than 1 percent of women 50 and older, currently live with a nonromantic housemate. And experts predict that eventually women like Penny and Kathy will be the norm instead of the exception: think Golden Girls meets Kate & Allie. Fueled by simple demographics, financial reality, and the resilience demanded of living on one's own, these women are finding the housemate option to be an attractive one as they ease into retirement. A recent AARP Foundation Women's Leadership Circle Study found that more than a third of the 1,200-plus women 45 and older surveyed said they'd be interested in sharing a house with friends or other women—as long as it included private space.

Though it's nice to have company when you want it, the bigger incentive for home sharing is this: it just makes good financial sense. Two can usually live more cheaply than one. And many of the 25 million single women over age 45 are not only single—they're absolutely unapologetic about it and have accepted that, at least in the foreseeable future, "Prince Charming isn't likely to arrive bearing gifts of real estate," says Candace Bahr, cofounder of the Women's Institute for Financial Education and a managing partner of Bahr Investment Group, which specializes in financial planning after divorce. Many of these single women also realize that they're less financially prepared for retirement than their married counterparts, and that they haven't been able to earn as much money during their working years as most men. Often these women are divorced or widowed and know firsthand how hard it is to maintain a one-income household. They are willing to consider any option, as long as it allows them to hold on to their freedom.

"After all, we're from the generation of women who lived in communes back in the 1960s," says Connie Skillingstad, who launched Golden Girls Housing in Minneapolis several years ago. The nonprofit service helps women look at nontraditional options for housing that meet their financial, social, and emotional needs.

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