Skillingstad says it's tough for some women to think seriously about shared housing, and many don't know where to start. "In our culture, living communally with people who aren't related to us certainly isn't considered the norm," says Jacqueline Grossmann, copresident of the National Shared Housing Resource Center and a housing specialist at the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, outside Chicago. "So when women decide to do this, there's usually a pretty compelling financial need—a divorce, a job loss, an illness, or even the realization that they don't have enough of a nest egg."
And, of course, not every house-sharing experience is a positive one. There can be personality conflicts, says Grossmann. There can be minor squabbles about anything from too many out-of-town visitors to who should clean out the fridge. And there can be major disasters: a landlord who seemed shy and sweet turns out to be psycho, or a dear friend is revealed as a deadbeat. All that said, many women are releasing their cultural hangups and their fears of the roommate from hell and venturing down this new path. "This is the wave of the future," Skillingstad predicts. Here's why.
Though shared housing can initially feel like a regression to younger times (not that there's anything wrong with that), most grownup housemates quickly begin to appreciate the financial benefits of the arrangement. Mortgage holders find themselves breathing easier about paying the bills. And renters often get more square footage—not to mention a bigger break on utilities—than they'd find solo.
And then there are the women who are pooling their resources not just to make ends meet but to build wealth. Ann Beavers, 61, and Ruth Sorensen, 58, decided to be housemates and bought their first place together—a condo in Anaheim, California—in 1988. Both were school administrators. "Ann had financial savvy, but I didn't," says Ruth. "I had lots of student loans, and then I traveled a lot using credit cards. By the time I was in my 30s, I realized that with my debts, California housing prices, and a school salary, there was just no way I'd ever be able to afford a house on my own." So when Ann suggested they buy a condo together, Ruth knew it was a good idea. Four years later the two were so pleased with the arrangement that they bought a second property, a smaller condo in Oceanside, California, for weekends at the beach.
Soon after, they sold the Anaheim property and bought a larger home, also in Oceanside, and moved Ruth's frail mother into the little condo. When it became clear she needed more care, Ann and Ruth sold both properties and bought a dream home that could accommodate all three of them. Ann and Ruth are convinced that if they hadn't combined their money, they would have never been as financially secure as they both are now. "And because we shared all our costs over the years—the mortgages, insurance, furnishings—we were able to save enough so we could both retire early," says Ruth.
Time to Think
Some of life's lowest moments come with a cash bonus. "Whether it's from a life insurance policy or a divorce settlement, many women who find themselves suddenly single also have a lump sum of money, and they are tempted to dive into a real-estate purchase," says Bahr. "But often a house just isn't the investment women expect it to be." Sharing housing with another woman during such transitions can be ideal, Bahr says, because it buys the new single some time before she has to make any big decisions. "Sometimes it takes a few years before a woman can admit to herself she really can't afford to keep that marital home, and to make the emotional decision to sell it and move someplace smaller," she says. Having a housemate provides a financial cushion so a woman doesn't have to make any rash decisions.
The bigger incentive for home sharing is this: it just makes good financial sense.