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Consider a Roommate to Save on Soaring Housing Costs

With inflation at a 40-year high, it can be challenging to make rent on a fixed income

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The Golden Girls were on to something. With rents and energy prices soaring, taking on a roommate or two doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Rose, Dorothy, Sophia and Blanche showed us how it's done. The pandemic and soaring housing costs are making it a reality.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise with inflation hitting 8.5 percent in March, a 40-year high. The costs of energy, housing and food drove the surge, like in previous months.

Older adults on fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable to rising housing costs. After all, the 5.9 percent cost of living increase in Social Security benefits isn’t keeping up with inflation. To free up cash, an increasing number of 50 and older Americans are opening their homes to roommates to share in the costs and/or help with the chores. It's a trend that’s poised to continue in the years to come.

By 2035, 11.5 million renters will be 65 and older, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Many will need help covering bills. ​“At this point, you have to think outside the box because housing costs are going up drastically and people on fixed incomes aren’t keeping up,” says Martha Shapiro, director of programs at Senior Concerns. “It’s a great solution if done carefully.”

Money saver if done right

​Opening your home or rental to roommates may seem overwhelming, especially if you’ve lived alone for a while, but it can be a big money saver. Not only is a portion of your rent or mortgage covered but you can split utilities, entertainment and food.

Depending on the health and age of your roommate, that person can share in the chores and can be a companion. ​All of it sounds great on paper but to make it work requires a lot of soul searching, due diligence and attention to detail. After all, you may have the best roommate in the world but if you prefer to be alone it likely won’t work out.

The same goes with choosing a roommate who has a questionable financial history. Nothing can get acrimonious quicker than someone not paying their fair share. ​“It can be tough at times, especially if you are used to living alone and all of a sudden you have a roommate that is there all the time,” says Brian Carberry, managing editor of Rent.com. “It’s not going to be all roses the entire time. Disagreements will happen. The best way to circumvent them is to do your due diligence.” ​​

That means screening potential housemates, not just financially, but to determine their lifestyle, level of activity, personality and hobbies. An introvert who values alone time and likes to turn in early may not be best suited for an extrovert who stays up all night.

“Ask questions about their lifestyle both in terms of work and free time,” says Carberry. You'll want to know if they are a smoker, enjoy a drink, love pets and have friends they plan to entertain frequently, he says.​​


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Do your due diligence ​

Running a background check can be a great way to get a sense of who your potential roommate is. It will set you back $50 to $100 but you’ll find out a treasure trove of information including: ​

  • Employment history ​
  • Criminal activity ​
  • Education​
  • Driving record ​
  • Credit history
  • ​Social media ​

If you don’t feel comfortable checking the background of potential roommates there are matching services around the country focused on finding roommates for older adults.

The Ventura County Area Agency on Aging’s Homeshare Program is one example. This free service for qualified residents matches people to share in housing costs. Background checks and interviews are conducted for you to find your perfect match. “We have a lot of older adults still in their own homes and now have an extra bedroom or are house poor,” says Shapiro. “This helps get somebody in the spare room or to cohabitate and reduce rent.” ​ ​

If you decide to go it alone, Carberry says to create a roommate agreement, laying out all the terms of the contract. Spell out how the rent is split, who is responsible for cleaning, what utilities and expenses are being shared, and how groceries are handled. You may decide to split it down the middle or charge based on usage or size of the room.

Either way, put it in writing and have your roommate sign it. It's also important to determine who pays the bills and how the money is shared. Having a roommate contract that you can refer to can prevent arguments from getting out of hand. If your roommate does decide to skip paying the rent you are still on the hook but at least you have a document you can use to pursue legal action. ​

For older adults, it's also important to consider how long the arrangement will last. Is it temporary or permanent? If it's the latter, you have to factor in health care costs if you or your roommate gets sick or needs long-term care. “What happens when people start to need care? What’s the five-year plan? All of that needs to be talked about,” says Shapiro.​​

Is a roommate right for you?​ At the end of the day knowing yourself is the best way to avoid any roommate turmoil in the future. Saving money is important but if sharing your home is going to drive you crazy it's not worth it. Do some soul-searching to make sure you really want this before pursuing a roommate.

“It can work for anyone but certain personalities are more suited for roommates and other personalities are better suited for living alone,” says Carberry. “My recommendation is don’t live with someone exactly like you.”

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national outlets, including The Wall Street JournalForbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.​