The first conflict came on the day that Deborah Knox moved in. It concerned a coffee table, or rather two.
Tired of living alone in a Tucson, Ariz., condo, Knox had sought to share a house. “I wanted some sort of relationship; I wanted intimacy,” says the 74-year-old.
A mutual friend introduced Knox to Sharon Kha, who had Parkinson’s disease and needed help to stay in her three-bedroom house. “I had reached a point where I knew that I couldn’t stay at home by myself anymore,” says Kha, 75. “I’d either have to do assisted living or find someone who would live with me.” Another thing Kha had: a beloved coffee table, made of a mission door that had weathered the heat for decades in Mexico.
But Knox came with her own sentimental table — a glass top on a base made of river driftwood from Verde Valley, Ariz., and carved by a friend who had recently died. Ultimately, Kha relented. “I thought I could win this argument — it’s my house, it’s my coffee table,” Kha says. “But if I win this argument, I can probably look at my coffee table at an assisted living place.”
Making a match
Knox and Kha are an example of a modern retirement dynamic — older Americans seeking companionship, mutual care and, in some cases, a less expensive living situation. By 2035, the number of households headed by renters 65 and older is estimated to swell by 80 percent, to 11.5 million, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
From this, a cottage industry has emerged. Companies like Silvernest and Roommates4Boomers charge a fee to match older renters and homeowners and help with background checks. Nonprofits such as Home Share Now in Vermont pair older homeowners with housemates who may help with chores.
“There is a lot of discussion about the Golden Girls model,” says Wendi Burkhardt, the CEO of Silvernest, referencing the popular TV show of the ’80s and ’90s in which older women lived together. The trend is more common among women, according to those who run matchmaking services. A couple of possible reasons are that women tend to live longer than men and may feel more comfortable living communally.
But living with a housemate isn’t without challenges. Real life is not a sitcom. A homeowner may feel possessive of routines and belongings, while a renter may feel a loss of control.
“Sharing housing is not the American dream,” says Michele Fiasca, the founder of Let’s Share Housing, a housemate service in Portland, Ore.
Four years ago, after her husband died, Margaret McMullan began looking for a tenant to share her three-bedroom home near Montpelier, Vt. McMullan, now 79, could not afford to pay her bills on her small state pension and Social Security income. Home Share Now paired her with a retired man who had relocated from Texas. The relationship soured fast.
“He was obviously used to being in charge,” says McMullan, who likes to keep busy in her retirement with quilting groups and a wide circle of friends. By contrast, her new housemate rarely left the house. “He just was home all day, and was somebody with a lot of presence,” she says.
He didn’t do the agreed-upon chores, like mow the lawn or lift heavy items. By the end of the two-week trial period — part of the Home Share Now process — McMullan suspected that the relationship might not work, but ignored her instincts. “I thought I could handle him,” she says. A month later, she told him to leave. But he refused. It took another two months, with help from Home Share Now staff, to get him out.
When McMullan was ready to try again, she found the right fit in Brian Remer, 60, who was commuting to a new job two hours away from home; he needed a place to stay in Montpelier just four nights a week. For $400 in monthly rent, Remer gets a bedroom, sitting room and private bath. But he also shovels light snow, mows the lawn, lifts heavy items, cooks twice a week and provides some companionship.
“We sometimes sit at the table chatting until 10 o’clock at night, talking about life,” McMullan says.
Shared housing often means moving into someone else’s established home and agreeing to live by their rules. When Christine Bowdish, a real estate broker in Portland, Ore., bought an eight-bedroom house in a Portland suburb last year, she saw a way to change that equation. She wouldn’t live there herself, but instead rent the rooms to women like her — singles 55 and up. “We just want to survive and live out life to the fullest and be with our friends and our family,” says Bowdish, 62. “How do we do that?”
She began filling the house last spring. By the beginning of this year, all but three rooms were rented. The tenants make house rules and decide collectively who gets to join the community.
Linda Simmons-Wilfert, 67, a retired bookkeeper, was the first to move in. She had met Bowdish at a Let’s Share Housing meetup. Bowdish invited her to see the house, and it was there, while sitting on the porch sipping tea, that Simmons-Wilfert had an epiphany. “She’s telling me what she sees and what she wants and her vision,” Simmons-Wilfert says, recalling lilacs blooming in the garden. “And immediately I thought, This is absolutely my place. This is where I need to be.
“If you had asked me even a year ago if I would ever live in a house with more than two women, I’d say, ‘Absolutely not! Are you nuts?’” she says. Instead, she’s discovered that she can live comfortably with a half dozen. “We get to explore what and who we are now at this stage in life.”
At monthly meetings, they discuss problems and concerns. Rather than assign chores, the women do the ones they like best. So far, it works.
Living in harmony
For Knox and Kha, any initial conflicts have been overshadowed by a newfound friendship. The two women started their cohabitation by mostly living in separate parts of the house but now share the space harmoniously. In exchange for free rent, Knox prepares some meals and helps Kha get dressed. “I expected my last years to be struggle and loneliness,” Kha says. “And it’s really turned out to be one of the happiest times in my life.”
Find the right roomie
Living with another person who is not family isn’t always easy. Before you pack your boxes and move in, be sure you and the person you’ll be sharing the kitchen and living room with are compatible.
When you have your initial meeting (or better yet, multiple meetings), explore potentially thorny issues like politics or religion, says Annamarie Pluhar of SharingHousing.com.
And discuss your living style: Do you like to spend hours quietly reading on the sofa, or do you prefer to have friends over for long chats?
Sweat the details
Decide how household costs will be divided. Does each person buy their own paper towels, or are such communal items paid for out of a common fund? How often is that fund replenished? Who is responsible for paying for the upkeep of the home?
Put it in writing
Draw up an agreement for rent and utilities, explaining due dates, late fees and termination terms. Stephanie Heacox, founder of Senior Homeshares, an online housemate service, recommends drafting an agreement that addresses questions such as: How often do dishes need to be washed? How will household chores be divided? Are overnight guests permitted? Will decisions be made by consensus or by majority vote? Or does the homeowner have ultimate say?
Try a test run
Set a trial period, usually two weeks, giving both parties a painless way to bow out of an unpleasant situation, a method used by Home Share Now in Vermont.
Hold house meetings
Seasoned housemates suggest setting aside a regular day and time for monthly or weekly meetings to discuss conflicts, concerns and household business.
But have fun, too!
Foster a sense of community with housemate activities, like a meal together or an outing, so friendship can blossom.
Ronda Kaysen is a columnist for the New York Times, writing about homes and real estate.