Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia. Do these names sound familiar? They’re the characters from the hit TV comedy The Golden Girls whose adventures we enjoyed 30 years ago. Well, the time for older women (and men) to share a house with roommates has come again, but this time in real life.
Bonnie Moore found herself alone at age 63 after she and her husband split up. They had just finished remodelling their home, and now here she was with a dream house and a mortgage she couldn’t afford.
Then the recession hit. Moore was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: She couldn’t sell up and downsize, and she couldn’t risk defaulting. Her solution? Home sharing.
So in 2008, Moore founded her first Golden Girl Networks home in her house, where she still lives with several housemates. Realizing that many other single women were in similar circumstances, in 2014 Moore launched her house sharing online database for homeowners and roommates, the Golden Girls Network. Today, it’s one of several online house sharing online services for older people.
“There’s almost a crisis where women are ending up single over the age of 50 and not expecting it,” Moore says. “Middle-age divorce is an epidemic. It’s a statistic that people don’t talk about very much, but it’s out there.”
According to projections by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of people over the age of 75 living alone is set to nearly double—from 6.9 million in 2015 to 13.4 million in 2035. Many seniors will have limited financial resources for housing, and women will make up nearly 75 percent of this group.
That’s just one reason why house sharing among older people is on the rise.
The Upside to Having a Housemate
The biggest advantage to house sharing is cost-sharing. If you have one housemate paying half of your rent or 50 percent of the costs of home ownership, your Social Security check will go that much further. Likewise, if your rent is getting too high, you can opt to move into someone else’s house. But besides cost sharing, there are other benefits, too.
Help. If you need help at home as well as extra income, you can opt for a bartering arrangement— reduced rent for services provided by a roommate, such as yard work, shopping or transportation. If you’re healthy and fit, you can take advantage of this type of low-rent arrangement.
Companionship. Whether you’re sharing your own house or moving into someone else’s, house sharing can decrease your cost of living; it can also help you guard against loneliness. “It’s nice to come home, open the door and have someone say, ‘How was your day?’” Moore says. Even if roommates are off in their rooms, you know that someone else is in the house or will be walking in the door soon. Each living situation is different, and sharing runs the gamut from housemates who become friends and socialize to others who have more of a landlord-tenant relationship. It depends on personal preferences, daily schedules and personalities. But even more distant roomies usually tend to get together for a potluck meal on a fairly regular basis.
Health & Safety. We laugh at the TV commercial, but living with a roommate can mitigate the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” scenario. Roommates not only help each other through medical crises, they also notice smaller physical changes in each other and can step up. Debra DeWitz, a retired social worker who has several roommates, calls it “sharegiving,” that extra support that roommates naturally give each other, often in ways they couldn’t anticipate when they first met.
How to Find a Housemate
It can take anywhere from a month to two or three to find a housemate, depending on how flexible you’re willing to be with your personal criteria and geographic radii.
Here are three sites that match older people who want to share.
This nationwide site’s database has some1,500 members who pay a $39 fee for six months’ access. Members create a detailed profile, then search the database to find potential housemates. Most of the self-service network’s members are between the ages of 50 and 70. Matches are usually between two people, but there are also some multiple-housemate listings.
This is a national, free online matching database. Founder and CEO Stephanie Heacox realized the need for her service several years ago when she and her sisters were long-distance caregivers for their mother who could no longer live alone.
Launched in 2015, the site currently has more than 600 members ranging in age from their 50s through early 90s, with the majority in their mid to late 60s. The site’s users are 60 percent women and 40 percent men.
The business uses a matching system modeled on online dating sites. Plus, it offers some user-friendly features to help those who are not experienced or comfortable searching for a roommate online, including the option to add a “helper” for your account—a family member or friend who becomes a co-user and can assist in filling out the profile, and who you can designate to receive copies of all “match” emails. Customer service is by phone, email and/or live chat, and is staffed by people 55 and older.
This newcomer charges a fee to homeowners (renters can use the service too), but your search is free if you’re looking to move into someone’s house. Like Senior HomeShares, the site uses a matching tool to find compatible housemates. The service verifies users by checking ID and for homeowners, it will provide background checks of potential housemates (people looking to rent a room pay a fee for a background check if the homeowner requests one). Silvernest can also draw up leases and collect rents. Because the service is fairly new, it hasn’t expanded across the country yet. Top locations are in Colorado, California and Florida.
Regional Homeshare Programs
Some local programs exist that do all the heavy-lifting for you. An example is HomeShareVermont that’s been in business since 1982. The nonprofit charges a one-time match fee ranging from $60 to $500, based on income. After you submit your application, the program’s staff interview you in person, do five background checks, find potential matches and help both parties with a Match Agreement. The program offers continuing support if issues arise.
What Makes for a Good Match?
We asked Moore and Heacox—both longtime surveyors of the senior house sharing scene—for advice. They both say that successful roommates are flexible and willing to compromise. Being able to discuss issues, large or small, is key. Keeping a positive attitude and starting from the mindset that “this is going to work” encourages smooth living arrangements.
On the flip side, not everybody is fun to live with, Heacox says. Moore has run into a few interpersonal issues with roommates and more than once has had to ask a roommate who isn’t working out to move.
Little things matter. Moore tells a story about a roommate who moved in and immediately decided she was going to clean and rearrange the kitchen:
“I like to save those little wire ties from loaves of bread because I use them in my gardening. I had a whole pile of them I’d saved—she threw them all out. She said, ‘Oh that’s just trash!’ To me, that was overstepping. I have no problem if somebody wants to clean out the drawers, but ask me first.”
And while companionship is often a big plus of house sharing, Moore cautions that friendship with roommates can become “a bit murky.”
Explore More Resources
The National Shared Housing Resource Center is a clearinghouse that provides information, referrals to local agencies, programs and guidelines on finding a housemate. The site offers a book, “Consumer’s Guide to Home Sharing” ($10). A written manual and guide for house sharers are also available for purchase.
This AARP article has two helpful sidebars: “What to Look for in a Housemate” and “Home Sharing Do’s and Dont’s.”
Common sense procedures for online safety during a roommate search are available via Senior HomeShares here.
Moore’s book, “How to Start a Golden Girls Home,” is available for purchase on the website ($14.99 paperback or $9.99 Kindle).