Meet the real 'Golden Girls'

Shared housing could improve the retirement prospects of single baby boomers

Aug 18, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

Louise Machinist, Jean McQuillin and Karen Bush: Plunged into the world of cooperative housing nearly 10 years ago and wrote a book about it.
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Louise Machinist, Jean McQuillin and Karen Bush: Plunged into the world of cooperative housing nearly 10 years ago and wrote a book about it. (Tom Fitzpatrick, Visual Perceptions Inc.)

One in three baby boomers are single, and most of those are women.

As they grow older, many will face financial challenges, and some will need care.

And just as Zipcar and bike-sharing programs have allowed city dwellers to share transportation on an as-needed basis, cooperative housing could help millions of single boomers improve their retirement prospects by cutting costs, stretching savings and providing companionship as they age.

Shared housing is an option available to anyone, regardless of age or gender. But the opportunity to buy or rent a house with other like-minded adults holds particular promise for single, divorced or widowed women, many of whom have limited resources and long life expectancies.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of nonfamily households increased by 16%, twice the rate of growth of family households, according to U.S. Census data.

Although many of these nontraditional households consist of young adults who have moved out of their parents' homes, more than 1 million single women 45 and older live with a roommate who isn't a relative. As boomers move through retirement, the trend is likely to grow.

“It does seem like a boomer solution for people who haven't saved enough and who want to grow old together in a shared community, particularly when their families are far away,” said Sandra Timmermann, a noted financial gerontologist and founder of the former MetLife Mature Market Institute.

For financial advisers, being aware of creative ways for their single clients to trim housing costs could free up more cash for retirement savings or reduce the need for additional income during retirement.

Ginita Wall, a fee-only adviser in San Diego and co-founder of the Women's Institute for Financial Education, hasn't merely recommended shared housing as a financial solution to some clients, she practices it. She invited her father's caregiver to move in with her after his death two years ago.

She “takes care of the house and helps cook meals,” said Ms. Wall, who doesn't charge the former caregiver rent.

Divorced for decades, Ms. Wall says she is a private person, but she admits that she enjoys having someone to watch TV with in the evening or to walk the dogs with her after dinner.

Shared housing seems to be largely a female thing.

“I've never heard men talk about moving in together,” Ms. Wall said.

“I think men consider it weird,” she said. “Besides, most men ... in their 60s or older are married — or dead.”

Although sharing a home offers opportunities for socializing and companionship like “The Golden Girls” of TV sitcom fame, it can result in ugly real-life dramas if clear rules aren't established and housemates aren't chosen carefully.

'Internet dating'

“Finding an appropriate home mate is a bit like Internet dating,” said Annamarie Pluhar, author of “Sharing Housing: A Guidebook to Finding and Keeping Good Housemates” (Bauhan Publishing, 2011). “You may have to meet a lot of people before you find the right person.”

But those who are honest with themselves about their requirements — such as privacy in certain rooms or quiet after 10 p.m. — and situations that they won't tolerate — such as smoking — can discover the joys of sharing a home with someone who can help carry the groceries or feed the cat while they are on vacation.

Ms. Pluhar advises prospective home sharers to screen applicants over the phone, interview prospective candidates in person, check references and be selective.

“By the time you have someone moving in, they are no longer a stranger if you have done your due diligence,” she said.

Although the traditional landlord/tenant arrangement is the most common form of shared housing, some women have taken the concept a step further by pooling resources to buy a house.

Three middle-aged women in Pennsylvania, all divorced after many years of marriage, developed a long-range plan for sharing a home during retirement. But while still in their 50s, they stumbled upon their ideal house and decided not to wait.

Karen Bush, Louise Machinist and Jean McQuillin plunged into the uncharted waters of cooperative housing nearly 10 years ago and chronicled their experience in a book “My House Our House: Living Far Better for Less in a Cooperative Household” (St. Lynn's Press, 2013).

In 2004, the three professional women bought a large 1930s brick colonial home in Pittsburgh for $395,000. The house includes two suites — each with a bedroom, office and full bath — plus a large master bedroom with a full bathroom providing sufficient private space for each of them.

With a spacious living room, dining room, kitchen, sunroom and garden, the house, which they jokingly dubbed the “old biddies' commune,” provides plenty of common space for the three of them to be alone together or to accommodate their communal holiday feasts.

“Before we moved in together, we established the boundaries, expectations and guidelines needed for successful cooperative housing,” they wrote in their engaging how-to book, released this summer.

They formed a general partnership agreement with the help of an attorney that outlines their financial arrangement as well as house rules, such as limits on overnight guests.

Their general partnership agreement documents the equal contributions they made as a down payment on the house, the three-way split of their $300,000 mortgage and the $1,600 in monthly fees that they deposit in a joint checking account to cover household expenses, including groceries, repairs and utilities. Combining three households slashed their individual expenses, freeing up money for luxuries such as lawn service and house cleaning that they never could afford living alone.

They obtained a tenants-in-common deed, rather than joint tenancy, to protect their estates for their heirs and the property of the surviving partners from their heirs.

“Each of the housemates has lived far better for far less than we could have in individual residences, thus saving more for the future,” they wrote. “Living together and sharing resources have improved our independent financial status to the point that no one needs to remain here for financial reasons and each will be OK when we retire.”

Nothing lasts forever

The three friends, now in their mid-60s, originally had planned to retire together. Now they aren't sure what the future holds.

They realize that the four-story house in Pittsburgh, with its three winding staircases, won't be appropriate as they grow older.

With an eye on retiring someplace warmer, Ms. Bush, a corporate consultant, has already purchased a condo in Florida, with plenty of rooms for housemates or guests. Ms. McQuillin, a nurse with a large family in the Pittsburgh area, might not want to move so far away but may want to escape the harsh winters temporarily.

“This is the first leg of our journey,” said Ms. Machinist, a clinical psychologist. “We didn't think it would last forever.”

In 2004, another group of women — Joan Forrester, her sister Lois McManus, and their friends Joanne Murphy and Nancy Rogers — embarked on a home-sharing arrangement, snowbird style.

Ms. Forrester and Ms. Murphy jointly bought a house on a golf course near Venice, Fla. Ms. Forrester and her sister Ms. McManus co-owned a summer home in Plymouth, Mass.

The four women wintered in Florida, summered in New England and split expenses. The non-homeowners paid rent.

But people grow older and things change.

Ms. McManus died in 2008, and Ms. Rogers is now too ill to make the annual trek to Florida. Ms. Forrester and Ms. Murphy, both in their early 70s, continue to follow the sun — for now.

Mary Beth Franklin is a contributing editor at InvestmentNews.

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