For retirees facing limited budgets and a high cost of living, a roommate in retirement can help with housing expenses and provide a welcome social outlet. But some may be hesitant. After all, cohabiting with a relative stranger can feel invasive or rife with the potential for conflict. Still, there are many benefits to having a roommate in retirement.
When Doris Beckman’s husband passed away, she wondered how she would manage to stay in her four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Marina, California. She still had a mortgage, her 401(k) had gone to cover hospital bills, and a mountain more medical debt loomed.
“I’ve just always loved my house. This is where I want to live,” she says. “There’s no way I can sell this house and still be able to stay in this area. And I want to be able to pass it on to my kids.”
So Beckman, 73, decided to share her home. “I had always loved the TV program ‘The Golden Girls.’ I thought, ‘Well, that would be a nice way to live, to have support and friendship.’”
Beckman’s story is just one of many highlighting the potential benefits of getting a roommate in retirement.
Here, we spoke with some home-sharing experts and people who’ve done it successfully for their take on the pros and cons of getting a roommate in retirement. Here’s what they said.
Benefit 1: Affordability
Affordability is often homeowners’ and home-seekers’ primary motivation as a housing affordability crisis sweeps the nation. With 40% of retirees over 60 living solely on Social Security, which provides a median benefit of around $17,000 a year, a generation of Americans is feeling a profound financial squeeze.
“For many folks, an average apartment has become unattainable,” says Tess Fields, executive director of Home Share Oregon, a nonprofit that helps people pursue home sharing. “When we talk to our seniors, they say, ‘We had no way of knowing how much more expensive everything was going to become.’”
That was the experience of Joan Durham, 80, of Los Angeles, who spent 20 years living affordably as an apartment manager before being forced out a couple of years ago. “I knew that if I wanted to stay in L.A. I’d have to share housing because my income did not allow anything else,” she says. “I had not planned for this. This is not how you want things to happen when you’re already 78.”
Benefit 2: Sociability
The social aspect of cohabitation is another major draw of house sharing.
“It’s nice to have somebody with whom you can have a spontaneous social connection,” says Pluhar. “Somebody who can say ‘Hello. How are you? How was your day?’”
While Beckman didn’t hit on a repeat of “Golden Girls” right away, she now shares meals and chats with her current housemate, her fifth.
“People can end up living with someone who enriches their lives in ways they didn’t anticipate,” says Emily Reynolds, VP of marketing at Silvernest, a service that helps people around the country find housemates. “You don’t have to be best friends at all, but even just having another person around can be life-changing.”
It can also potentially be life-saving. Research finds that prolonged social isolation and loneliness can be as dangerous for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And home-sharers who have a fall or other emergency can call on their roommate to help.
Benefit 3: Help Around the House
Homeowners can arrange for a roommate to provide certain types of assistance in exchange for a break on rent. “Maybe I want help around the yard, and I’ll reduce the rent by $100 a month in exchange for that,” says Reynolds. The Silvernest app has a checkbox to indicate an openness to this type of arrangement.
But some of the help housemates give each other simply comes with the territory of living together. For example, Beckman remembers a time when her housemate handily dealt with a swarm of bees that came down their chimney while she was out of town.
Benefit 4: Aging in Place and Keeping Your Asset
“A lot seems to start to be out of your control as you age, and this is a way to maintain some control, or at least stay in the place you want to be in,” says Reynolds.
House Sharing Considerations
Approaching house sharing can seem fraught with potential missteps, but there are strategies to help you find a positive situation. Here are some things to consider.
Decide What You Really Want
Think about your lifestyle, preferences, and deal-breakers. It’s often best to find someone who has similar tastes and proclivities to reduce the possibility of conflict. For example, if you can’t stand a dirty kitchen, look for a similarly tidy candidate.
“Find somebody who meets your own feelings about ‘I must have this in my house’ and ‘I can’t live with this in my house,’” says Pluhar. “It’s the most important piece. A compromise on either of those will mean that you’ll be unhappy.”
Attract the Right Housemate
While there are organizations around the country that can help you find a match, it can be a good idea to start with your own network.
“The best housemates come about through word-of-mouth or friends of friends of friends,” says Pluhar. “In my experience, those seem to be the best relationships.”
She offers a Sharing Housing 101 mini-course with a sliding scale on how to write an effective housemate-wanted flyer to distribute to friends and acquaintances and how to conduct the interview process. Do your first interview in a public place, and try to be open and honest as possible.
When in doubt, go with your gut. “It’s kind of like dating,” adds Reynolds.
Set Boundaries and Rules
Defining your preferences will help you set boundaries with your new roommate. A sense of security is often a high priority for homeowners, so it’s common to require a background check or references. Reynolds assures potential home sharers that doing so is not rude. “It’s not intrusive. You need to protect yourself.”
Other boundaries might include agreements about how to mediate conflict; under what circumstances the new housemate must move out; and rules about chores, smoking, noise, visitors, and use of common areas. Put everything you’ve agreed to in writing.
Roommates in Retirement. The Time Is Right
The case for house sharing in retirement has strengthened as seniors have become the fastest-growing population of homeless individuals in the U.S. Meanwhile, as of 2021, 28% of all U.S. households contained a single person. If only a small portion of those 37 million solo dwellers had an extra room to rent, it would make a real dent in a growing crisis.
“We are seeing people on the street who don’t have any place to go, and we have so many empty bedrooms,” says Pluhar. “The crisis of cost for housing is going to force a lot of people to consider living in shared housing. I want to normalize the idea.”
Fields points out that having a roommate in retirement is a familiar idea that just needs a resurgence: “Aunt Bee on [the classic television show] The Andy Griffith Show was a home sharer. Opie was her boarder. This was, not long ago, something that a lot of people did. We’re interested in bringing that back.”
This article is intended for general informational and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as financial or tax advice. For more information about whether a reverse mortgage may be right for you, you should consult an independent financial advisor. For tax advice, please consult a tax professional.