Golden Girls 2.0: Shared housing as a retirement strategy

July 1, 2011

Those Golden Girls may have been on to something. Alternative living arrangements — like the group house featured in the popular 80’s sitcom — are gaining steam among retired women, affording them a higher standard of living, in-home support services and companionship while aging in place.

Want to employ that personal chef you’ve always dreamed about? What about a pool and a view of the 18th hole? With women living at least five years longer than men on average, home sharing — which is dominated by women — helps them maintain or even elevate the quality of life in retirement.

Homesharing allows participants to continue a certain kind of lifestyle that they may not be able to afford when they are out of the workforce, single or widowed. That’s really the most compelling reason to share a home, but companionship is a big draw, says Nancy Thompson, AARP spokesperson. “It’s nice to have company, to remark about something to someone, or to share your interests,” she says.

“I’ve often said I wanted to live like the Golden Girls,” says Marianne Kilkenny, home share advocate and founder of Women for Living in Community. Kilkenny, 61, shares an Ashville, North Carolina home with four other renters — two women and a married couple — ranging in age from 58 to 71. “For boomer women, we’re the first generation that has had the financial means to be able to live on our own for any length of time and are finding that it gets really old because you have to count only on yourself,” she says.

A sense of belonging and peace of mind is integral, says Kilkenny, adding shared housing has allowed her to live in a nicer home with better appliances in a swankier neighborhood. “One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don’t come home at night,” she says, quoting Margaret Mead. “For those of us who have been single, these are the things you don’t know you are missing.”

In 2010, there were approximately 480,000 baby boomer women living with at least one female non-relative roommate and no spouses, according to an AARP analysis of population survey data. That’s approximately 130,000 Golden-Girl type households across the country.

The home share trend is so popular that match-up services are springing up around the country.

Cynthia Hansen, lead coordinator of the ElderHelp home share program in San Diego, California, estimates at least 85 percent of participants are aging women. “For some women, they’re just trying to get their feet on the ground so they can move on to something more. We get professional women in the program, right now I have a realtor I’m working with and I’ve had physicians — these are all retired people for the most part or people who are in semi-retirement,” says Hansen, adding average rent is between $500 – $600 per month but some homeowners have asked as much as $800 per month.

“We’ve seen a real increase in the last couple of years,” says Annette Leahy Maggitti, director of the  St.Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “In 2008, we made 70 matches, which was up a little from years past. In 2009, we made 92 and in 2010, we made 110. And it appears as if we’re going to top that this year,” she said.

Participation rates are higher among women, Maggitti says, adding homeowners average 59 years of age with an annual income of $30,031. Average rent charged runs about $450 per month, with utilities included.

A long-time participant in the St.Ambrose program, Millie Hrdina, 66, purchased her four-bedroom Baltimore home nine years ago with the intention of sharing the space. “Home sharing isn’t a room to rent – it really is sharing a home and life,” she says. “The companionship is awesome, I’ve made lifetime friends with people. One of my first home sharers and I are planning a trip to Italy together in the spring of next year,” she says.

St. Ambrose adheres to a rigorous screening process for all homeowners and potential renters, providing criminal background checks and verification of income. “I had to fill out a three-page application along with a home inspection. In that application I got to put down what I won’t tolerate, what I would prefer not to have and what I would love to have. It has worked out so much better than just putting an ad in the paper. Even word of mouth gets a little tricky,” Hrdina says of the program.

Looking for a sense of community in retirement? To find a home share program in your state, visit the National Shared Housing Resource Center website. If you don’t have a match-up service in your area, here are some words of wisdom when considering the Golden-Girls lifestyle.

Vet your candidates
Research potential roommates — both homeowners and renters — thoroughly. Ask for references and interview neighbors or previous roommates before setting up a face-to-face interview. If a potential renter is disabled, ask for a doctor’s note that states they’re suitable for home sharing.

“Do a project with them before you sign anything — feed the homeless, hang pictures — do something so you get to see what these people are like in various settings,” suggests Kilkenny.

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions in the interview process — you’ll likely deal with much more intimate issues while sharing the same home. “I ask open-ended questions to get the person to really talk and when they ask a question, I try to elaborate so they get a better view of who I am and what my home life is like.  I try to bring out what their expectations are,” says Hrdina.

Put the finances in black and white
Draft up a lease agreement and schedule of bill payment.  Are utilities included in rent? Does that flat rate include Internet and cable? Get verification of income for potential candidates to ensure they can pay the rent you decide upon. State your expectations clearly and be willing to negotiate. “The more clarity around the financial pieces, the better. I would make it as transparent as possible. If one person pays more of less rent, than it shouldn’t be a secret and everyone should know why,” says Kilkenny.

Think about your lifestyle and spell it out
What chores will each of you take care of? Are overnight guests allowed? Are you a night owl or an early riser? Are pets and smokers permitted? Careful examination of your living patterns and what you’re willing to share, will help to determine how you will interact with your potential roommates. Kilkenny suggests a trial run with friends to really get a grip on how well you co-habitate with others.

“Try going away with people for a weekend so you can see how you live with people and share a space. See where you get crazy and where you don’t like things,” she suggests.

Communication is key
Be mindful there is an inherent power imbalance between owners and renters.  To facilitate decision making, Kilkenny and her housemates prescribe to the dynamic governance model. “We use communication tools because we need to be aware of the stuff that we’re bringing from our family systems to this relationship and figure out how to get things done,” she says.


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Awesome! Every now and then Boomer-gen gets it right.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Oh, please. Who in their right mind would want to live with a bunch of old women? Not me..that is certain. I am going to be 79 in October and I cannot abide my elderly neighbors who are a bunch of whiny, self-absorbed gossips. . . certainly not the sex crazed women seen on that ridiculous sitcom Golden Girls. There is nothing golden about senior years but I would rather live alone with my cat than share a place with a bunch of old hags.

Posted by sophiewonderful | Report as abusive

I started a Golden Girls house in Maryland three years ago after getting a 5-bedroom house in a divorce…this is a really great idea and should also be expanded to mature women who are empty-nesters. Yes, it takes work, and sometimes the roomie doesn’t fit, but the friendships have been great!

Posted by sfbmoore | Report as abusive

As boomers age into retirement years, especially single boomers, I envision this as a viable housing option. Shared expenses and not living alone will allow many the freedoms, financially, that they would not have otherwise. Personally, I do not want to spend the bulk of my monthly income on basic living expenses. I want to travel and do things I have not yet done.
I do not want to live in a community of all older people. I want to live where there area children playing, and activity. I will not discount living with older friends.

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