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Housemate Trend Growing

March 06, 1994|PETER BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Bennett is a free - lance writer who lives in La Verne. and

Jim Griffin and Brennan Byers couldn't be more different.

Griffin is a sales rep and single father of three small children. Salt-and- pepper hair creasing his temples, he thinks daily about meeting his monthly sales quota and caring for his kids.

Byers is an actor and leather worker who has never been married. He starts each morning with a long swim and a quick scan of Daily Variety before retreating to his upstairs studio.

The two men do have one thing in common: They both have housemates. But even this life-style choice takes them down very different paths.

Griffin lives about a mile from the ocean in a Newport Beach mobile home with a fellow salesman whom he rarely sees. Byers lives with a single mother of three college-age daughters in her roomy, two-story California bungalow in South Pasadena.

"Finding a roommate helped me land back on my feet," said Griffin, who owned a home in La Verne before his divorce. "There isn't a lot of room, but it's affordable, and I'm close to the beach, which is great for my kids."

Added Byers: "There's no other way I could afford to live in this house or this community."

Griffin and Byers are among the growing number of Americans who are sharing their living quarters. From 1980 to 1990, the number of people who checked the "roommate" box on the U.S. Census form rose from 3.3 million to 4.1 million. In California, the number rose from 640,924 to 900,633.

People are doubling up not only for financial reasons, but also for security, companionship, sharing household chores, launching a new career or even reducing dependence on day care. And for older people, home sharing can often mean new independence as well.

"It may simply mean having someone nearby to help you reach a can of beans from the top shelf," said Leo Baldwin, author of "Homesharing and Other Lifestyle Options."

"That's clearly a better alternative than waiting all month, hoping your grandson will stop by," Baldwin said.

A compatible housemate can also have social advantages. "If you have trouble meeting men and women, move in with someone who has no trouble meeting people," said Bruce Brown, author of "The Complete Roommate Handbook."

"Their leftovers will be perfect for you," Brown said.

Using a little creativity, housemates can even help you buy a house.

Marty Rodriguez, a Glendora-based realtor with Century 21, said one of her clients bought a house that was being rented by three female housemates. Instead of giving them notice to vacate, the buyer moved in with them. "He didn't even ask for the master bedroom," she recalled.

Another client of hers bought a house with a co-signer, then promptly found two housemates to help him meet his monthly mortgage. "That way," Rodriguez said, "instead of sharing equity in his home, which was popular in the '80s, he was building up the equity all for himself."

Margaret Harmon, director of the National Shared Housing Resource Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse in Burlington, Vt., for more than 450 shared-housing programs around the country, believes the trend is fueled by several social and economic factors, including a growing population of singles, high housing costs, low wages and an erosion of the stubborn American ethic, which equates independence with living alone.

"There's so much emphasis on this notion of independent living, that even if people feel lonely and isolated, they figure that's what they're supposed to do," said Harmon, a single parent who has reared her children in shared housing since 1975.

Similarly, when Maxine Nelson, owner of RoomMate Finders, the oldest roommate matching and referral service in the United States, asked some of her recent upscale clients whether they wanted to be interviewed for this story, they declined because of what they cited was home sharing's negative image.

"As lawyers, doctors and accountants, who could certainly afford to have their own place, they didn't want to advertise that they chose to live with a housemate," she said. "They thought it would tarnish the public's perception of them as successful, independent professionals."

Author Brown said that even these professionals, however, recognize that roommates give them more, not fewer, lifestyle options.

"It's amazing what you can do with the proper roommate situation," he added, "if you just take some calculated risks."

Your calculations should begin with assessing whether you would make a good candidate for sharing a house or apartment. For example, if you have a disability, you may wish to extend a portion or all of the rent for an exchange in service. If you have grown children who have moved out, you may wish to invite a college student to live with you to revitalize your household. If you're a divorced mother with three children, you may choose to live with another single parent who works different hours than you so you can reduce your child-care expenses.

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