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A duplex with a built-in family

There are problems and trade-offs, but friends who became house partners wind up sharing a lot more than a roof.

April 10, 2006|Randye Hoder | RANDYE HODER is a writer in Los Angeles

WHENEVER WE told anyone that we bought a house with a friend, we were inevitably met with the same furrowed brow and pursed lips: "Are you sure that's such a good idea?"

When we added that our house partner, Anne, also happened to work with my husband, Rick, the reaction typically turned from polite curiosity to outright disbelief: "Maybe that's not such a good idea." And when we explained further that, well, Anne worked for Rick and not just with him, any trace of civility vanished: "Are you nuts?" (Full disclosure: Rick and Anne work at The Times.) Never mind that our 1928 Spanish-style home is really two houses in one -- a side-by-side, two-story duplex. It made no difference.

One close friend suggested that we had the makings of a good sitcom. A colleague who knew all of us well recommended that Rick lure all new hires with a chance to live with him. His staff began referring to our home, affectionately or otherwise, as the "management compound."

When we weren't being mocked, the questions turned serious. What about the legal ramifications? How would we work out the finances? How would we agree on repairs or improvements to common spaces -- the roof or backyard, for instance? Suppose she decided to paint the outside of the place hot pink?

Of course, we had thought of all these potential pitfalls -- and more. But all of our house-buying options were fraught with compromises.

We had moved to Los Angeles eight years earlier and rented the bottom half of another duplex in Hancock Park. We didn't know the city well, and we weren't ready to commit to a particular neighborhood. And if our gypsy past was any indication, it was likely that we were just passing through.

By the time we realized that we were here to stay, prices in our now-beloved neighborhood were well above the $1-million mark -- way out of our reach. There were some relatively cheap places in the area (if you could call $500,000 to $700,000 cheap), but they were dumps or were less than 1,200 square feet -- way too small for our family of four -- or both.

We could, of course, have opted to move to a more affordable community and start over: new schools, new synagogue, new doctors, new friends -- and a new, horrible commute for my husband. But that choice wasn't appealing either.

So we started working on Plan C.

As luck would have it, Anne, a single woman who had recently moved from Brussels, was suffering from a severe case of sticker shock herself. She too was ready to get creative.

Indeed, we joined forces not because it was the ideal choice but because it was the least crummy option for all concerned.

By the time we moved in, we had discussed endlessly the big issues: What would happen, say, if Anne wanted to sell sometime and we didn't -- or vice versa? We had even written a contract to deal with these sorts of things.

But managing our day-to-day existence was a different matter. Should we knock on our adjoining kitchen doors when we wanted to speak to each other, or should we call first? Could our kids go over and play with Anne's kittens when she wasn't home? Could Anne borrow my newspaper in the middle of the night when insomnia hit? Could my 8-year-old son stand in the backyard yelling, "Anne, Anne, Anne" up to her second-floor window until she answered his plea to let him play with the Xbox game console she had installed for her teenage nephew?

Some problems seemed insurmountable. Anne, who never lived so close to a family with young children, was sure that she had moved next door to a herd of wild elephants. And my husband, in his size-12 clompers, could wake up the dead.

Anne was hardly shy about letting us know this bugged her. At one point, she hired acoustic experts who advocated installing soundproof doors and windows, insulating the walls and investing in highly specialized (read: expensive) padding and carpet. She even considered buying Rick a pair of "stair slippers." I became convinced -- and I think Anne did too -- that we had made an awful mistake. Trying to combine the lifestyle of a single, working woman with that of our chaotic family seemed impossible. Had all those incredulous friends and relatives been right?

WHEN I FINALLY worked up the nerve to tell Anne how I was feeling, she revealed that her anxiety had little to do with us and our noise -- and more to do with her own doubts about settling down. She had spent her life traveling the globe as a reporter, she explained, and was never very good at planting roots.

In the months that have followed, things have gotten better for all of us.

My children feel the warmth of another adult who loves them madly. Anne has special movie nights when she lets Emma and Nathaniel eat ice cream out of the container. I go next door to get them after my husband and I have had a night out, and they are laughing and having a grand time.

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