Here’s Why More Seniors Are Sharing Their Homes With Strangers

Marilyn began renting out rooms in her home as a part of a home sharing program in order to pay her bills after Marilyn’s husband died. She currently rents rooms to two roommates, including Nigel. They have formed a friendship. They sit together on the front porch on evenings when the weather is pleasant. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

When Marilyn* was 74, her husband died and she needed to find a way to pay her bills and stay in her home. That’s when she heard about home sharing, an increasingly popular arrangement in which a homeowner rents out an extra bedroom in their house.

“I had a master suite that wasn’t being used anymore, so I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ ” she said.

Five years later, she shares her three-bedroom home in St. Petersburg, Florida, with two housemates who aren’t related to her — Linda, 65, and Nigel, 53.

It’s made all the difference. “I wouldn’t be able to stay here if I didn’t have them,” Marilyn said.

The Benefits of Home Sharing

It’s not uncommon for young people to have roommates. But in an age of rising rents and spiraling housing costs, a growing number of older empty nesters are opening up their homes to strangers. It helps the homeowners stay in their homes, and it helps renters who can’t afford an apartment.

Home sharing not only helps people’s pocketbooks. It also helps stave off loneliness, which can affect mental and physical health.

“The No. 1 reason why people home-share is financial, but a very close second is companionship and safety,” said Cathy Coomes, program coordinator for Home Share Pinellas, a local housing agency that brought Marilyn and her housemates together.

Responding to the demand for home sharing, a number of national and regional organizations have cropped up to help with technical details like personality matching and background checks.

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Silvernest and Other Home Share Organizations

Here’s a list of home share organizations in 17 states. They’re scattered all over. There’s also a national organization called Silvernest, which is a roommate finder and home sharing app and website. It has more house listings in some regions than in others.

“We’re an online home sharing platform that provides tools such as background checks, identity verification and, importantly, a compatibility algorithm,” said Amy Ford, a vice president at Silvernest. “We’re helping people find others who share the same interests and values and hobbies.”

Most of the company’s clients are women in their 50s and 60s, she said. Many are empty nesters who have been widowed or divorced or who have recently ended a caregiving role of some kind. “They’re in transition, and they’re thinking, ‘I’ve got 30 to 40 years ahead of me, what do I want to do next?’ ” Ford said.

Many of Silvernest’s clients haven’t had a roommate or housemate in many years. So, in an effort to match homeowners and renters, the agency asks for their opinions on pets, smoking, guests, cleanliness expectations, house rules and even firearms — “all the little components that can contribute to a successful home sharing arrangement,” Ford said.

Rising rents, high power bills, inflation and a lack of housing supply are all driving interest in home sharing. Ford cites studies that say half of older households in America are severely cost-burdened, paying at least 50% of their income on housing.

“The majority of older people own their own homes, but they’re cash-strapped for what they need in retirement,” she said. “Also, we don’t have enough housing inventory, let alone inventory that people would consider affordable.”

Although it’s a national organization, Silvernest tends to have more home listings in markets like Los Angeles; Denver; Portland, Oregon; Washington state; Texas; and Maryland. There’s a free version of Silvernest, or a $25 membership that includes a background check on your potential housemate.

“Also, it doesn’t have to be forever. You don’t have to think of this as a 10-year endeavor,” Ford said. “You can just try it out for six months.”

If you’re a senior who is struggling to get by, help is available. Our guide breaks down what you need to know about how to find affordable senior housing in your community.

More Renters Than Homeowners

Those other home sharing organizations in 17 states? They all face the same challenge: There are more would-be room renters than there are homeowners who are renting out spare rooms.

“Like anywhere else, there’s more demand than supply,” said Steven Nagel, executive director of HomeSharing Inc., which operates in New Jersey. “We’re looking for people who are willing to open their homes.”

His nonprofit organization makes 50 to 60 home sharing matches a year, with the longest match going on for 24 years now. Most room renters pay $700-$800 a month.

HomeSharing Inc. interviews homeowners and renters, sets up introductory meetings for them, performs reference checks and background checks on them, and facilitates the signing of a shared housing agreement between the two parties.

One woman has shared her home for 28 years.

“She has had eight matches come through her house,” Nagel said. “The other seven have gotten their own housing. They were able to save for down payments because they were in her home.”

Interest in home sharing is surging in various parts of the country. “We have had a significant increase in seniors who are reaching out and looking for a place to live,” said Tess Fields, executive director of Home Share Oregon.

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Saving Up for an Apartment

It’s a similar story in the Tampa Bay area, where Home Share Pinellas operates.

Homeowners sharing their homes there range in age from 55 to 87, with an average age of 71. Room renters’ average age is 61. They’re typically paying rents of $585-$750 a month in an area where the average rent is $1,700 a month, not counting utilities.

“Last summer I placed four people who had full-time jobs, but they were living in cars or in dumpy pay-by-the-week places,” said Coomes, the program coordinator.

She added that some people use home sharing to save money for a deposit on an apartment or a down payment for their own home. Also, many of the renters enroll in the program while they’re on a two- to four-year wait list for subsidized senior housing.

And, like other programs, there are more would-be renters than homeowners.

“Getting homeowners to invite a stranger into their homes — that’s a tough nut to crack for a lot of people, even though they might need it financially,” Coomes said.

They rarely regret sharing their homes, though. “The average match lasts almost three years. We have people who’ve been together for 10 years,” she said.

A man cleans dishes in a kitchen.
Marilyn sits as Nigel interacts with her dog, Finnegan. Kennedy helps take care of Marilyn’s dog as well as cooking dinner for everyone who lives in the house. “It brings me happiness to cook for people I care about,” Nigel said.

Home Sharing Tips

If you don’t live in an area that’s served by a home sharing organization, you’re kind of on your own. To find housemates, you have to rely on websites and apps like Craigslist and Free lease templates can be found online, and you can customize them.

Here are five home sharing tips from Silvernest:

1. Be Selective.

It’s important to find someone who’s compatible. Start by determining your criteria for a long-term housemate and weigh all candidates against those standards. Be specific about what you’re looking for. If you’re retired, you may want someone who works during the day and isn’t around all of the time. Or it may be important that they’re tidy, share similar hobbies or love pets.

2. But Keep an Open Mind.

At the same time, keep an open mind about your housemate. Many different living situations have been shown to be successful. Don’t write someone off just because they’re not what you had in mind at the start of your search.

3. Screen Your Housemates.

Vet your housemates before entering into a home sharing agreement. Ask for references. Google them. Verify their identity. You can also consider doing a background check to make sure there are no big red flags. Note that the more comprehensive background checks often require the person’s Social Security number.

4. Spell Out Your Terms.

Always document the terms of your home sharing agreement. While free lease templates can be found online, note that different states can have different templates. Add an addendum that outlines house rules, shared space agreements, communication preferences, etc.

5. Start With a Trial Period.

Instead of entering into a one-year agreement off the bat, consider starting with an initial three-month period to get to know your housemate and determine whether you’re compatible. If things go well, you can easily renew for longer.

*We’ve used the residents’ first names only to protect their privacy.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.