ONE AFTERNOON DURING MY senior year at Syracuse, I came home from class and found something frightening in my room. Taped to my guitar were three letters cut out from a magazine, like a ransom note: D-I-E. I knew who put it there, but that didn’t make it any less disturbing — he lived right upstairs in our eight-bedroom house. An acquaintance of another roommate, he was a stranger to me and had nabbed a last-minute spot on the lease when someone else backed out. His room was spotless and meticulous, his voice an unsettling monotone. And while he barely knew most of us, he kept half-joking that he was going to murder one of us before the week was out.
I showed the note to my friends in the house, who’d also received vague threats, and we started to freak ourselves out. By the time he came home from class, the four of us had huddled together in the living room, promising we had one another’s backs should anything happen.
Of course, nothing did. We cleared the air — of what, I don’t even know — and we managed to coexist with that weirdo for the next eight months without incident. Even though later that semester we were disgusted but not altogether surprised to learn that he used to fill water bottles with his own urine and leave them on display in his dorm room.
You’d think that experience would have put me off living with strangers forever, instead embracing a lifestyle of single living until I was ready to take on a permanent roommate of the romantic variety. But it didn’t. I shared apartments for years afterward. Throughout my 20s, I lived at nearly a dozen addresses with at least 40 different roommates in all.
I even fell in love with one of them. My wife and I have shared a living space of some kind since the very first day we met — as bunkmates in an Irish hostel and then as roommates back in Brighton. (One of the things I loved about her was that she did not leave bottles of urine around the house. That I know of.)
I’ve remained close with many others. Roommate relationships can be weirdly comfortable and durable — more like family than anything else, because they have seen you at your best, your worst, and your utter average-est. There’s an unspoken ease because you’ve spent countless days living your own lives next to one another, sharing a couch, a fridge, a bathroom, a water bill, and more. But it didn’t matter that I enjoyed living with roommates. This is Boston, after all, and I’d majored in communications — more of a punch line than a lucrative career path. Simple math said I’d be living with housemates whether I liked it or not.
AS ANY TENANT in Boston can tell you, rents have been climbing faster and higher than even our soaring skyline — in fact, they were up 26 percent between 2009 and late 2014, according to Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. More than half of Boston-area renters are now “cost-burdened,” another report says, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. A quarter more spend over half their income on housing.
With studios and one-bedrooms in Boston renting for an average of $2,105 a month, according to the apartment listing site Rainmaker Insights, you’d need to earn about $85,000 to live alone without falling into that aptly named “cost-burdened” category. Meanwhile, the city’s median household income is $53,601, according to recent Census data — and that includes many two-income households. I may have been a communications major, but even I know those numbers add up to trouble. And yet a full 37 percent of Boston households are people who live by themselves. Just 17 percent are made up of unrelated roommates. So what, exactly, is everyone afraid of?
“Everyone wants to live alone if they can afford it,” says Al Norton, rental manager at Unlimited Sotheby’s International Realty in Brookline.
But even if you can afford to live alone without going broke, one has to wonder if the financial gain isn’t worth putting up with a roommate regardless. Splitting a two-bedroom will cost you a more modest $1,363 a month in rent, and once you factor in shared utility costs — half a cable bill, half the electricity — you could save about $900 a month by doubling up with a friend or stranger.
Now go one step further. Split a three- or four-bedroom and the savings get more tempting still. The roommate gods are essentially saying, We’ll cut you a check for $1,300 every single month (after taxes!) if you can just tolerate these two fellow human beings in your home.
For the loner earning $85,000, that’s an instant 18 percent pay raise. It’s enough to buy season tickets to all four Boston sports teams every year — with money left over for beer and hot dogs — or a brand-new Honda Civic, in cash, every 14 months. But seriously, it could help you retire early: Investing that extra $1,321 a month for just 10 years, from age 25 to 35, and nothing more afterward, could leave you with over half a million dollars by age 55, assuming modest 5 percent growth.
It seems so obvious. So why don’t more people take that deal? I reached out to Bella DePaulo, author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, for some kind of explanation as to why so few people do what I did.
“There are endless reasons why people love living alone,” DePaulo says. For many people, it comes down to freedom. “You can keep the place as sloppy or spotless as you want without judgment or pressure,” she says. For others, “it’s the little things, like knowing that what you left in the refrigerator is still going to be there in the morning and that your stuff will be where you left it.” DePaulo, a project scientist at University of California, Santa Barbara, says there are even some people for whom living alone is more of an actual psychological need. It may be as simple as craving a space of their own after a childhood spent sharing a room.
Nate Rogers has another theory. A musician and a training manager at MIT, he pays $850 a month for his share of a Cambridge two-bedroom.
“People are terrible,” says Rogers, who has lived with roughly 30 roommates over the years. “Even the best housemate is going to rub you the wrong way at times — hopefully it’s just occasionally rather than constantly.” But if life is full of compromises, this is one he’s been willing to make. “For the location and the price, [my roommate’s] well worth tolerating,” he says.
It’s a valid point: Shacking up with someone else opens the gates to the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods. With a budget of $1,500 a month, for instance, you could live alone and rent a nice one-bedroom behind a strip mall in an anonymous suburban highwayscape. On the same budget, you could share a two-bedroom apartment in a Victorian South End brownstone, steps from Boston’s best restaurants and everything else the city has to offer.
Personally, I don’t get it. I think it’s nuts to pay Boston rents by yourself, at any age. But then, I loved living with people. Even as a married couple, my wife and I have sought out housemates: We took in a 21-year-old Irish guy on an internship exchange program for six weeks, and it was a blast. (The weekly stipend we got for room and board didn’t hurt, either.) And part of me thinks the deep reservoir of respect and tolerance we built up through years of shared living situations better prepared us for a happy marriage.
Plus, in today’s wired world, you’re rarely jumping into a roommate relationship blind as in decades past. Never has it been so easy to scope out a potential housemate through her web of social media profiles or through roommate-matching apps like Sumu. Need a vegan roommate? No sweat. A fellow night owl? Easy. And isn’t this the age of the sharing economy? What other financial arrangement yields such a huge economic advantage?
Even so, Rogers says he would live alone if he could afford it — and as long as he didn’t have to move outside the walkable city center. “I was fully on board for the housemate scene in my 20s, but I’m closing in on 40 now,” he says, “and frankly I find it embarrassing to have a housemate.”
LIVING WITH ROOMMATES isn’t always just about saving money, though. I make a mean bechamel sauce, thanks to a former roommate.
“People who love sharing a home with friends often cherish the companionship most of all,” Bella DePaulo says. “They enjoy sharing their lives with others, from the small ‘How was your day?’ rituals to the deeper sharing of worries and wishes and hopes and dreams.”
Good housemates are built-in friends. I loved knowing there would always be someone around when I got home. And those times when the place was empty — when I left work early, or all my housemates were away for the weekend — felt like special occasions.
In Galway, Ireland, my wife and I lived with several flatmates in an untidy house of unthinkable fun. We were strangers from different countries and cultures at the outset and friends by summer’s end. We lived our own lives, but when the pubs closed and we returned home from our respective nights out, there was always an instant after-party waiting.
You learn from your roommates. Studies have even shown that living with someone of a different background can make you more empathetic toward their culture. After all, isn’t living with others an ongoing exercise in patience, respect, and diplomacy? After graduation, I lived in a huge, rat-infested North London flat with two friends and a rotating cast of international characters. One group of students from Spain would burst into the house at midnight, singing and shouting, ready to start preparing dinner.
One of them, Gloria, taught me to make that bechamel sauce — and just about everything else I know about cooking. All of them helped me improve my Spanish. And they introduced us to the throbbing night life of London outside the dingy corner pub.
There were some duds, too — like the furiously melancholy Nick, from Belgrade. More than once, he blared Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” — easily the saddest song ever recorded — on repeat at top volume all night long. At the time, the United States was bombing Nick’s hometown, which made things brutally awkward between us. He stopped paying his share of the heat and electricity, and our house often ran out of both. In time, Nick’s sadness turned to madness. He grew bitter as the winter wore on and hung out with an equally miserable French anarchist who only made it worse. The pair poisoned the atmosphere in the flat, and before long I moved out.
Then there was Rich, a Northeastern student who moved in with us in Cambridge after a favorite roommate left. The tiny fourth bedroom she’d left behind was cheap — so when I posted an ad on Craigslist, about two dozen people came to see it. We were trying to decide whom to give the room to when Rich called up to see if it was still available. He offered to bring by a 30-pack if it would help his case, and so we gave him the room — we were 23, after all. We suffered for our lousy judgment.
I grew to loathe Rich. He chain-smoked Marlboro Reds indoors, and the thick clouds of smoke hung around us like a filthy fifth roommate. He had a booming voice that was bursting with f-bombs at all hours. And after a few months, he stopped going to work and school, which meant he was always home, usually shirtless, and running out of money for rent and the utilities. That 30-pack was so not worth it.
Still, I would take those dreadful living arrangements any day over the option many millennials have embraced. Plenty of ink and blather has been devoted to the young adults who moved back with parents during the Great Recession. It made sense: Twentysomethings had some of the highest unemployment rates and the biggest student loan burden in history. From 2009 to 2013, nearly a third (31.3 percent) of Massachusetts young adults aged 18 to 34 were living with a parent, versus 24.8 percent in 2000.
What researchers are struggling to explain, though, is why 18- to 34-year-olds are even more likely to be living at home now, six years later. It’s no longer just about the economy. The national unemployment rate for this group dropped from a high of 12.4 percent in 2010 to 7.7 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, and their wages have improved as well.
Whatever the reason, I don’t know how they do it. My parents are wonderful. I love them and enjoy their company. But after living on my own during and after college, it felt humiliating to be back under their roof for a few months in my early 20s. I was a child again.
“I would have been mortified if I ended up back with my parents,” DePaulo says, “but things are different now.” The generation gap between parents and their adult children — that gulf between political views, musical tastes, style, and slang — is largely gone, she says. “They have far more in common . . . and do more things together than previous generations did.”
OPEN-ARMED PARENTS aside, most people are content to put their roommate days behind them once they settle down, marry, and have kids. But not everyone. There are plenty of other ways people share their rent burden — even without the commitment of a shared lease.
Fancy a roommate just one weekend a month? Airbnb allows you to rent out space in your apartment for extra cash — be it a spare room, an air mattress, or the whole apartment while you’re away. Another innovative house-sharing site is CoAbode, a platform for single mothers to find other single moms who want to share space and pool resources. “Once two single-parent families decide to share a home, the kids have playmates under the same roof, the mothers have each other as helpers and confidantes, and they all have a 21st-century version of family,” DePaulo says.
And older baby boomers, increasingly turned off by the idea of retirement homes, are also doubling up in a modern-day version of TV’s The Golden Girls. “Among seniors, some are living together under the same roof in ways that transcend what we usually think of as roommate relationships,” DePaulo says. “They come together not just to share a home, but also to share a life.”
As for my wife and me, we remain inherently social people; we may eventually host exchange students to sate our roommate addiction. But for now, we’re just trying to keep the peace with our newest roommate. She never pays rent, eats all our food, mooches rides off of us, and leaves her crap all over the place. Ugh, and we always have to watch her TV shows.
With any luck, she’ll move out in 15 years and get a roommate of her own.
Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
How much can a roommate save you per month? A lot.
|Living alone||One roommate||Two roommates||Three roommates|
Sources: Rainmaker insights; Leightman Research Group; Comcast; EnergySage.com; US Energy Department