Like a lot of married couples, Meghan McManus and Aaron Albee like to wind down after a long day, curling up on the sofa with their pets, a cocktail and a Netflix drama.
Sometimes, when they’re watching a particularly suspenseful screen scene, the mood is broken by a loud laugh coming from their basement.
That would be their roommate, Tony Cola, who, when he’s unwinding after a long day, turns to comedies.
“We call him our basement dweller. He’s a great guy, very mellow,” said McManus. “We couldn’t have found a better person.”
“We really lucked out,” added Albee. “We have a chance to have someone else help us meet our financial responsibilities and we are 100 percent OK with that.”
Getting married used to mean being done with roommates and building a nest with a beloved. But today, more couples — and not only young ones — are looking to others to help them pay the mortgage or make the rent.
“Married couples who are financially stretched are looking for creative solutions to manage their expenses,” said Cheryl Young, senior economist at real estate website Trulia. “Renters who are married can accelerate their savings for a down payment on a home faster with a roommate. If they’re buying, it’s a way to defray mortgage costs.”
Young said she’d been hearing stories about couples coping with mortgages or rents by seeking a renter or roommate, but wanted to see how significant the trend was and “attach some numbers to it.”
So she authored a research report that Trulia released earlier this year. It found that while the number of married couples who open their doors to roomies is small, that number has more than doubled since 1995.
It’s a strategy that’s making sense for more Minnesotans, as well.
Between 2009 and 2016, Trulia tracked a 77% increase in the number of Twin Cities married couples who are living with roommates. Among 100 major metropolitan areas, Minneapolis-St. Paul showed the 12th-largest jump in the share of married couples who have a boarder.
Driven by debt
Student debt may be driving these somewhat unorthodox housing arrangements, especially for younger marrieds.
According to the Federal Reserve, at the end of 2018 Americans owed $1.6 trillion for their college expenses.
Between the two of them, McManus, 26, and Albee, 31, carry “a pretty good chunk of debt,” in Albee’s words, owing about $50,000 for college loans.
But after three years of marriage, they’d grown weary of shelling out for rent. A $5,000 gift from Albee’s family along with a first-time homeowner’s program allowed the couple to purchase a 1,000-square-foot single-family house in Fridley last year. They paid $140,000 for the 60-year-old house, which has two bedrooms, one bathroom and a fenced yard.
“After years of renting together, including living together in a little studio, we wanted a place to call our own,” McManus said.
The house, said Albee, is a “fixer-upper,” but that didn’t dissuade them from buying it.
“I come from a DIY family and we saw a lot of potential in it,” he said. “We painted, scraped the popcorn ceilings, fixed the busted fence and refurbished the bathroom.”
Cola, 30, the couple’s roommate, moved in before they did, while construction was still underway.
Cola and Albee, who met when they worked at the same financial services company, have been friendly for several years, often taking the downtown bus together.
Their easy relationship has extended to McManus. The three hang out and occasionally share a meal. Cola is crazy about the couple’s dog and two cats, enjoying them without the responsibility or expense of pet ownership.
“It’s a great setup,” Cola said. “I hear footsteps and the dog barking but it’s no a big deal. Sometimes we’re cooking at the same time and with three people sharing a bathroom it can get kind of crowded. We have some unwritten rules we all follow.”
While the research into sharing marital space has looked at how it serves the couple, this kind of marriage-of-convenience benefits the renting roommate too, especially as housing costs soar.
According to March data from research compiled by RentCafe, a national internet listing service, the average apartment in Minneapolis rents for $1,557, an increase of almost 3% from the previous year. In St. Paul, rents average $1,265, up 3.5%.
Cola, who pays $650 a month for his basement room, likes the terms of the deal.
“This suits me. It’s a lot cheaper living arrangement than an apartment in Uptown,” he said. “I can focus on paying my student loans and improving my credit record.”
Older couples get in the act
In previous generations, newly married couples might have been more interested in privacy as they began their post-honeymoon life.
But according to wedding planning website the Knot, most (77%) couples have lived together before they make it legal, so many newlyweds are long past the first burst of passion.
“Couples don’t start with a trousseau and a hope chest anymore. They are thinking about the practicalities of married life,” said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist and co-founder of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global.
In addition, Meehan said that sharing a house is not limited to young couples.
A growing number of empty nesters also are rethinking their living spaces. Some are monetizing spare bedrooms by renting to family, friends or strangers. Like their younger cohorts, they’re often motivated by money, aiming to boost savings for retirement or to supplement their fixed incomes, rather than building for homeownership.
Millennial couples may have an edge when it comes to flexible living arrangements, however, simply because they’ve had more practice.
“Young people have always operated in packs. They’ve gone on group dates. They played on teams and now they work in teams,” Meehan said.
“They’ve taken advantage of shared space like Airbnbs. It’s common to go on an app and sleep in a stranger’s spare bedroom or have a stranger couch surf on theirs,” she added. “That gives them a sense of how that could work in their lives.”
Sharing their home is working well for McManus and Albee. They’re in the process of adding a bathroom in the unfinished basement next to the bedroom that Cola rents. Albee envisions adding a kitchenette and living room and turning the space into an apartment.
“We are all excited about giving Cola his own bathroom,” Albee said. “Now we have to text each other if someone wants to take a nice long bath.”
Albee and McManus plan to keep Cola as their renter, something Cola is on board with.
“Someday if I ever have my own house, I would contemplate taking in a roommate, too,” Cola said. “I’ve seen how well it works.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.