In tough economic times, more homeowners are looking to roommates to help make ends meet. Some find surprising benefits, others new headaches.
Lori Gordon, left, and her tenant/new friend Brooke Thalacker shared conversation and wine on Gordon’s porch on an early fall evening. Their dogs, Ruby (Thalacker’s black Labrador retriever) and Steve (Gordon’s white poodle cross), also enjoy each other’s company.
Last year, Lori Gordon lost half her nest egg but gained a new friend about half her age. That would be Brooke Thalacker, the teacher and aspiring school counselor who now rents part of Gordon's home.
"I just love her," Gordon said. The two women -- and their two dogs -- bonded quickly after Thalacker moved in last December. Both have busy independent lives, but they still find time to share one or two meals a week, plus occasional bike rides, wine, ice cream and sometimes "American Idol."
Their living arrangement is short-term.
"When she finishes her practicum she'll look for a job. I don't know where she'll find one," Gordon said. "But I might keep her forever," she added with a laugh. "I want her to marry one of my sons. She wants me to marry her father."
Roommates as compatible as Gordon and Thalacker are rare, but their circumstances are increasingly common. Last year's stock-market crash and recession, which wiped out jobs and slashed incomes, have prompted many to look for new sources of revenue. For homeowners, that can mean turning a spare bedroom into a cash cow.
Roommate postings on Craigslist have increased 160 percent nationwide over the past 24 months, and 80 percent in the Minneapolis area over the same period, according to spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best.
There's no way to track how many of today's new roommates were brought together by economic forces, said Marilyn Bruin, associate professor in the University of Minnesota's housing studies program. "I haven't seen any data, but I totally believe it's an economic strategy. It makes sense."
The trend mirrors what happened during and after the last economic meltdown, the Great Depression. "Housing was scarce, and renting of homes was not all that uncommon," said Clifford Clark, a professor of history and American studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "My grandmother took in boarders."
Gordon, who has lived in her Scandia, Minn., home for 28 years, never would have anticipated adding a roommate at this stage of her life. But fate threw her some curveballs. Several years ago, her husband, a physician, developed a serious illness, so Gordon left her job as a food stylist to care for him. Three years ago, he died.
Then, "the economy tanked. I saw my savings disappear." She had forged a new career as a newspaper columnist and cookbook author, but she wanted to boost her income. "I'm 55 now -- it's not so easy to get a job. I thought, 'OK, what have I got that I can make work for me?'"
One thing she had was a master suite she was no longer using. After her husband's death, Gordon started sleeping in a loft bedroom "closer to the core of the house," she said. So she sought a roommate via Craigslist.
The first person who responded was a scam artist. The second had eight dogs. The third was Thalacker. But at first, Thalacker was cautious so she tried to protect her privacy by using a co-worker's husband's e-mail address when she replied to Gordon's ad. This confused Gordon, who Googled the man, not Thalacker, and discovered that a neighbor of hers knew him -- and his wife. "We thought he must be getting a divorce," Gordon said.
Meanwhile, Thalacker, a Wisconsin native who was teaching part-time while going to school, was researching Gordon. "I was new to Minnesota, from a really small town," she said. "People said, 'What do you mean, you're going to live with some lady you met on the Internet?'"
"We were checking each other out to make sure we were safe," Gordon said.
When Thalacker came to meet Gordon and see the house, she felt at home immediately, she said. "She was cooking, the dogs were going crazy, it was kind of chaotic, and I thought, 'This is perfect.'"
Gordon had prepared a rental agreement, but the two women hit it off so quickly that they never even signed it. "We're well matched," she said.
A job loss -- and the fear of one -- brought another pair of well matched housemates together this past March.
Julia Ryan had bought her house in Minneapolis only a few months earlier, and was concerned about budget cuts at her employer, the University of Minnesota. "I wasn't sure how secure my job was," she said. "I wasn't stretched so much, but I was afraid. The economy is affecting all of us." Her home had an upper floor that she wasn't using, so she advertised for a roommate.
Ann Iacoboni, a project manager/business analyst who had moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota for her work and then got laid off a few months later, was looking to cut her expenses while she looked for a new job. "My first thought, other than panic, was 'Do I go back or stay here?'" she said. "But I love it here, and I want to stay. Hopefully something will work out."
Ryan was apprehensive about sharing her space, particularly her kitchen and single bathroom, with a stranger. "I haven't had a roommate for quite a while. It was kind of a big decision. I'm a neatnik, and it's my house."
But Iacoboni turned out to be "perfect, the best," Ryan said. "She's very accommodating of my persnickety ways. It's really nice for my dogs to have another human around." When Ryan had car trouble, Iacoboni drove her to work. "Another positive is that she likes to cook and bake more than I do. She makes things and shares them."
Of course, not all housemates are so compatible. And even some who are can encounter rough patches.
Sandy DuPont, who lost the higher-paying of her two jobs (as a real estate title closer) last year, decided to rent out her son's former room. "It was that or put up a for-sale sign," she said. She got "lucky" with her tenant, a fellow pet owner about her age. "The best thing is we share a love of animals," she said. But their fondness for dogs led to a disagreement over a stray and its ownership. The two women didn't speak for weeks, but they've since repaired their relationship. "We've become fast friends," DuPont said. "I let her dogs out, she lets mine out. And she's Johnny-on-the-spot with the rent."
Kory Lidstrom ran into a different problem when he rented out part of his Minneapolis home earlier this year. Lidstrom has had several roommates, on and off, in the 11 years he's owned his house. This year, his income battered by the recession, he decided to rent again.
"I do painting, and my company is having the worst year it's ever had," he said. "It's too hard to say no to that extra money." He thought he knew what he was getting when he rented to a longtime friend. But the friend stopped paying rent. "He's been a great roommate in every way except for that one little thing," he said. After several months, Lidstrom had "The Talk" with his tenant. "I finally said, 'You've got to go.' That was hard."
Lidstrom got a new housemate in late August. So far, so good, he said. "I don't know if we'll be best friends. But he's helping out around the house. And he paid six months rent upfront -- can't argue with that."
While financial concerns are usually the impetus for bringing in a housemate, some homeowners discover silver linings.
"I think it's kind of cool," Ryan said. "I care about reducing my carbon footprint, and I like the sharing of resources."
Gordon, the homeowner who gave up her master suite but gained a new friend, thinks the experience has actually enhanced her life. "The recession is an opportunity for people to show their stuff," she said. "Our parents didn't have all the things we have. I don't think having to slow down and spend less is bad. It's good to know you can come up with creative solutions. I'm happy living with Brooke. It's just been delightful."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784