Single mom with teens seeks housemate -- or not?
July 20, 2017 1:53 AM   Subscribe

What factors should I consider as I decide whether or not to get a housemate? If I do want to get a housemate, how should I go about doing that? And, what's reasonable to ask of potential tenants?

My husband and I are divorcing. I'm a woman in my mid-40s with two sons in their early teens. The finances aren't settled, but I'm hoping I can afford to stay in our family house rather than sell and move. Bringing in a housemate would give me a financial cushion that would be a big help.

The situation has some real positives for potential tenants: I live in the US Northwest in a city with a very tight housing market, and my house is in a desirable, walkable neighborhood close to transit, a grocery store, bikeshare, and restaurants and bars. My house has four bedrooms and two full baths. My kids and I have bedrooms on the second floor, with one full bath. The fourth bedroom, the one I'd rent, is currently set-up as a guest room/office and is on the main floor, next to a small but nice full bath. That bathroom is accessible to the whole house, and I'd want to keep it that way (it'd be a challenge to ask all our guests to go upstairs to pee), but the housemate would be the only person showering there, brushing teeth there, etc. We have two living areas, one with a TV, along with a nice porch and a big basement with lots of storage and laundry machines.

I do have a few hesitations, however. This would obviously add some disruption to the household at a time when my kids in particular are experiencing a lot of upheaval because of the divorce. It's been probably 20 years since I lived with someone who isn't a relative and it'd be an adjustment to share the kitchen, living room, etc. Also, would it be weird for someone to move into a family home?

So I'm looking for advice. Have you brought a housemate into your family household? How did it go? Any warnings or cautions or suggestions?

Also, what's reasonable to ask of housemates? For example, would it be terrible to ask that they not have overnight guests? I'm not a prude at all (and I wouldn't have lived someplace with that rule before I was married), but I'm concerned about having folks over in our family home. I don't think I'd mind if they had a friend in town for a night or two, but I'm hoping to avoid any stay-over partners who are here regularly.

Also, can I ask that they not go to the second floor? We only have our bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, so they shouldn't need to go upstairs, and this would give me some piece of mind as I think about bringing in someone to live with teens. But is that weird?

How would I go about finding a housemate? Craigslist is the most obvious answer, especially since I don't know a ton of folks in town who might be looking for someplace to live, but I'm a bit worried about creeps who might find our situation too appealing. But are there other ways to find people that might make us more likely to get a good housemate who is okay living with teenagers?

And what's the best way to screen someone other than doing a formal background check? (I've never done that before.)

And my last question: what else should I be thinking about as I consider this? Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps the best option would be to start small: offer the space on Air BnB and see how it feels. In any scenario, you're likely to be giving up access to that second bathroom. Restricting the 2nd floor for family use seems smart.
posted by Kalatraz at 3:03 AM on July 20, 2017 [11 favorites]

As a child of divorced parents, I'd recommend doing pretty much anything (including move) than simultaneously have a parent leave AND bring in a lodger. That's way too many changes at once. On top of that, it's a pretty untraditional move (renting out a room in a family home, especially as a newly-single mom), so there's not going to be a lot of support/guidance for your kids on this out there. There are no books on "how to share a bathroom with someone with tenant rights" aimed at 13-year-olds while there are plenty of books on divorce and moving. My gut says please find a way to avoid doing this for at least a year or two, then re-evaluate.
posted by whitewall at 3:05 AM on July 20, 2017 [10 favorites]

Honestly, I don't think you're ready for this, and there's a few things in your post that kind of give it away:

For example, would it be terrible to ask that they not have overnight guests? I'm not a prude at all (and I wouldn't have lived someplace with that rule before I was married), but I'm concerned about having folks over in our family home.

Yes, it would be terrible. Unless your rent is insanely cheap, you can't be making demands of people paying rent like this. That will be a deal-breaker for many reasonable people, even with your qualifications (you acknowledge yourself you wouldn't have done it when you were younger!)

The fact you are saying "our family home" is quite telling, I think. When a person pays rent for a place, it becomes their home, too - that's why they pay rent.

That bathroom is accessible to the whole house, and I'd want to keep it that way

Sharing a bathroom will also reduce the quality of tenant you can get. I mean, there's many that'll do it, but they are gonna be younger, broker, etc. And you'll have to charge less.

You're already conceiving of this relationship as inherently unequal, when in reality a renter - as fellow occupant - should have just as many rights as you.

Also, can I ask that they not go to the second floor?

Urrrr, I mean you can, of course you can, and I totally get why you would. But yes, it would come across a little weird.

I guess, like, I imagine your ideal tenant would be a quiet single professional aged from their late twenties right? The thing is, if someone in those demographics saw your conditions and anxiety about candidates etc, they're not gonna for it. They'll be like "Uh, I'll just rent a place with my own ensuite and another single, quiet professional to barely interact with."

Your question shows a lot of thought about how attractive your tenants will be to you, but I think you need to consider how attractive your offer is for the kind of tenants you want. Sharing a bathroom with a restrictive, newly-divorced landlord with teenage kids? That's... pretty alarm-belly.

So I've said the above as someone whose peripatetic youth included over 15 share house situations. But now I'm talking as a child whose parents divorced when they were 13.

My world inverted itself when Mum and Dad divorced. My entire notion of family - and with it a key point of reference for *my own identity* - dissolved in an afternoon. The next four years - all of high school, basically, included a tsunami of change for me that was scary, bewildering, saddening, threatening, etc. I had to grapple with feelings and challenges and facts that were frankly beyond my league as a 13 year old, and I was desperate for some continuity, any continuity.

I saw a legion of things that defined family: rituals, objects, places, get ignored, derided, replaced with new things I had no connection with. And I was expected to go along with it, and try not to mention the old days wherever possible. And it was really really hard. And it's indelibly shaped the adult I am today, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. I have no doubt that some of my negative thought patterns, anxieties and stresses today were fertilised in those years.

And the reality is both my parents (dad worse, quelle surprise) dropped the ball a bit here. I don't blame them, they had new lives to get on with and they were people as well as parents. But they took their hands of the wheel to focus on what they wanted, and more than one of us is dealing with the consequences of that today.

For the sake of your kids - and I'm not downplaying how hard this might be for you - but for the sake of your kids, please do everything you can to minimise change and weirdness at this time. Adolescence is bad enough anyway, going through that change along with divorce can be super hard. I know it's hard for you too, but you're an adult. Don't make your kids shack up with a stranger in their space as they grapple with this huge change if you can at all avoid it.

Best of luck OP, I hope this perspective helps. This can be done, if you really want it, but doing it right will take more work than you might think; it may not work out; it might not be worth the stress. Are you and your family up for it now? I understand if, financially, you need to. But in that case, aim high - give up some space, a bathroom etc for the best tenant you can get. You'll be seeing them a lot.
posted by smoke at 3:23 AM on July 20, 2017 [37 favorites]

Look, I don't think what you're asking is so bad of a housemate. I would have happily accepted a "no overnight guests" policy for cheap rent when I was a young single woman. The shared bathroom thing... less cool. Like maybe you could have the downstairs bathroom be "public" for emergencies and parties only. Second floor - nbd, why would they want to go there anyway.

As for how it will affect your kids, you know them better than we do. You could even ask them for input, if they're up for it. Do they love your family home? If you didn't live there, how far away would you have to move? Obviously they might just be angry and not accept that these decisions are going to have to be made, but it might be worth a try.

Be really picky about the housemate. Arguably the best housemates are ABSENT housemates! An academic with a spouse who lives in another city, anyone who travels a lot for work, a student who works full-time, someone with a significant other with a nice apartment that they stay at a lot...

I think finding a housemate is very local - you can try craigslist, but personal recommendations are also great.
posted by mskyle at 3:56 AM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

My son was in middle school when my ex-husband and I divorced. Within 6 months of me moving out of the home, ex-husband was engaged and had moved her into the home. While this isn't the exact situation you're looking for, I'm telling you from experience...don't do this! My son, who I consider a very well-adjusted kid, had a couple of very tough years after the divorce...and our divorce was more or less amicable. Those kids need time as space to heal just as much as you do. Barring financial collapse, I would avoid moving a stranger in at all costs.
posted by fresh-rn at 4:34 AM on July 20, 2017

Arguably the best housemates are ABSENT housemates! An academic with a spouse who lives in another city, anyone who travels a lot for work, a student who works full-time, someone with a significant other with a nice apartment that they stay at a lot...

This. The best housemates I've ever had (apart from a couple of very happy stretches of sharing with actual friends) were people who had family or a partner living elsewhere and so they were away a lot. Your best option might be someone who is in town Monday to Thursday and just needs somewhere to crash each night and leave some stuff from week to week - but you'd have to discount the rent appropriately.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 4:35 AM on July 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Just one brief note. Think hard about how you are going to phrase your family situation to a potential lodger.

I rented out a room in my apartment when I was single. I had a lot of single middle-aged guys thinking that I was part of the package deal (ugh no). "Single mum w kids" could sound like catnip to a recently divorced guy who misses being part of a family. And it would be very, very awkward for everyone concerned if your lodger suddenly tried to play 'dad'.
posted by kariebookish at 4:37 AM on July 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would wait a little bit if possible like others have suggested. I would also consider Airbnb rather than a long term renter. First, Airbnb handles payments and has other protections for you. Second, I would imagine that having travelers and meeting new people would be a cooler experience for your kids than having someone there full time that they would have to get used to. You can also change availability so that you don't have tenants over holidays, etc so you still have family time without interruption.

Also if you are in a city that has a lot of tourism, it could be even more lucrative.
posted by Katie8709 at 4:49 AM on July 20, 2017 [9 favorites]

Can't speak to your side, but as a former broke lodger, some of the hands down worst living situations I've had have been in shared homes where I lived with the owner who had lived there a long time and regarded me as a guest in their home. I left after six months after being accused late at night of throwing cardboard in the toliet (it was..poop). A friend who lived with a recently divorced mother looking to pay the bills left after three months because the rules kept changing along with her landlady's mood. The best landlord and housemate situations are based on equality in housemates (absent in your case), lack of emotionally complicating factors (it's your "family home", you have teens, everyone is going through a big change), and everyone who would be your ideal tenant knows this and is going to stay away, leaving you with the desperate and inexperienced renters.
posted by theweasel at 5:32 AM on July 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

Have you thought about something like hosting exchange/visiting students? In some programs you get money for doing so, and it means it's a temporary situation that you can just not do again if it doesn't work out. Your family situation will be an advantage for them, not a disadvantage, because they'll see family life in your culture up close, plus it's less intimidating then a single person. Plus your kids might benefit from the exposure to other cultures. Exchange students are less likely to expect to be able to have overnight visitors too.

You'd need to engage with them more than a standard lodger, of course. They'd expect to join you at family dinners, and you'd want to spend a weekend or two showing them around your region. But it still might be a less intimidating situation than having someone in your home who would (rightly) feel a full claim to treating the house as their own home.
posted by lollusc at 5:33 AM on July 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

Why are you wanting to stay in the house? Is it because you love it? Is it because your kids love it? Your life is changing and things will be very different regardless of whether or not you stay or move. You don't have to decide yet but I'd reflect on this yourself as well as talk things over with your children: of course, the decision is yours but, as teens, their voice can help guide you. Do your sons want privacy or space? Would they be excited to have a new roommate or does the idea freak them out? Is living there going to help them hold on to happy family memories or remind them of what was and no longer is? As someone who is moving from a large home to a smaller apartment due to family and financial reasons, I understand how hard it can be to move but it also can feel cathartic and freeing. If you do end up moving, your sons can help set up the new place to feel at home and empowered. You don't need a big house to be happy, and it's too bad that we're so often told this in the US where we can then get into situations that are to our own detriment.

People have mentioned Airbnb: it could work because it's short-term but it could also be way more disruptive to you and your sons' life. They may love having strangers come in and out of their lives but they probably just want privacy and alone time with you. Perhaps if you restricted it to weekends it could feel a bit more predictable and manageable.

As for renting out the room, I know of a woman who was in a similar situation and has very happily rented out two extra rooms to boarders for over twenty years. Her housemates were generally international graduate students from the local university. They were busy and living there for a limited time but also happy to be part of the family. Based on what you've written here, you would need to select roommates who would feel comfortable joining your family for meals (not as a requirement but as an option) and whom your sons would be OK seeing walk around in a towel. However, you must be fair and right now you're describing something that sounds very unattractive to me as a potential renter. Telling people they can't have overnight guests is absolutely too restrictive although I totally see where you're coming from as a concerned parent. You can have an honest conversation and set ground rules but make sure you imagine being in their shoes. Perhaps renting to a couple could help avoid strangers coming in and out of the house as much or at least to someone whose partner you have met. However, we can become single for any reason and it'd be unfair to discriminate against someone for this. If you decide to rent out the room, you will have to be thoughtful, fair, and open to having really difficult conversations.

After reading people's responses here, I'd ask close friends and family for their honest feedback as well. They know you best and can give you advice that is caring, personalized, and honest. I'm sorry you're in this situation. I can tell that you're wanting the best for your family and considering all options. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 5:44 AM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I needed a room like you're offering when I was in my forties. I got a room in a house with a mom, her three kids, and her boyfriend. I was finishing a dissertation and didn't have enough funding to rent a whole apartment. I wrote during the day when everyone was at school or work. I'm sure they were a little anxious at first but it worked out great. In fact, we're still friends more than twenty years later. I was maybe the ideal tenant, I had kids off in college so I was used to living with kids. We had similar values and lifestyles so there were no big clashes. We ended up eating together most nights and shared cooking.

I think the right tenant is out there but you should think hard about the details. Like are you going to want to be cooking at the same time? Are you or they vegetarians who will get grossed out if someone wants to cook burgers? Do you or your kids play loud music? Will the tenant? Would you feel weird having someone who's there all day like I was, someone who works from home?

Instead of putting an ad on craigslist can you start asking your friends if they know someone? If you do run an ad be sure to include terms like quiet, mature, kid-friendly, pets/no pets, vegetarian or non-veg. Figure out how much rooms go for in shared housing in your area. Are you going to let them use your furniture or will they be expected to bring their own? So many details...

If there is a university nearby consider posting with their housing office and ask for a mature grad student or a visiting faculty member.

You might also consider other ways to stay in your home. Can you get part-time work while your kids are with other parent?
posted by mareli at 6:26 AM on July 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

I found a great roommate to share my home through craigslist, so I do have some advice about that. I wrote an extremely long, very detailed ad and at the very end put in a code word that had to be included in the subject line of replies. About 95% of people who answered did not use the code word. I did not want someone who couldn't be bothered to read the whole ad, so that easily ruled out a lot of people.

However, I did let someone I'd met stay with me when my kids lived at home, and it was disastrous in ways I didn't even know about until she left. For instance, she would shower with the door open (I had a teenage son). She was only supposed to stay short term while she got on her feet, and she told my teenage daughter that she was trying to get fired from her job. I asked her to leave when I found out she'd slept with a previous landlord in lieu of paying rent. Afterwards, she wrote and asked me if she could still hang out with my daughter, whom she had come to regard as a friend, and I said absolutely not. So I'd be extremely careful about moving someone in with children. Moving to a smaller place might be a better option.
posted by FencingGal at 6:51 AM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think this sounds like a bad idea, for so many reasons. Is your soon-to-be-ex committed to having you stay in the home? Can the two of you come up with some creative solutions to keep you in the house? I've heard of some separating spouses renting a small apartment and then taking turns in the house – since you have 4 bedrooms, it seems ideal. If you can rent a small two-bedroom and act as passing roommates, that gives your kids a lot of stability and circumvents all the other little life details that seem to come up with separated parents and kids going back and forth. Since they are teenagers, there's a natural end point of them maybe moving out for college or their own places.
posted by amanda at 6:55 AM on July 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Is there a family member you can invite to stay and pay rent? That would lend continuity that a stranger wouldn't. Even if they just contribute to house costs, you could come out ahead.

Or can you go through your work and friend networks?

You could post to listings of relatively conservative faith communities. People may be less likely to be unhappy with the "no overnights" rule.

Will you run this idea by your kids?
posted by ramenopres at 7:32 AM on July 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

You could post to listings of relatively conservative faith communities. People may be less likely to be unhappy with the "no overnights" rule.

This is an absolutely genius idea. I feel like there are some conservative parents funding the rent of their college students who would pay a premium for a place with a "no overnight guests" rule.

That said, how would you feel about a single mom with a baby or toddler? I feel like they would also be grateful for the space - I know I would have!
posted by corb at 7:37 AM on July 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

One of the problems with these rules is--how do you intend to enforce it? Even if you put "no overnight guests" into the actual lease, that isn't a magic talisman that prevents someone from doing it; people violate leases in big and small ways all the time. (And from past experiences with roommates, nobody needs to be "overnight" for them to be having sex.) House rules are good things to have when you have housemates, but if you insist on fairly stringent house rules for this other person who is not your kid, you're going to have to deal with the possibility that you have to respond to breaches of those rules without resorting to the sort of stuff you use to discipline your teenagers. You can't 100% guarantee anything; all you can do are manage risks and have a plan in place for dealing with it afterwards. Like, if there's going to be custody problems if it turns out your renter is doing something your ex wouldn't approve of? Then even if you get what looks like a good tenant, you're living with a time bomb.

If it's not a custody issue, obviously, that's much less of a potential problem, but I used to have a lot of small landlord accounting clients who ran into problems at the moment they realized that making rules for their tenants did not in fact create automatic compliance with those rules, so it's something I like to point out. Take into account that your tenant MIGHT put holes in your walls, ruin your carpets, put the wrong stuff down the garbage disposal, play loud music, have noisy sex, etc, even if you tell them not to and even if they looked sensible and quiet when you first met.
posted by Sequence at 9:31 AM on July 20, 2017

Having tried this, I wouldn't recommend it. Unless the person is an exceptional fit, the stress and inconvenience isn't worth the extra income.

It's worth looking into whether the residential tenancy act for your jurisdiction covers shared living situations like this, because in many places it doesn't.
posted by bighappyhairydog at 9:46 AM on July 20, 2017

This can work, but I would recommend someone that you already know and have close friendship with.

Years ago, right after when we had our first kid, a friend got a job the next town over. We invited him to stay at our house while he looked for a place. After awhile it became clear that he wasn't looking and we didn't want him to look, so he paid us modest rent.

He stayed for close to two years and left only to follow his love interest elsewhere. Now 10+ years later my wife and I still ask when he is moving back home with his two kids. Unfortunately his wife has a high-paying job in LA and is not keen on the idea.

We've also had a friend use our current home as a base during the work week for their academic job. This worked well for almost a year, but at some point it was time to move on.

Neither one of these situations was true landlord – tenant relationship, so I don't want to generalize too much. But having more people living and caring for you and your kids is a nice thing that enriches life. But a Craigslist add might not get you there. Also, you know your kids, etc.
posted by zeikka at 12:49 PM on July 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't want to be alarmist, but one consideration apart from the regular landlord/tenant/roommate issues is the safety of exposing teens to unknown adults. Air bnb would be worse for this concern, though it's true that it is better for helping you avoid a long, binding, lease with a weirdo.

I might have an overly risk-focused perspective on this because I work as a social worker in preventive services, but in your shoes I would be very worried about how you screen potential tenants for any criminal or abusive history, ensure that they are not unsupervised with your children for at least an significant initial period while trust is established, and regularly check in with your children about their comfort with the tenant(s) and their behavior.

This is something I talk through with every client who takes in tenants and would want to work through myself before bringing a new person into the home. Of course, nothing horrible happens in most situations, but it is still important to think and plan about.
posted by sometamegazelle at 1:08 PM on July 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Could you wait until the kids are out of the house? It sounds like it would only be 4 years(?) until the youngest is out, which isn't really that long, if you think about it. Then it might also be nice to have someone around with the kids gone to college, or wherever.
posted by Toddles at 7:36 PM on July 20, 2017

I was in a similar situation, and had a roommate, and it was glorious. I'd repeat that situation in a heartbeat. You've heard a lot of negatives on here, and I can tell you that there are amazing positives too.

What worked for me is that my tenant was halfway in age between me and my daughter. He was an athlete living with us because we live on the lake he was training on (in crew) so I offered something very specific he needed. We started out assuming he'd be basically just a lodger, in the room in the basement, but with occasional kitchen and laundry access, but he quickly became a friend, and hung out with us. He was the best thing for us, as he was sympathetic to the effects of the divorce, and didn't know my ex and so had zero allegiance to him (or even to fairness; he was 100% pro us). He was funny and kind, generous and silly, and overall a great housemate. We're still friends although he moved several states away.

He had a girlfriend, and she stayed over, and it wasn't weird because we liked her and she liked us. He never went upstairs to where my bedroom and office were, because he had no need to (and I never needed to ask). He did have his own bathroom, and also used the powder room on the main floor which we all shared. He cooked and did laundry, and took care of the dog when my kid and I went out of town.

The company, the perspective, the distraction from how awful the divorce was, and the money were all wonderful.

I'd recommend looking for a housemate who could be your friend, and you kids' friends, and not just someone looking for a place to crash. This meant so much to me it was immeasurable.
posted by Capri at 3:36 PM on July 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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