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House Sharing Becomes More Common With Down Economy

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Aired 4/20/09

Faced with shrinking incomes and home values, more people are opening up their houses to strangers. We're talking about the modern boarding house, where homeowners rent out bedrooms in order to keep making the mortgage payment. Marianne Russ reports.

A lot of people in Christin Barron’s position might just give up. She and her husband Efrain paid $400,000 for their four-bedroom, three-bath home a couple of years ago. Now it’s worth maybe $300,000. It’s in an Elk Grove neighborhood where foreclosure signs are about as common as mailboxes.

The Barron’s landscaping business went south with the housing market. Christin says she’s been late on the $2100 dollar mortgage payment for five months straight.

“I’m afraid of that roller coaster. I don’t want to get behind. I don’t want to miss my bills," she says "So I made a list of things I could do to bring in more income and one of them was renting out the room."

She put an ad on Craigslist for two of the four bedrooms. At first, no hits. Then she lowered the rent from $525 dollars to $400. A woman in her 60’s is taking one. The other’s still up for grabs.

The Barron’s 1900 square foot home is already pretty full. There’s Christin, her husband, 5-year old Ally, 5-month old E.J. and Efrian’s mother, Ernestina. They’re giving up the office and Ally’s playroom to make space for new housemates. Christin says she knows it’ll be a challenge.

“I hope that you know, it works out because I, myself, we’re just hard workers. We know whatever it takes we’re just going to have to push to make ends meet. If this is the first of many things we have to do to keep the house, we’ll try our best to do it," she says.

Laura Fannuchi is based in San Mateo. She’s on the Board of the National Shared Housing Resource Center. It’s a sort of clearinghouse for groups that match homeowners with renters.

“If they have a room and they have an empty room in their home, why not put that room to good use?," says Fannuchi.

She says it’s tough to track, but organizations across the country are taking more calls from people looking to find housemates.

“Whenever I talk to somebody either back east or in the mid-west, I mean, we pretty much have the same kinds of issues throughout the country, where people can’t afford their housing, whether it is someone who is seeking housing or if they have a home, you know, they really are looking for somebody who can help share those costs and share those utility costs as well,” Fannuchi says.

And she says it can be a good deal for both the owner – and the renter. But there are risks.

Corey Koehler is with the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento. “The challenge is you’ve got an apartment-type setting inside of a single-family home,” he says.

He says there are several potential pitfalls: for example, homeowner’s insurance typically won’t cover a renter’s belongings. Or there could be local codes restricting the number of cars in a driveway. And he says homeowners are still required to follow fair housing guidelines when screening potential housemates:

“If they screen wrong and they get a fair housing complaint. Perhaps they get the wrong person in there who vandalizes the place, or the homeowner does need to contact an attorney or spends money to try to get the person out of there. You know, they need to consider that and at least try to do the homework before they decide to dive into this idea,” Koehler says.

This isn’t the first time Americans have had to dive into the room rental business. Eric Rauchway is a Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He says just as families across the country are feeling forced into renting a room today…. families during the Great Depression had to do likewise to make ends meet.

“All these people would have felt like, I thought we were over this phase in our family’s existence. And they would have felt that they were being forced back into a previous stage of the way people had to live and I’m sure that a lot of people who are taking in lodgers feel very similar now,” Rauchway says.

Rauchway says taking in a housemate has historically been a temporary – not a long-term - way to stay afloat.

Back at the Barron house Ally is showing off the family’s garden. Another way they’re saving money. Her Mom Christin sees the irony in their situation. Her husband is from Mexico, where she says families often share homes.

“In his culture and a lot of minority groups in this country, they’ve been doing that for a long time. You know, there’s a couple families in one house, one apartment. So, now it seems to be trickling into middle class white America maybe.”

In fact, Barron says she’s really looking for boarders who will be a lot like members of the family. 

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