I never thought I’d be able to own a house. I’m mostly single and though I make decent money, it’s not enough to buy a house on my own in the neighbourhood I love. My life is in Centretown — my habits, my community, my people — and I’m not willing to cut myself out of that to own something. I have spent years convincing myself that renting was where it was at, and that really, who wanted to own a house anyway?
But then Shelley called me on a snowy February Sunday. Not a surprise, in and of itself. We’ve been close friends for 7 years now, ran a business together through some hard times. She is my non-sister sister, and we talk approximately 100 times a week.
This time her voice was more excited than usual, bursting through the phone. “So. Okay. This is maybe crazy. But what do you think about buying a house with me and Steve?”
By the time I met Shelley, she and Steve had been together for 7 years. They’ve already owned three houses together. They’re solid and experienced on both the coupledom and household fronts. Still, I flicked through my mental file of other potential concerns.
Are we able to talk about important stuff? Check. Are we able to deal with financial stuff? Check. Do they lead the kind of life I want to lead? I got halfway through asking myself that before “Yes!” flew out of my mouth.
The main reason, of course, was financial. All the real estate agents, the lenders, the other people living in co-housing — everyone lists finances as the principal reason friends go in together. Randy Spence, who’s been a mortgage broker for 8 years, says co-housing situations are coming up more often.
“Most people figure if you can’t afford a house, you buy it together,” he says. “You pool your incomes, maybe agree to sell it in two years and realize the equity.”
It makes sense, of course. When I asked Mary-Anne Gillespie, a real estate agent for over 10 years, how she would describe the typical co-houser, she looked me up and down, laughed and said “You!” before she elaborated.
“We work with a lot of first-time home buyers, people under 40,” she says. “We’re also seeing more business savvy, more economically smart people, and a lot more awareness of the market.”
The group of people I talked to definitely fit this demographic. Two years ago, Sam and Stefan bought a side-by-side duplex with their friends Jay and Martha; before that, Stefan had owned another house with Jay and their other friend Matt. I had a chance to sit down with Sam, Stefan and Matt not too long ago. Money was definitely at the top of their list of reasons for co-housing, but not the only reason.
“I wanted to own with people in my social circle,” Stefan offered, and Sam picked up on that. “When I moved in with Stefan, I missed communal living. I came to romanticize the idea of co-housing as being this hybrid option that would allow you to have your own space with your partner, but still give a community of people with whom you shared common resources.”
Obviously, it’s not only queers who are shacking up with friends. But we’re particularly suited to it.
It’s not a normal thing to do. We’re used to that. We know how to write our own stories and carve out a space for our lives in a society that is still, at best, unprepared to deal with us. Rather than rely on biological family, many of us depend on our chosen families, the extended network of intimate friends, lovers, ex-lovers, and the acquaintances that reflect us back to ourselves. Co-housing is a natural extension of that.
Even though our first reason was financial, Shelley, Steve and I came to very quickly see our project as a way of creating an intentional community. Though we started out wanting a side-by-side duplex, we ended up looking at up-downs because that’s what was available. It didn’t take very long before what we wanted was a house we didn’t have to leave to see each other.
I didn’t realize that right away, not until we looked at the place we ended up buying. It’s a back-to-front duplex, a two-storey house in the front for me, a three-storey house in the back for them. Since our agreement is to split everything in thirds, it was the perfect set up. They don’t have quite two-thirds of the available space, but pretty close. It felt fair to me, and I liked that.
But I found myself disappointed that we wouldn’t have any common space. Still, I can hear them rattling around in their kitchen, or going up the stairs. They can hear me belting out whatever song is in my head as I get ready for work in the morning. These homey noises connect us, make us all smile knowing that our people are just on the other side of the wall.
Buying a house is an incredibly stressful venture; it is, in fact, the single most stressful thing I’ve ever done. And the more outside the norm you are, the more stressful it’s going to be. A bit more hand-holding would have been nice. Because we were more than two people, because we were a couple and a single, because we had private financing as well as needing a mortgage, because only one of us was currently living in Ottawa, it felt like no one knew what to do with us.
Or when they did, they had lots of opinions that they wouldn’t have had in a more traditional situation. Our lawyer, who was very nice and competent, was also full of paternalistic advice. “That first meeting,” Shelley says, “was a lot about protecting ourselves against our future decisions. When you buy a house with a partner, no one ever mentions that you have to protect yourself in case the relationship breaks down.”
The best way to avoid being told what to do is to plan ahead. We were on a pretty tight time limit, since Shelley and Steve were moving to Ottawa in the fall. We felt we needed to have a place bought by May at the latest, which meant we didn’t really have time to shop around for our professionals.
If you can, take the time to find a real estate agent, a lawyer and a lender who have worked with a variety of co-housing situations before.
Nancy Benson, a real estate agent for 22 years, has worked with several different configurations of people before.
“Over the years, I’ve had a variety of different people buying together for different reasons, with different issues that come up. Now, I try to minimize those issues — usually circling around inequalities in finance — in advance,” says Benson.
So before you sign on with a professional, ask them. Have they worked with your configuration of people before? What problems came up? How were they handled? How have those other groups set up their agreements? We split our expenses evenly in thirds, but Sam/Stefan/Martha/Jay split theirs according to slightly different house values. Stefan/Jay/Matt split their expenses in thirds, contributing equally each month to a shared bank account.
The more experienced your professionals are with co-housing, the better able they’ll be to help you find the best arrangement and hold your hand. Because you’ll want hand holding. Buying a house means a lot of emails, and if your professionals don’t understand what the Reply All button is for, you will end up with massive confusion. The three of us had several frustrating miscommunications with our agent before we realized that we had to be very careful about checking for whose email addresses had been forgotten.
Though none of us thought the extra communication was a bad thing. “Buying a house with someone who wasn’t a domestic partner required me required me to be more conscious about what I was saying and what people wanted,” Steve says.
With a partner, it can be easy to think that you already know everything about them. Dennis Smith, a broker with the Royal Bank, laughed when I asked about this.
“With couples, there are definitely a lot of assumptions,” says Smith. “And then there’s often that awkward moment in the office when it all comes out.”
With us, there were no surprises. We had to talk about our financial situations up front, we had to talk about how we were going to split expenses from the start. We had to think carefully and lay out what we needed in a house right away.
Being three people also afforded more flexibility in terms of seeing places. Because I was on the ground here, I was our principal house-seer. Though we saw one or two places all together, generally I’d go to a house, and if it seemed like a maybe, take some photos to send to my campadres. If it looked good to them, we’d plan another visit for when one of them was back in town. The third trusted us enough to look out for what we knew they needed.
We looked at a bunch of places, falling a little in love each time, only to have our hearts broken over too many repairs, too much noise, too small kitchens. We put in offers on two places, both of which fell through. We were demoralized, worried that nothing even approximating right was going to come up. We talked about them finding a place on their own.
Then we noticed that the place five doors south from where I was renting was for sale. We’d been looking for an old house full of charm, and this wasn’t exactly that. But, as my house-owning friends pointed out, it also lacked rotting grout.
We put in another offer. Held our breath. It went through. Because I lived in Ottawa, I signed for all of us. My co-workers were agog over this. “They let you what? Wow, they must really trust you.”
It felt like we had a brief respite after that. No more house visits, the financing was reasonably settled, all the papers signed.
Then we needed insurance. Trying to describe our house and familial arrangement to insurance companies was another set of headaches. At this point, I was tired of explaining our situation. I just wanted people to be able to wrap their heads around a couple and a friend, with both private financing and a mortgage, living in a two/three storey back-to-front duplex. It really isn’t that complicated.
Complicated enough, however, that I couldn’t get fully insured with them. Both our houses are insured together, and Shelley and Steve’s contents are insured, but we couldn’t get my contents on the same policy.
This wasn’t a big surprise to Shelley, though. “When Steve and I were renting with my other partner, the three of us couldn’t get tenants’ insurance together,” Shelley told me. “Only two of us could be on the plan. Landlords were weird about it too, especially when two of the three of us were seen as the ‘couple’.”
The three of us felt a bit of that skepticism too. I think our gender presentation confused people. Steve and I are reasonably gender normative; Shelley, on the other hand, is visibly queer, a boyish dyke. Definitely someone who would not be with to a man. We presented an odd threesome, and I saw an initial confusion and attempt to parse our relationship with many of the people we dealt with.
When it came time to actually sign for our mortgage, only Shelley was able to be here. It’s a good thing Steve wasn’t with us, because Shelley and I confused that poor woman enough. A praying hands card was tacked to the wall, opposite the framed “25Years of Exemplary Service” certificate. The office was small. We crammed ourselves into the two chairs facing the bank lady, our knees banging against the desk.
The Bank Lady looked at us a little hazily. “So,” she said. “You’re…?”
She looked blank.
“We’re buying with Steve.”
“Oh! Right!” The light of day spread over her face. “You’re three on title.”
We looked at each other, I raised my eyebrows. “Yes,” I said. “That’s us.”
“Viva la commune,” Shelley whispered.