The rise of the middle-aged renter
Flat-sharing used to be the preserve of the young. But amid the current housing crisis, a new generation of renters in their forties and fifties are braving the perils of wacky flatmates, dingy apartments and soaring rents. Gabrielle Monagahan reports
Published 17/11/2015 | 02:30
Three months ago, Eugene Murphy placed an online ad seeking a double bedroom to rent in Dublin. The social care worker listed all the qualities that would make him an ideal tenant - he's rarely home because he works six days a week and eats out, and he doesn't drink or smoke. Yet Eugene has only received two offers of accommodation in all that time, neither of which were particularly appealing.
"One landlord showed me a room that was within my budget of €650 and was in a beautiful location, but it was filthy, unkempt, the beds were mouldy, and it looked like it hadn't been decorated in 20 years," he says. "I refuse to live in squalor."
Eugene's experience of the horrors of flat-hunting during one of Ireland's worst housing crises in modern history might ring true to people in their twenties and thirties. But Eugene is not in his first flush of youth - he's 50 years old.
Like many 40 and 50-somethings, the break-down of a relationship and the prohibitive cost of buying a house thrust Eugene back into the throes of the rental sector at an age when many Irish people expect to own a house and garden.
Indeed, Eugene does own a home - half a home, at least; he and his ex-wife had a property together before separating 13 years ago. But Eugene will have to wait until his children grow up before the house can be sold and the proceeds divided up.
He had been sharing a home with another girlfriend, but that relationship crumbled a few months ago and he's again seeking a place to rent with space for his children to stay at weekends.
Eugene suspects his age has worked against him and that renters in their twenties and thirties would prefer a flatmate of their own age. So he has changed tack and plans to team up with an Italian woman who answered his online ad so they can take a lease out together.
"The lady is a little eccentric and unique, which I like - she is bringing an injured cat with her and is allergic to carpet," Eugene says. "But I've a better chance of getting a place with her than I have in mainstream accommodation."
The number of working professionals forced to rent well into their forties and fifties has risen dramatically, analysis of the last census suggests. Some 19.4pc of people aged 35 to 44 were renting from a private landlord in 2011, while 10.3pc of people aged between 45 and 54 were private tenants. Twenty years earlier, when home ownership peaked at 80pc, just 5.2pc of people in Ireland aged between 35 and 44 were renting privately, with the figure for the 45-to-54 age bracket at only 3.3pc.
While there are no statistics readily available in Ireland to reveal how many of these mid-life tenants are sharing a home with people who are not members of their family, it's likely the figures are similar to those in the UK. Recent research published by SpareRoom found the number of flat-sharers aged between 35 and 44 in the UK jumped 186pc between 2009 and 2014, while those aged 45 to 54 soared 300pc.
Instead of being mortgaged to the hilt as their parents' generation were at their age, this new breed of renter is finding themselves living with strangers, having to write their name on their carton of milk in the fridge, and arguing over whose turn it is to buy toilet paper.
While many renters in this demographic view sharing a home with others as a lifestyle choice, others have no choice because they are locked out of the property market. House prices are now rising at a rate of more than 1pc per month, despite measures introduced by the Central Bank earlier this year aimed at cooling the mortgage market, according to the Central Statistics Office. High property prices and a shortage of housing have pushed rents up by more than 15pc in the last year. An apartment in the capital costs an average €1,260 a month, figures from the Private Residential Tenancies Board show.
Tony Fahey, a professor of social policy at University College Dublin whose research focuses on the Irish family and housing, says it was easier for the parents of modern-day mid-life renters to buy their own home in the 1960s and 1970s because tenants could buy the social housing they were renting from a local authority at an affordable rate. State subsidies were gradually wound down, leaving households at the mercy of the open market.
"We don't have a tradition of long-term private rental tenancies, so irrespective of whether or not people get married, they need a home for the long term when they get to a certain age," the professor says. "If you are 35 years old, you don't want to be knocking around from one short-term rental to another."
This is backed up by a survey commissioned last year by the PRTB, which showed that 15pc of tenants are 45 years of age or older. Almost 37pc of tenants in the 45-to-55 age profile said they were renting because they couldn't get a mortgage, either because they weren't earning enough or couldn't save enough for a deposit. About half of the renters in this age group said they would prefer to own their own home.
There are advantages, though, to not having the financial commitment that home ownership entails, as Pól Burns discovered. Pól, a separated professional in his 40s, says moving into an apartment in Dublin from the house he shared with his estranged wife has removed many of his day-to-day financial stresses.
"It's been a fairly positive experience," he says. "There's no house insurance, no property tax, and no need to worry about the upkeep of the property, and there's better security."
Not that renting is all plain sailing for Pól. "There's no garden, there's less privacy, there's no room for pets, there's restrictions on playing loud music, there's no room for a good house party, and there are loud noises next door - or is that upstairs? It can be hard to tell," he says. "There's always these niggles you feel you can't do anything about, like the biddy who slams the door of her apartment every morning at 7am when she goes out to work."
Pat O'Mahony never had much of a love affair with bricks and mortar: unlike many of his peers, the 54-year-old singleton says as a freelance TV and radio producer, renting suits his lifestyle.
Pat co-presented the RTÉ fashion series Head 2 Toe in the early 1990s and worked in London for 11 years. He returned to Dublin in 2009 and has produced programmes, including The John Murray Show, on RTÉ Radio 1. Despite advice from friends to get on the property ladder during the Celtic Tiger's infancy, Pat preferred not being tied to a mortgage. It made it easier for him to move to London in 1998 and return home again, he says. "When I was in London, I had all the advantages of living on my own while living with other people because a mate of mine bought a big f***-off house in Finsbury Park for his family and I lived in the basement for five years," Pat says. "I've always shared houses and I'm not sure if living on my own would drive me bananas."
After funding for a TV project he was working on in London fell apart in 2008, Pat successfully pitched a TV programme to RTÉ and came back to Ireland. He has spent the last 18 months living in Ballsbridge and has now taken a lease on a two-bed house in Rathmines, where he is vetting potential housemates. He doesn't care how old they are as long as they are good company.
"Age doesn't matter - they just have to be 'cool', a non-smoker, chilled, and tidy - I'm frighteningly tidy," Pat says. "I'd basically just want another one of me. I'm not a 20-something party animal so I will be looking for someone who likes to go out but doesn't drag 20 people back to the house every night."
In many ways, Pat's penchant for renting with housemates rather than buying a place of his own is in keeping with the new global Zeitgeist of middle-aged flat-sharing. In cities such as San Francisco, where the median rent is $4,200 (€3,810) a month, more people in their early forties rent property than own it, according to the US Census Bureau. In fact, sharing accommodation is becoming an entirely new way of life in cities like San Francisco, New York and London, where "co-living" is the latest craze to seize the imagination of founders of start-up companies. Partly inspired by the "co-working" model, where freelancers share office space, co-living blends the boundaries between work lives and personal lives.
Companies have sprung up to cash in on the new trend, offering entrepreneurs flexible, short leases as well as flat monthly fees that cover rent, bills, cleaning and shared activities. By outsourcing the "life admin" to these firms at a cost, housemates can focus on developing their business ideas together while minimising any potential friction once they return to their bedrooms.
But for older professionals in Ireland for whom sharing a home with strangers is not a lifestyle choice, the country's rental crisis is fast becoming a mid-life crisis.
"All my stuff is in my mother's garage," Eugene says. "That might be alright if you're 23 or 24, but it's completely undignified at my age".