Wednesday 17 October 2018

'Country people have much better attitudes and understand the art of living with others': house-sharing with strangers

Rising rental rates, increasing marriage breakdowns, skyrocketing house prices - mean that many people in their 40s no longer find themselves able to live alone. Here, Tanya Sweeney speaks to the over-40s who are house sharing and choosing not to live alone.

Mutual respect: Eilis O’Connell has shared her house in Phibsborough for 25 years. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Mutual respect: Eilis O’Connell has shared her house in Phibsborough for 25 years. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Tanya Sweeney

According to received wisdom, flatmates and house-shares are a rite of passage for youngsters, to be more endured than enjoyed. But not anymore. A confluence of factors - rising rental rates, increasing marriage breakdowns, skyrocketing house prices - mean that many people in their 40s no longer find themselves able to live alone.

Some older house-hunters may be unable to get a mortgage due to their age, with renting now their only option.

And experts say those caught in a 'perfect storm', brought about by spiralling rents and the collapse of a marriage, can be especially hard hit.

Fintan McNamara, director of the Residential Landlords' Association of Ireland (RLAI), says flat-sharing in middle age is becoming increasingly common, particularly in Dublin, and says many of these older renters have suffered a marriage breakdown. "It's a very difficult situation to be in at a later stage in life," he adds.

"One in five homes is privately rented and as Census 2016 shows, the population is getting older with the average age at 37.4," says Stephen Large, Dublin Services Manager with Threshold. "Almost 30pc are in the 25-44 age group and just over 37pc are aged 45 and over. Correspondingly, 35pc of those renting are aged 25-34, with those aged 35-44 the second largest group at 15pc. Over 1.5 million or 41pc of people are single. All of this affects the rented sector.

"Whilst it is becoming more common for people to choose to live in rented accommodation, for many in their 30s/40s, they feel they are trapped through no choice of their own. Traditionally, the private rented sector would be seen as a transition or stepping stone into home ownership or being housed by their local authority, but since the economic downturn, these pathways have effectively been closed off."

Actors, Robert Webb and David Mitchell
Actors, Robert Webb and David Mitchell

There may be many unable to afford to live alone, yet there are others for whom living with strangers is not a hardship.

Teacher Angela Hughes, in her early 40s, has always shared her Dublin house with renters. "I would say 70pc has to do with finances and the rest is social reasons," she says. "I would live on my own for a bit but I don't find it normal. I'd rather share. Maybe it's coming from a big Catholic family.

"I used to live with lots of different people in my 20s and became friends with many of them," she adds. "Now I find sharing with one person is plenty.

"The major change I have noticed [between sharing in your 20s and 40s] is that people are more withdrawn, heading to their bedrooms rather than spending time in the communal space, and technology has taken over where conversation was commonplace. As you get older you tend not to be as tolerant of others, so it's important their habits are something you're okay with."

As to what others think of Angela's decision to have housemates in her 40s: "Opinions tend to range. Some people think it would be great for me to live alone, but sure as you get older, the less you care what others think! I don't feel stigmatised because I'm sharing and I'm over 40."

Eilis O'Connell, who works in healthcare, has shared her Phibsborough house in Dublin for 25 years and has no plans to stop now, in her mid-50s.

"The primary reason is financial, [but] I enjoy the company," she says. "To me, it has been a necessity with benefits."

"I don't think people are quieter or cleaner or more considerate as they grow older. I think amicable sharing is down to mutual respect.

"I think Dublin people are more averse to sharing because, traditionally, they lived at home and rarely shared with others prior to settling down. Country people have much better attitudes and understand the art of living with others. Very few of my generation in my circle share, but I do see more people considering it as an option."

Co-living looks set to become the new normal, yet for years, we have been culturally wedded to a certain set of ideas around flat-sharing. Pop culture - from Friends and Girls to Fresh Meat and Peep Show - has been peddling the idea of house-sharing as a badlands of dysfunction and arrested development. In the case of the latter, the show came to a natural end as its lead actors, Robert Webb and David Mitchell, approached their 40s. "Two middle-aged men sharing a flat like that, that's too sad," said Mitchell ahead of the final series. "It's got to stop because we've got older."

It's not just Mitchell that believes we should have outgrown the house-sharing arrangement by the time we reach 40. We've long believed that grown-ups who are 'adulting' in the right way have followed a careworn trajectory towards living in their own home (or a family home). It's been widely held that our living status is a signifier of our life's work (and that being 'forced' to share is some kind of misstep). And, crucially, many of us believe that by the time we reach 40, we are too stubbornly set in our ways for the sociable flexibility that house-sharing requires.

McNamara admits that for many that are moving from solo living into a house-share situation, the transition can be "a difficult thing psychologically".

"Separation and divorce can be very expensive and, in many cases, a family home is left to the wife and children, and the husband has to move out," he says.

"I've noticed a lot of people who have come from abroad and are used to renting with others, but for Irish people, it is difficult to be renting when you're getting on in years. Everyone likes their own space, and rowing over the kitchen and cooking times can be especially difficult when you're in your 40s or 50s."

Psychologist Owen Connolly adds: "Men by their nature are not good at living collectively. As you get older, it becomes even more difficult. Women can be fantastic and will live in any group, but if men have to share with other men, a lot of work has to be done to attain a level of tolerance. Men get set in the way they want things done. And privacy is a huge issue for them. Without wanting to generalise, many men have to start from scratch [from a domestic point of view], especially if they have come from the family home," he adds. "The majority of younger men know what a washing machine is, but an older age group might be the ones that would struggle."

Yet Eilis O'Connell notes that the rules for domestic harmony are much the same in one's 50s as in one's 20s. "Ensure your housemate feels it is their home - many renters do not like living with owner occupiers and I think this is because they are not made welcome and considered second-class citizens who pay the rent," she advises. "Find out each other's social patterns, workday and activities so you can work out amicably how to share the bathroom and when you have the house to yourselves.

"I would recommend living with strangers rather than ruining a friendship. And set a three-month trial period on both sides, so you can part amicably if things don't work out."

Irish Independent

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