Ready to Re-think the Housing Dream?
Here’s a not-so-newsflash: Affording a traditional single-family home is tough. As of July, the nationwide median list price for a home was $299,000, according to Realtor.com. Of course, that’s just the list price. You’ll also need to come up with a down payment, closing costs, moving expenses, and a host of other seemingly endless fees in order to cross the threshold into your starter home. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a relatively affordable area.
Renting can be cheaper upfront, at least in some areas. Nationally, rent is hovering around $950 on average for a one bedroom, $1,178 for a two, according to Apartment List. But if you’ve relocated into a major city (like New York City’s $2,108 average one bedroom) or a tech hub (like San Francisco’s $2,458 average one bedroom) for work, finding an affordable space can feel like a pipe dream.
Many people might think buying or renting a traditional single-family house or apartment is the only option—even if they’re struggling to afford it. But there are a lot of choices that don't fit neatly in the mainstream housing market, and more and more people are seeking them out as housing costs become increasingly burdensome.
Housing cooperatives, or co-ops, aren’t anything new. In the past, developers in parts of the Midwest and Deep South would buy a tract of land to build multiple family homes and New Yorkers have long bought or built buildings collectively to control prices. But co-ops are having a bit of a Renaissance amongst urban-dwelling millennials caught between high rent and high housing prices.
Essentially, in a co-op, you and a group of like-minded individuals pool your money to buy one group of housing—such as a plot of land, an apartment building, or a mobile home park. Instead of getting a traditional mortgage, you help finance a loan to give out shares to yourself and other owners, who essentially become the condo or housing board. Everyone lives at the property and owns a piece of the whole unit, rather than their individual home or condo. When you’re ready to sell, you sell your shares in the pie, not your individual unit.
Co-living is like a grown-up version of dorm living with nicer stuff. Basically, you rent a small bedroom and share common spaces like bathrooms, kitchen, laundry room, and living space with potentially dozens of other renters in the building.
That’s the dorm aspect, here’s the adult twist: many include housekeeping services, premium cable and internet packages, gourmet kitchens, and shared amenities like yoga rooms. Not a terrible deal for younger millennials looking for a place to crash temporarily or those who move to a new city looking to meet new people.
WeWork, the startup that rents fancy coworking office spaces, got into the communal living game last year with WeLive communities. With buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., WeLive tenants get a tiny furnished studio, tons of communal space, and some other perks, but it doesn’t come cheap. The New York building, for example, sits in a barely converted office building on Wall Street. As of 2017, it cost $3,050 a month to stay in the space, according to Business Insider.
Work-trade arrangements aren’t as common as they used to be, but it’s still possible to find free or reduced housing if you live and work on-site. Condo associations and apartment building owners are often looking for live-in maintenance and management staff. Typically, workers get a reduced rent rate as a job perk, but some places also offer free housing.
For adventurous and outdoorsy types, lodges, resorts, and even some national parks offer housing for workers. Many areas are mostly looking for live-in workers during the height of tourist season with a skeleton staff during the offseason, but if you’re not into solitude, you don’t have to recreate your own version of “The Shining” to pull off year-round living. Some workers toggle between ski lodges in the winter and beach resorts in the summer through sites like Cool Works that make finding those jobs easier.
Extended house sitting is a rising trend, especially for workers relocating to new cities for work without a set place to live. Many people go the route of Airbnb, hopping from one pad to the next, and paying the fees in advance to do so, but living that way can get expensive. In New York, rentals cost an average of $187 per night, according to AirDNA, a website that tracks the Airbnb market.
Another, possibly cheaper option, is house sitting through home sellers. In less than hot markets where homes can sit available for two months or more, some sellers look for a temporary tenant to live in the space while they sell. On the plus side, tenants often get cheap rent and owners get the peace of mind from knowing someone is there if anything goes wrong. But since a property can sell at any time, tenants may get only about a month to move once an offer is accepted.
Intergenerational home sharing
Multiple generations living under one roof isn’t anything new, but one startup, Boston-based Nesterly, is looking to better connect two particular generations: boomers and millennials. Nesterly aims to help boomer homeowners fill their empty rooms while also helping millennials save money. Landlords in the program agree to give millennials a bigger discount for helping out with household chores.
As an added benefit, both older and younger generations get a chance to meet and get to know each other where they otherwise might not. Currently, Nesterly is up and running in Boston with plans to expand.
Tiny homes come across your Instagram feed all the time for a good reason: beyond being a grown-up version of the playhouses we all wanted as kids, tiny homes can often be built more cheaply than traditional houses and have almost endless design options. Teri Page, founder of off-the-grid living site Homestead Honey, estimated most tiny homes run $25,000 to $35,000, though you can buy mostly DIY building kits for much less, or custom designed and professionally built tiny homes for more. Some builders now offer payment plans similar to a 15-year mortgage as well.
Coming in at 400 square feet or less, tiny homes might present a challenge for those used to more living space, but many of these homes are fairly mobile, so you can literally take your house with you when you move.