With affordable-housing options in the Washington area seemingly getting scarcer by the day, an unconventional array of 20- and 30-somethings is finding a creative way to become homeowners and renters: group living.
For those willing to live the group-house lifestyle, such as Ben Levine, 30, buying a home and living among several tenants who rent out all available rooms has become a popular option.
Rather than choosing a studio or one-bedroom condo as their first home purchase, buyers who select a multi-bedroom house can often cover much or even all of their mortgage payments with rental income.
But there’s a flip side. In many group houses, home sweet home can take on the vibe of a rowdy dorm room. Houses are often crowded with mismatched Craigslist-sourced furniture and bicycles leaning against walls. And squabbles over who is responsible for buying the toilet paper that month are common.
Does living with an owner mean less chaos in the house?
“In my last group situation, it was so dirty and there was mold on the walls,” said Shannon Chapman, 22, who moved into Levine’s house this summer. “That’s what I was imagining when I read the Craigslist ad for this house. But when I walked in, it was so beautiful, I thought, ‘I hope they like me!’ ”
In 2009, when Levine came upon a Bloomingdale foreclosure with good bones, grimy walls and five bedrooms — including a two-bedroom basement apartment — he knew he had found a place he could turn into a home to share.
Levine, a theater artist who was 24 at the time, embarked on a major renovation of the Rhode Island Avenue NW house, updating the kitchens, bathrooms, walls and floors with the help of friends, who then became roommates. Spiral staircases lead up and down to tucked-away bedrooms, and a lofted bed, accessible by a steep ladderlike staircase in the master suite, has a view of the Capitol and a wide white wall for projecting movies.
Since buying, Levine has never had a month without renters and covers the mortgage payment twice over, though he keeps the rent below market rate.
The median price of homes sold in the Washington area continues to rise, reaching a near record high in June of $439,000 — just $1,000 below the all-time high reached in June 2007 and June 2013. (It was $400,000 in September.) Of all the jurisdictions in the region, the District had the biggest increase in median price, rising to $550,000 from $520,000.
For many young people, grappling with crushing student-loan debt and often low-paying jobs right out of college, homeownership can be a distant dream. It’s certainly out of the question now.
It’s hard enough, many say, to find an apartment within their means.
According to a widely cited report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the number of apartments renting for $800 or less fell to 33,400 in 2013 from 57,700 in 2002. Thus, many young residents find that squeezing into rented rooms in group houses is the most manageable option for their budgets.
For those who think they might want to contemplate a group-living arrangement, here’s roughly how it works:
Say you’re looking to buy a four-bedroom rowhouse on the market for $675,000 in Northwest Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. With a studio apartment in the basement, a hypothetical owner-occupant could rent out three bedrooms and the basement while living in the master bedroom.
With a down payment of 10 percent, or $67,500, the monthly mortgage payments on the home would come out to $3,055. According to Craigslist, rooms in the neighborhood rent anywhere from $500 to $1,300. To cover the mortgage payment, the landlord-roommate could rent the three upper bedrooms for $600, $800 and $900 — for a total of $2,300 — and the basement for another $750, leaving the owner’s share at virtually zero.
Typically, owner-occupants get a better mortgage rate than landlords who rent out their properties from afar. According to Chicago-based real estate attorney Samuel J. Tamkin, co-author of the “Real Estate Matters” column, owners who opt to fill their vacant rooms with tenants will receive the same lower rates as those who live there without tenants.
“The mortgage was given to the owner on the condition that the home is going to be owner-occupied,” Tamkin said. “As long as that remains true, their residential mortgage is not affected.”
Individual jurisdictions have varying zoning codes that limit the number of unrelated people who are permitted to live in the same house; in the District, no more than six unrelated people can live together. And as long as the owner is one of the occupants, no license is needed.
As he was approaching his mid-30s, Graham McLaughlin, a D.C.-based consultant, had amassed enough savings for a down payment on his first home. McLaughlin had been renting a small row house near the U Street corridor with a friend and wanted to begin putting down roots.
A four-bedroom home on a corner lot in Hill East called out to him.
“I want to die here,” McLaughlin said. “You never know what life is going to bring, but I can see living in this house for the rest of my life. I hope that I’m fortunate enough to find a partner one day, and I wanted to buy a house that was large enough to foster kids in.”
In the meantime, McLaughlin also looked to Craigslist to fill his home with roommates. A couple rents the basement, and three roommates (including his original roommate) fill the main house. Like Levine’s, McLaughlin’s mortgage is covered, and then some, by his rental income.
As opposed to his previous home, which was a “little, dark, not updated” rental, the interior and exterior of McLaughlin’s new house benefited from having an owner-occupant with a long-term investment. McLaughlin updated his kitchen with luxury fittings and is installing a native plant garden outside.
“We have these marble countertops, and I’m so freaked out about stains,” McLaughlin said. Maintenance, he said, is often on his mind. “I find myself sometimes giving somebody a hard time or moving a cup . . . and then I think, ‘What are you doing?!’ ”
In typical group houses, the landlord has a clear investment in the house, while renters might see no point in considering the long-term value. Upkeep and potential deterioration may not factor into daily conversations among renters, but how does the dynamic change when your landlord lives down the hall?
“Getting to know Ben on a personal level raises the bar,” said Becky Normile, a 27-year-old health-policy worker who rents out a room in Levine’s basement apartment. “I want to maintain the good relationship that we have, so to that extent, I want to make sure I’m taking care of Ben’s house.”
“Sometimes when they go on vacation, I’ll go down to their bathroom and scrub with a toothbrush or douse the tiles in Tilex,” Levine said. “I’m a naturally clean person, and I feel a different kind of investment in the house. But I know I can’t expect other people to want to scrub with a toothbrush!”
Hiring a house cleaner eased tensions, Levine said, and choosing roommates who understand the investment that he made has helped.
“In my last home, the owner lived in Venezuela and we needed to threaten legal action before he took care of the mold situation,” said Chapman, who moved to the District to work for a philanthropy consulting firm. “But when you live with the owner, and you see how much work they put into it, you feel an obligation to keep it just as nice.”
Besides the occasional deep clean and some gentle chiding, Levine is careful to make sure that his roommates feel ownership over their own space. As he offered a tour of the house, he stepped gingerly into Chapman’s bedroom, accessible by a spiral staircase in the kitchen, for the first time since she moved in over the summer.
“This is so cute, Shannon!” he said.
For McLaughlin, making his house feel like a welcoming home is a priority.
“I wanted to create a family atmosphere, to have people over all the time and develop a support system,” said McLaughlin, who organizes Sunday dinners, “pancake Saturdays” and pick-up games on the lawn.
McLaughlin’s ownership stake bleeds into the atmosphere of the home in a positive way, he says: “Nobody else is coming [to take the house away]. There is a feeling that we are in this together, we’re doing life together, and we’re trying to figure this out.”
For Ed Mead, who bought a six-bedroom house in College Park, Md., in 2009, choosing the right roommates helped create a harmonious home. Mead finds his roommates on Craigslist and decided that young professionals generally took more care with this home than students. And according to one of his roommates, personality matters.
“All five of the housemates are relatively laid back, including myself,” said Rachel Unger, a 27-year-old medical assistant and part-time student who, until recently, was renting a room in Mead’s house. “We have a great house dynamic, with one controlling person and five laid-back people, so there isn’t a clash between two or more dominant types. I wonder if a more controlling, take-charge person would be less inclined to live with a landlord-housemate.
“I perceive Ed as nagging me much of the time,” Unger said. “As the landlord, Ed can set the rules and reprimand us without us necessarily questioning him.”
“I obviously have a lot more of an interest in the house,” Mead said.
Nagging aside, from Unger’s description, the power imbalance is more a fact of life than a point of resentment. Mead takes on a greater burden of cleaning and upkeep, caring for the outdoors and the appliances. When the dishwasher broke, for example, Unger recalled that the housemates were happy to step aside while Mead took on the responsibility of fixing the problem.
And other pros exist, Unger said. When her income dropped suddenly and her car required pricey repairs this year, Unger and Mead were able to smoothly work out a deal, and Unger felt that Mead was more sympathetic to her situation than a more distant landlord may have been.
“We have free-flowing conversation when a problem arises,” Unger said.
When an owner-occupant gets used to the budgetary bliss of the arrangement, and is comfortable sharing their space, how do they decide when it’s time to move on?
Mead, who said his tenants cover “all of the mortgage and then some,” temporarily relocated to Chicago recently. Mead is keeping his Maryland home as his principal residence for now, although his tenants have turned over, and he is adjusting to his new role as a more typical, distant landlord.
“It’s good for me to be comfortable being away for an extended period of time to learn to trust the infrastructure that I put into place,” Mead said. “But since I can’t exactly see what is going on, I may have to come up with the best solutions all the time. But I’ll likely be back, so I think it will all work out.”
Levine has been thinking about the future of his life in the home.
“At some point in the future, I see myself not renting out the upstairs rooms,” Levine said.
As for when that will be, Levine is unsure. Perhaps five years or 10 years in the future. But for now, the appeal of living without tenants is outweighed by his monthly inflow of cash.
“I definitely dream of having the whole place to myself,” Levine said, “but whenever I think that, I get dollar signs over my eyes. It feels silly not to take advantage of the financial situation that I have.”
Shilpi Malinowski is a freelance writer.