business : Meet the Friends Buying Houses Together

Wednesday 12 June 2024 10:45 PM

Nafeza 2 world - When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Eve Ettinger realized something needed to change. Stuck working remotely in a rented farmhouse in rural Virginia, they felt isolated and yearned for community and support.

“I wanted to have a housing situation that was more focused on long term stability and sustainability,” says Ettinger, 35, who uses they/them pronouns. 

A friend of Ettinger’s had recently divorced and was looking to start over, and the two began to toy with the idea of purchasing a house together. “We wanted to divest from the compulsive heteronormative idea that you make your family and your stability out of romantic relationships,” says Ettinger. “We wanted to make an intentional community living situation where we could be there for each other in a bigger picture way.”

They purchased a home in northern Virginia in 2021 that they now share with a few friends. The move has allowed Ettinger, a writer who also works at a nonprofit, to build financial stability that had long felt out of reach.  

A generation ago, most Americans would have never considered the idea of buying a home with a friend. But that’s changing, as many millennials and members of Gen Z no longer view the traditional markers of stability—marriage, children, and a white picket fence— as an inevitable or even desirable goal. A record number of young adults are marrying later or not at all, and growing numbers are choosing not to have kids. Broader economic factors, like high inflation, increased cost of living, and stagnant wages, are making saving up for a home even more challenging. More than 12 million Americans spend at least half of their paycheck on rent, and housing prices in 99% of U.S. counties are unaffordable for the average wage earner, according to data from real estate data provider ATTOM.  

Entering the housing market on a single income can be difficult, which is why married couples still make up the largest percentage of home buyers in the U.S.. But many increasingly believe that the benefits of homeownership—the number one driver of wealth in the United States—should not be limited to those in romantic relationships. That’s why more people are choosing to purchase a home with close friends instead.

The data supports the idea that buying a home with friends is becoming a bona fide trend in the real estate market. A recent survey from JW Surety Bonds found some 15% of Americans have gone in on a home with someone other than a romantic partner. Open House Austin, a real estate company focused on helping homebuyers move away from traditional ideas of homeownership, says that the number of co-buyers they serve has jumped from 5% in 2021 to 16% in 2023. The HGTV series House Hunters is even devoting an upcoming episode to the practice.

Alex Reyna has always wanted to be a homeowner, but the process felt impossible without a partner—especially living in Austin, a city in which housing prices have skyrocketed after tech companies flocked to the region during the pandemic. “I would tell my mom, ‘It's just so hard not being dual income,’” Reyna, 35, says. “If I have somebody to pay half my mortgage it'd be a whole different story.“

When a friend began to look into moving to Austin from Washington, D.C., she approached Reyna with the idea of pooling their resources and purchasing together. They were able to buy a home in May with the help of Open House Austin. Neither of the women view the house as their ‘forever home,’ but rather a way for them both to build their own financial stability. “I have spent so much of my life living paycheck to paycheck,” says Reyna, who runs her own business managing short-term rentals. “Not only does this put us in a house, but it's also building something for our future and I think that was massive for both of us.”

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While the trend of buying homes with friends is becoming more mainstream, it’s hardly a new concept in the queer community. “It’s something that people have been doing for a long time because they had to,” says AnnieRose Shapiro, a real estate agent in Portland, Oregon. “Queer [people] who had a longtime romantic partner could not buy a home as a married couple.” 

Now the practice is catching on with others out of financial necessity.

“The housing market right now is, by historical measures, unaffordable,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. Buyers face prohibitively high prices and mortgage rates that are higher than they’ve been in decades. The percentage of homes in the market affordable to those making the median income in the U.S. has dropped from 50% in 2013 to 16% in 2023, according to Redfin data. Teaming up to buy a home can decrease costs by 40 to 60% per bedroom, says Matt Holmes, co-founder of CoBuy, an app that provides resources to help individuals throughout the co-buying process.

Still, while it can help cover costs, there are unique challenges that come with buying a house with a friend instead of with a spouse.

Heath Schechinger saw that for himself when he chose to co-buy a home with friends in Northern California in 2021. “We all had our own reservations about the nuclear family model of moving to the suburbs and feeling isolated and trying to raise a family by ourselves,” says Schechinger, 40, adding that regular rent hikes made them eager to purchase instead. “We all wanted to be able to eventually be a homeowner, so that we had the autonomy of making choices for our own, but living in the Bay Area that just seems so financially out of reach for all of us.” 

But Schechinger and his friends, who used CoBuy to help navigate the home-buying process, quickly learned that the process was not designed for multiple, unrelated buyers. “In all of the forms that we filled out, there were only two names that we could include, and we were constantly having to write in one of the other people,” he says.

“All of the systems that we built to facilitate and enable homeownership [including] financial, legal, and tax frameworks are all catered to a married couple,” Holmes says.

Across the country, housing inventory and laws reflect this. While multi-generational and multi-family homes are common in many parts of the world, the majority of homes built in the U.S. are single-family dwellings, according to the Center for American Progress. Many cities in the U.S.—including Stephenville, Texas and Providence, R.I.— prohibit three or more unrelated adults from living together. Some couples are even getting involved to make their own home search more affordable: a CoBuy survey found that one in five groups that were teaming up to co-own a house included a married couple in the group.

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Andy Sirkin, a lawyer who specializes in real estate co-ownership, says that he encourages co-buyers to draft up an operating agreement that breaks down what the agreement will look like from start to finish—including an exit strategy, property management, and default. 

Before purchasing their home, Reyna and her friend created an agreement that covers possible exit scenarios—including if one of them hopes to move in with a romantic partner or buy the other’s share of the property. For Ettinger, who purchased a home with a friend who earned more than them, the agreement also included “sweat equity”—the responsibilities and contributions to a home that might not be monetarily defined. “What I would pay in rent goes to equity, which I can pull up if I leave, and the rest I contribute through labor that's invested in making this place better and improving the standard of living for everybody,” says Ettinger. 

Sometimes the obstacles remain too great to overcome. Schechinger and his friends recently decided to sell their home, in part because their mortgage agreement prohibited them from transferring the mortgage to a non-family member when someone was hoping to transition out of the arrangement. 

Still, Schechinger is determined to try again. He describes his ideal home: a house with separate wings to allow for privacy, with shared spaces that foster connection. He views it as an antidote to the loneliness epidemic, a world in which friends might share the responsibilities of raising children or household responsibilities. “In the past, there were clear structures where people could rely on each other for support, whether it was caring for aging parents or helping with child rearing, or even finding a partner,” says Schechinger, a psychologist and co-founder of the Modern Family Institute, a research-based organization focused on expanding legal and social definitions of family. "This network provided a sense of security and mutual assistance that is no longer the case today."

He believes living situations that prioritize friendship and community will only continue to grow in popularity—especially as people look to build their own safety net in the absence of larger societal protections. “The social and economic pressures,” he says, “are too high for people to not consider it.”

Correction, June 11

The original version of this story misstated the name of an app that helps people buy homes together. It is CoBuy, not Co-Buy.

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