As a millennial with an MFA, I’ve been broke more often in my life than not. My family doesn’t have money, and I’ve worked as an adjunct professor and freelancer for the last few years. It’s been tight. The pandemic saw me stranded in an old farmhouse without heat, thanks to my penny-pinching landlord, and far away from any friends, thanks to my teaching job at a rural community college. I was teaching on Zoom, living alone, and barely making rent. Everything felt too hard.
My friends and I have often joked about communal living in case of the apocalypse, but lately, that idea started to seem more and more like a practical solution to real needs. I’m from a big family, and living alone — while nice for a while — got old quickly. I wanted to have a life where I worked all day and then hung out with people in the evenings: people I liked and cared about, and who cared about me. (I suppose this is where I tell you I’m divorced and fully intend to never do traditional monogamy/marriage ever again. A husband? In this economy? No thanks.)
One of my best friends, a fellow divorcée with trust issues who I have jokingly dubbed “Straight Friend” (the token heterosexual in my life!), switched from working for nonprofits to working for a big law firm, and suddenly found herself with a lot more savings than she or I could have previously imagined having. We’re both the kind of spenders who buy the store brand canned beans to save a few cents, thrift all our clothes, and reuse jars for everything around the house. We also know that the way to build wealth and long-term financial stability in the U.S. is to buy property.
Owning a house felt so far out of reach for me — I don’t really have anything to speak of by way of savings; everything is hand to mouth. But Straight Friend wanted to buy a house and she wanted me to go in with her on it, to make the place a hub for community and support. I’m good at the labor of nurturing — I’m the friend who keeps plants alive, fixes your wonky bookcase, makes you dinner when you’re on a deadline and can’t do it yourself. So she asked me to join her, with the idea of having me provide the organizational and homemaking labor that she doesn’t have time to do (thanks, law firm hours!) while she put down the cash to buy the home. Then, we could jointly invest in it to give ourselves stability in the future.
We’re not unique. A lot of millennials without familial or romantic bonds are buying homes together. It’s partially out of necessity — stagnant wages, inflated housing costs, and fewer marriages means that we have to lean on each other to survive. But it’s also a creative answer to shifting cultural values. Mutual aid as a concept spread with the advent of COVID-19, and is increasingly a priority for pragmatic individuals who are earning less than their parents did. I’d say it’s a net positive. Mutual aid helps break down the isolation of distanced social networks created by an increasingly digital lifestyle, bringing people together, boosting morale, and strengthening interpersonal bonds.
When we sat down and started planning to buy this house together (we’d have taken any house, really, but the one we fell in love with has a spacious floor plan for hosting events and all the best bells and whistles from 1960s design offerings), my friend and I set these values out as priorities for ourselves, as a rubric for how we’d structure our arrangement. Before we could get to daydreaming about our massive native plant garden plans or the total kitchen remodel we want to do this summer, we had to establish our expectations and commitments.
One accountant I talked with, Alex Fleming, describes the investment I’m making in this home as “sweat equity.” Sweat equity is, essentially, when someone doesn’t have the capital to put down on a project but is able to invest in other ways — time, labor, specific skills that benefit the project.
If you’re thinking of buying property with a friend, “[Have] clear expectations and a clear agreement on what the value of the sweat equity part of it is,” he recommends. This can help prevent conflict later on down the road, he explains, and make things more fair.
My friend and I have worked it out so half of what I would pay for rent in our area for a similar home is covered by my organizational labor in the house. The difference I put down in cash (half what my rent would be if I was truly renting from her) is invested in the house as my own money. Getting the exact dollar value of my labor and investment is a way of protecting me as the party with less financial flexibility — and allows us something established to revisit as a foundation for renegotiations later, if the need arises.
For example, if I get a job that requires more of my time and energy and I can’t contribute to the homemaking part of this agreement, there’s already a clear dollar value to what I would need to pay to make that shift. And if I need to leave for some reason, she can buy me out because we’ve got a contractual record established of my investment.
When we began researching this arrangement, we looked into a couple different ways to establish the agreement to be fair all around. One option would have been to put my name on the deed, but given both of our histories around the hellscape that divorce can be financially, we opted not to do this. This gives me renters’ rights protections (because, technically, I’m renting from her, even though that’s not how either of us are approaching it), and allows us to both feel more in control — her to know that there isn’t a conflict for the house if we split up, and me to know I can walk away without a lot of hassle. Plus, having our arrangement in writing gives us both legal protections that we need if things go south. Hopefully it won’t, but for the time being, I feel so relieved to be making a home space that is not over-burdened with gender norms or interpersonal expectations, where I can contribute as I can, and be supported.