One House, Two Single Moms

Thousands of Women See Home-Sharing as a Win-Win Situation By Constance M. Green Special to The Washington Post Like many sisters, Dana and Shelley Grasty share many things -- a notable resemblance, childhood memories and, occasionally, a special belt or bag. But for three years now, they've also shared some other things: a mortgage, their children, family meals, a car and even vacations. The two, both divorced, live in a six-bedroom house in Northwest Washington with their three children. The decision to buy their house was an easy one, they say. "We both lived in small apartments next door to each other and we were constantly in each other's homes," explains Shelley, a 41-year-old insurance salesperson. "We knew we wanted to stay in the city, and given the home prices here, it just made sense to put our money together to get the type of home we wanted. Neither of us could have done it alone." The economic benefits of their partnership have been significant, but the rewards have been far more than financial, the women say. It's been beneficial to have a second parent and an understanding. "We've always been close, and this has made us even closer," Dana, 35, says. "It's the best thing in the world we could have done. We share everything -- cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, child care -- everything except men. That's where we draw the line," Dana jokes. The Grasty women's living arrangement doesn't seem so uncommon these days. Home-sharing may be a growing solution to the dearth of affordable housing, high divorce rates, family separation, and the time crunch that plagues working mothers. Carmel Sullivan, founder and executive director of, a Web site that matches single mothers seeking housemates, says she has seen a growing interest in home-sharing among women. This need, says Sullivan, 49, is especially acute among single mothers seeking affordable housing, better schools and safe neighborhoods in which to rear their children. Many of her clients, she says, find the service "a godsend. It's a solution they can take in hand and not wait for social service or government." Sullivan knows this firsthand. The idea for her site grew out of her own experience. In 2001, as a newly divorced mother, she says she felt the need to connect with other women in similar circumstances. "For me it was more of an emotional thing," says Sullivan, who lives in the Los Angeles area. "I was coming out of a 17-year marriage and didn't want to raise my son alone." So she started canvassing her neighborhood, her son's school and her network of co-workers and friends for a housemate. "At the end of the day, I had 17 other moms," who responded, says Sullivan. Only four years later, CoAbode has grown into a nonprofit organization with some 17,000 registered members. Women become members by filling out free confidential profiles online. They then gain access to a variety of services, including support groups, advice pages and a mom-matching service. A onetime fee gives a member access to the site's blind e-mail service, which allows her to communicate with others she thinks would be good matches, before deciding whether to meet a potential housemate. According to Sullivan, so far CoAbode has matched about 2,000 women nationwide. But it's hard to keep track, she acknowledges, because the site is self-reporting. Shawn Goldstein, a real estate agent who became a single mom when she adopted her now 4 1/2-year-old son, is one of the women who found a housemate, and a friend, through CoAbode. Goldstein, 42, owns a three-bedroom house with a big yard in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest Washington. About a year ago, she decided to house-share to find additional funds for private school for her son. Through CoAbode, Goldstein paired up with Darcie Allen, a 29-year-old graduate student who was looking for just such a situation. Married and the mother of a son who is almost 5, Allen was relocating from North Carolina to Washington to attend Georgetown University. She was coming without her husband, who remained behind because of his job. Darcie was the second person to e-mail me and I liked her immediately," Goldstein says. "We met over coffee, and knew we'd get along really well. And she didn't mind living with my dog." The two women worked out a plan to split the mortgage, utilities, groceries and space in the house -- Allen has the basement, Goldstein the top floor. The two share the living room, den and kitchen on the main floor. They also share parenting duties and routinely eat together. When Allen's husband visits every other weekend, he usually prepares a Sunday breakfast for the entire household. Not all such shared-living settings work out as well. All of the women interviewed for this story say that successful home-sharing requires honest communication and clear-cut guidelines -- who pays for what and how much, when and for how long visitors can stay, how the household chores will be divided, what's private and what's shared, and when children are involved, how to co-parent them. Dana Grasty, an accountant for a public relations firm, says she and her sister rarely disagree over parenting issues because they have similar philosophies. Their children also attend the same school and their mothers decide who will drop off and pick up the kids or attend school functions based on whose work schedule is more flexible at the time. She cautions, however, that child rearing could be a dicey area. Allen agrees, but says it need not be. "Shawn and I are both trying to find our way and we normally discuss discipline as the need arises," says Allen. Though she's not actually a single parent, Allen's current living situation has given her a rare perspective on the challenges single mothers face. She says she and Goldstein take turns playing the dad's role. "If one person loses control of a situation, the other steps in so the other mom has a chance to collect herself," she says. "Because our sons are both only children, it's been good for them to have brotherly attention and learn that they are not the center of the universe," adds Goldstein. "And we're here to support one another as much as we can." For example, recently when Allen had a late class, Goldstein picked up her son from school, fed and bathed him and put him to bed. And they trade off like that constantly, which makes life less stressful for both women. "When you're buying, you have to be sure you want to do it," says Mary Malgoire, president of the Family Firm, a Bethesda-based financial advisory company. "It's like a marriage -- it's more difficult to get out of it." Malgoire advises prospective co-buyers to rent together for at least a year before buying, and to plan for eventualities such as job changes, disability, death or just the feeling that it's not working anymore. Besides a contract on living arrangements, Malgoire proposes that co-owners consider setting up a cash reserve to cover the mortgage in case of emergencies. This could be simply done by each roommate putting aside a certain amount each month in a joint account that requires both signatures to access. It's also important to decide details such as under what conditions they would sell the house, who gets the mortgage interest deductions, and personal liability issues, she says. Regardless of age or family ties, shared-living participants believe two pulling together is easier than one pulling alone. "They're creating families of choice," observes Malgoire, noting that if people take the time to properly work out the details, shared-living "can be a wonderful solution."
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