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Can Renting Out Your Spare Room Enrich Your Life, Too?

Personal Perspective: Making the most of reduced circumstances yields rewards.

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There has always been a spare room in every place I’ve lived since I left home. In my single, somewhat younger days, my spare room was where friends came between jobs, romances, assignments. I liked it when they came to live in my spare room for a time that had a beginning, middle, and end, all of which were determined, more or less from the start. I liked it that the careful and delicate putting together of two different ways of being and doing that burden more permanent arrangements was not part of ours; it was my space, after all, so those delicate questions of turf and territory rarely came up. That changed when my spare room became neither a haven for temporary guests who were also my friends nor my office, which it was when no one was visiting. It became, instead, a way to pay my rent.

In those days, I lived in a generous, three-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a gorgeous view and elegant appointments, as I said in my first carefully worded ad. The master suite was at one end of the hall, which meant that when my door was closed, I was essentially in my own world. It still felt like my home, only with a paying guest, which made it easier for me to accept what I was beginning to realize was my “reduced circumstances.”

I had several answers to that initial ad, in which I’d identified myself as a writer and coach looking for a professional woman to share her home. And that’s who came to my door, lured by the location, the amenities, and a six-month lease that was priced just a bit higher than a nearby, unfurnished studio. Most were young women in their 20s, many of whom had just moved to Seattle.

I chose Whitney, a newly-minted public defender who had put herself through college and law school, worked 12 hours a day, rose before dawn to work out, and came home at night with takeout she’d picked up on her way back from the office. Most weekends, she went to Chicago to see her fiancé, who occasionally came west to visit her—and when he did, I rarely saw or heard them. I often asked her to join me for supper or a glass of wine; she was a window into a younger generation, a smart, strong person I admired, and I was happy for her but sad for me when she moved in with her guy, whose company transferred him.

After Whitney left, I found a great place to recruit my next few tenants. Travel nurses abound in many hospitals these days, and within hours of contacting the registry and mentioning that I was within walking distance of “Pill Hill,” as the hospital district is known here, I had my next roommate and a couple after that. They came from all over the country, eager to enjoy the charms of the city and explore the mountains and trails within a few miles of their temporary home. Their living expenses were paid by their employers, so even when I bumped the rent to make up for the increase in my own, it didn’t affect their consideration. They were cheerful and friendly—and, I confess, I felt a little more secure when they were around, just in case.

My last roommate in that apartment, a consultant from Portland with a contract assignment in Seattle, stayed for a year. In her mid-50s, she spent Thursdays through Mondays in her own home, and while we were polite and considerate with each other, we never got to be good friends. But we didn’t need to be; I just needed her to pay half my rent.

When my building was sold to developers, I was unceremoniously deposited into a rental market that had skyrocketed while I was living in the last best affordable apartment in Seattle within walking distance of Amazon. Not only couldn’t I find a two- or three-bedroom apartment for rent that my Social Security would cover; I couldn’t even afford a studio. And while I wasn’t averse to having a roommate, I wasn’t at all interested in being someone else’s. I got so desperate I answered a couple of ads for people seeking someone to share their quarters, but when it got right down to it, I couldn’t walk into a stranger’s home and ever feel like it was mine.

Beshert, which is Yiddish for destiny, arrived courtesy of a midnight visitation from my mother, who has been dead for nearly three decades but still disturbs my sleep on occasion, often reminding me to write a thank-you note or condolence letter. This time it was the latter—the last brother of her best friend had died, something I’d noticed in the obituary in the New York Times, which listed among his survivors his niece, Abby, who lived in Portland. I knew Abby, though not well; I was a senior in high school when she was born, but I’d kept track of her through our mothers, who were also 18 years apart in age. (My mother believed young friends kept you young, and she was right.).

I wrote the condolence letter, and Abby wrote right back; she was looking for a part-time apartment in Seattle, where her law firm had several clients. She was tired of hotels. Did I know of anyone who might have a place for her a few nights a month?

Over lunch a few days later, I explained my situation. “You find and furnish a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of my office, and I’ll pay half the rent,” she said. “I’ll expense it the way I do hotels. We’ll call it Bubble’s B&B.”

Even before the ink was dry on the lease, we were fast, deep friends. She moved her clothes into the closet, her sundries into the second bathroom, and her computer and TV onto my Wi-Fi. And she moved into my heart in a way no roommate ever did. We had so many memories to share, having grown up in the same town in adjacent eras at the beginning and end of the baby boom.

We knew each other’s families—we’d both called the other’s parents “Aunt “and “Uncle,” even though they were neither. We had similar social, cultural, and educational values, tastes, and histories. We both had grown kids. We laughed and cried at the same things and joked about each other’s eccentricities.

She got up early to go running, and by the time she was back, I had the coffee ready. Sometimes I cooked, and other nights, she took us to dinner. I adored her husband Rick, who visited on occasion when Abby had to see Seattle clients on the weekend, and he thought our arrangement was perfect. We told each other it was like discovering a sister we never had.

When her work trips to Seattle dwindled to once or twice a month, Bubble’s B&B was no longer an option, and without Abby, neither was the apartment. I moved instead to an interim apartment with a spare room, but nobody wanted to live there, including me. I promised my kids it was the last time they’d have to move me when, a year and a half later, a lovely, sunny, spacious one-bedroom apartment opened up in a newish building a block away from where I used to live. It’s affordable senior housing for people over 55, which at my age feels like generational diversity. There’s no spare room, but a comfortable couch plus an inflatable bed accommodate kids, grandkids, and an occasional visitor. In fact, Abby has a trial here next month, and even though she can expense her hotel, she’s planning to sleep on my couch.

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