When her husband moved into a care home two and a half years ago, Barbara, a 77-year-old retired piano teacher, found herself living alone for the first time in over 50 years.
A year ago she welcomed a new housemate: Isaac, 24, who spends two hours a day helping out around the house with cleaning, gardening and cooking in exchange for an affordable room in her two-bedroom home in Barnet, north London.
The pair, who asked for their surnames not to be published, found each other through Supportmatch, a community interest company that matches homeowners looking for companionship and household help with people looking for an alternative to rental accommodation.
Homesharing organisations have reported a surge in enquiries in recent months, as steep rises in rents, food, energy and fuel add to the financial burden of non-homeowners.
Supportmatch received a 56 per cent increase in enquiries in 2022 compared with the previous year, up to 350. Leeds Homeshare reported a 190 per cent increase in the number of enquiries in the second half of 2022, compared with the first half, up to 32.
“We are seeing a huge degree of desperation at the moment,” says Zaira de Novellis, Supportmatch’s managing director. She says homesharing listings in prime locations such as London or Manchester that before the pandemic would have received an average of 10 applicants now have as many as 40.
The sharp increase in rental costs is one of the factors causing people to look at homesharing. The rent to income ratio for single earners is at its highest level in over a decade at 35 per cent of average earnings, according to Zoopla.
In 2022, increases in rents on new tenancies averaged 12 per cent in the 12 months to December, according to Zoopla — outstripping an inflation rate of 9 per cent, and an earnings growth rate of 6 per cent. Increases were even higher in the UK’s largest cities — 17 per cent in London, and 15.6 per cent in Manchester.
Isaac turned to homesharing after graduating in music as a way to minimise his financial outgoings while he established himself as a piano teacher. “It’s very difficult to jump straight into full-time work, especially as a musician or someone who’s self-employed.”
Since living with Barbara he has built up a network of regular students, and is putting money away each month that he hopes one day to spend on a deposit for his own house. Sometimes he and Barbara show each other new piano arrangements they have been working on.
The price of homesharing varies, but common practice is that both householder and homesharer pay a monthly fee to the facilitating organisation.
Supportmatch charges £99 a month to the householder and £170 a month to the homesharer, adjusting the price for those with very little or no income. The fees keep the company funded and, in exchange, the organisation facilitates and monitors the pairings, providing 24/7 support if needed.
In addition to paying the fee, the homesharer commits to give 10 hours a week of support to their host, as well as five hours a week of companionship time.
Often the quality of accommodation for the homesharers is much better than the rental alternatives. At Barbara’s, Isaac has his own bedroom and bathroom upstairs and they share the kitchen downstairs.
However, affordability is not the only factor turning people towards homesharing.
For Jaimee, a 35-year-old academic from the US who is completing a year-long stint as a researcher at the University of Oxford, homesharing has enabled her to be part of the local community. “Everyone on the street knows my housemate, and I’ve got to know his family. There’s a sense of rootedness, rather than just swooping in for a year.”
Yet living in someone else’s home comes with some limitations. “It’s not a kind of home in the same way that I can have loads of people over or entertain to the extent that I would do not living with her,” says Freya Wood, a 24-year-old who homeshared for a year while training to be a barrister. “But that didn’t really impinge on my feelings that it was my house.”
Homesharing exists in several countries across the world, including the US, Australia and Germany. In the UK the number of homeshares is small but expected to grow in coming years.
Deborah Fox, head of Homeshare UK, a network of homesharing programmes, says they oversee more than three-quarters of UK homeshares, with up to 700 on their books at any given time. “We’re just at the beginning of a very large expansion programme that’s going to see another 40 programmes developed over the next three or four years,” says Fox.
However, homeless charity Shelter warns that homesharing arrangements, where people exchange cleaning or caring responsibilities for accommodation, are not a viable alternative to an affordable rental market and good provision of social housing.
“These kinds of arrangements exist,” says Shelter’s policy manager Charlie Trew, “because of the terrible state of the private rental market and the fact that many, many people simply cannot find somewhere that is genuinely affordable, that is good quality that they can live in.”
For ageing homeowners having difficulty maintaining their home, or with declining physical health and feelings of loneliness, homesharing can be a boon.
“A big motivation for householders is the cost of low-level social care,” says Fox. “Just having an overnight presence in the home is phenomenally expensive for an older person, so economically it’s a really good deal for them.”
Barbara says that if Isaac was not living with her, she would be paying for extra support, like a cleaner, to come regularly. “I like to have another breathing human being in the house and just somebody who if anything did go wrong I could call on, or somebody I can have a chat with. I feel very reassured about that.”
According to Fox, homesharing is a way for homeowners to give back to society. “They want to give somebody who can’t afford good quality accommodation a bit of a boost in life.”
Yet cohabiting with a stranger, particularly after years of living alone or with a partner brings with it its own challenges. “Communication is extremely important,” says Barbara, “he’s been very respectful of my space, so it’s good.”
Homeownership in England is concentrated among the older generations, with 79 per cent of over 65s being homeowners and 63 per cent of outright homeownership also among those age over 65, according to the English Housing Survey.
The number of homeowners with unoccupied rooms is growing — over half of owner-occupied households contain two or more unused bedrooms, according to the English Housing Survey, up to 8.3mn households in 2022 compared with 7.8mn households in 2019.
“We want to get all the pension age people to come forward,” says de Novellis. “They still have big houses, they still have spare rooms. So all this housing stock is completely unused and [homesharing] could actually benefit them.”