Sharing Home, Sweet Home

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank September 15, 2009 08:00

In the long-ago days when I could stay up past midnight, I once found myself on the wrong side of the dead-bolted door of a West Philadelphia row house at 1:30 in the morning. I started pounding. The door shook. The house shook. Either the door or my hand was going to break, but I was going to get in that house.

Finally, a light came on and a groggy guy stumbled down the steps and opened up.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I thought you weren’t coming home.”

Getting locked out of my own house by my passive-aggressive roommate was the last straw. I vowed I would never again live with someone I didn’t love.

That was 25 years ago. For most of the time since then this was an easy vow to keep: I lived with my family. Last fall, though, the second of the three children flew the coop, which meant I would be paying for – and heating — a four-bedroom house occupied by two people.

The obvious solution was to downsize. Ah, but you haven’t seen my attic or my garage or my basement. They’re filled with foam, wood, cardboard, paper, metal and fabric objects that I saved because I knew that some day we’d need them for a robot-dude-from-space Halloween costume.

Any year now, I’m going to rent chutes and trash bins and empty the place out. Then I’ll move into a very tiny house with a yard so small I can cut the grass with my mustache-trimming scissors. For now, though, I’ve gone into the rooming house business.

It came about this way: I live in a town that’s a lot like Sonora except it’s got 40,000 college students, which makes for a rather fluid housing market. So now my 15-year-old son and I are playing beer pong and doing Jell-O shots with our college-aged housemates.

Just kidding. What really happened is that I heard through the electronic grapevine that one of the many post-doctoral researchers who pass through the university every year was looking for a room in a house. A grownup, in other words. I got in touch, we sized each other up, concluded we could stand each other, and agreed on a price.

One year in, here are the advantages: David, a New Zealander in his 30s, essentially pays my heating bill for the year, gives me someone interesting to talk to when my son is out with his friends (which is most of the time) and makes a killer risotto.

The disadvantage: When my daughter, now out of college and living on her own, came home for spring break, she found someone sleeping in her bed. Unlike Baby Bear, she took it well (it helps that she can stay with her mom, who lives just a few blocks away).

I’m sorry not to have her there for morning coffee when she’s in town, but she understands that organizing my living situation around the couple of weeks per year when she returns to the nest is a luxury I can no longer afford.

Things have worked out so well with David that I’m thinking of renting out my other daughter’s bedroom to another post-doc this year. With two boarders I’ll practically be living for free.

Many of you, I suspect, will read this and say, “I could never do that. I value my privacy too much.”

I might have said the same thing a few years back. But when my marriage busted up and the kids began moving out, I found I had, if anything, too much privacy. After 20-plus years of family dinners and after-dinner wiffleball games and evenings around the dining room table with homework and newspapers, I was coming home, most days, to an empty house. It was lonesome.

Now I’ve got someone to talk with and someone to eat with and, above all, someone to help with the household bills. And I’m not the only one who’s renting out rooms. An old friend from Sonora who had arrived at the same stage and station in life gave me the idea. I’ve heard of other people who have taken on boarders as well. If, after sending your kids to college, your bank account is as empty as your nest, you should seriously consider it.

Eventually I’ll make the move to a tiny house or maybe even an apartment. For now, though, having a roomie beats clearing out all those never-used Halloween costume parts.

And don’t worry, I have the key to the dead bolt in this house so there’s no chance I’ll have to pound down the door to gain admittance at 1:30 a.m.

Of course, at my age, I’m never out that late anyway.

Russell Frank used to live in a two-bedroom house in Sonora with his wife, three kids and a dog. He now teaches journalism at Penn State University, where he can be reached at

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank September 15, 2009 08:00
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