One house two owners

There's a new kind of homebuyer with an old moniker. Remember roommates?

Singles unable to afford a house solo are turning to one another, and buying together.

It's the result of delayed marriage and shorter-term outlooks when buying real estate. And it follows the rise of singles buying homes on their own. Mostly, it's seen in the priciest markets. But expense is relative, making this more than strictly an urban, coastal trend.

Last November, Mark Amann and a high-school buddy bought a 3,000-square-foot house outside Denver.

"I won't live in an apartment or a condo," says Mr. Amann, who, after college, lived with his parents and traveled in Latin America. "We're Western boys. We need a lot of space."

And a lot of roommates. They have four tenants, making their circa-1960 house a home for six young men, two dogs, and the fish and turtle in a backyard pond. The renters pay about 75 percent of each monthly mortgage payment.

While married couples account for two-thirds of home owners, singles are gaining on them, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). More than a fourth of homeowners are now single individuals.

NAR doesn't distinguish between single friends and unmarried couples, who together account for about 7 percent of homeowners. Making the distinction could be considered discriminatory. While no statistics show how prevalent co-owner friends are, NAR knows, anecdotally, that people are increasingly joining their ranks.

A sense of community and better friendships are often the byproducts of buying a home with a friend, many buyers find. This aspect of co-ownership may become more important to singles, as many now feel - in light of the events of Sept. 11 - an increased need to form closer bonds.

Having a large house "gives my friends a place to live, [creating] a community here," Amann says.

Ten years ago, Charles Sadowski and his sister were living with their parents and had money to invest, but they didn't want to forgo a social life to afford a house. The answer was to buy one together on Long Island. With six bedrooms and 3,800 square feet, it would be easy to resell, they thought.

In the meantime, they've put the house's space to good use for entertaining friends. A Christmas tree-trimming party, which began with a few people, now entertains almost 40.

"We've combined our friends over the years.... If we lived in different places that would not have necessarily happened," says Mr. Sadowski. "Something that just started out to be a thing of convenience ... has turned into a lot more."

Co-homeownership also can deepen a relationship, says John Hubbard. Two months ago, he sold the Columbus, Ohio-area house he and a friend had bought together five years ago.

"You have to have someone you [can] room with, and someone who can afford it," Mr. Hubbard says.

For those used to living alone, having someone around all the time can be trying. A year ago, Jose Velazquez and a co-worker bought a row house in Washington, D.C., as an investment. They rented a basement apartment to a married couple, and four bedrooms in the house to four other singles. Having so many people under one roof compounded an already-stressful first year.

How long guests should stay and who should clean common areas were two of the myriad decisions the men had trouble making. This month, they plan to write tenant-management and house-rules addendums to the basic partnership agreement they drew up.

"We kind of thought that common sense would be enough," Mr. Velazquez says. "The things we argued about are the things that weren't written down."

A written agreement helps

Attorneys recommend that unmarried co-homeowners have at least a basic partnership agreement, which is a legal contract describing what happens if one owner dies, wants to sell, or doesn't pay his share of the maintenance costs.

"Most people are thinking about the living arrangements," but a co-owner who loses a job or decides to get married can leave a house partner hanging; that's where the real problems lie," says Celeste Hammond, director of the Real Estate Center at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Buying a home with a friend "should be considered with more care than buying it alone or buying it as a couple," Professor Hammond says. "If you're not married, you don't have the protections of the marital state."

Siblings don't, either, so Sadowski and his sister signed a contract. Their house is split into adjoining apartments. Because he has the larger portion, he pays 60 percent of all permanent improvements that would increase the value of the home. They split the cost of consumables such as lawn fertilizer.

Their contract also stipulates that one person can buy out the other, but that requires determining the house's market value. Selling the entire house is almost easier. That's probably what they'll do in May, when Sadowski's sister marries.

Tom Fullum, who bought a home with a fellow environmentalist, said matching personalities with a co-owner is more important than being buddies. In his case, he says, "We're not necessarily best friends, but we've always gotten along."

Still, they are drafting an agreement that spells out, among other things, that they will go into binding arbitration if they cannot make a decision regarding their modern, three-story log home, small cabin, and 26 acres abutting Lolo National Forest near Missoula, Mont., which they bought a year ago.

It's important to remember that when every decision relies on a democracy of two, "the pace of the investment in the house is going to be at the lower common denominator," Mr. Fullum says.

He and his friend recommend setting up an independent savings account to hold funds for the home's improvement and maintenance. Theirs comes with a credit card. It's just another way of keeping their investment organized and, to an extent, impersonal.

It's all personal, though, for buyers, such as Amann, who equates a partnership agreement with a prenuptial agreement.

"It would say to Cory, 'I don't think we could work this out if we had a conflict,' " Amann says.

His co-owner, Cory Hooper, says that buying together requires putting his friend's needs first to maintain the relationship. For him, that meant fixing up Amann's backyard pond got priority over painting the living room, which he wanted to do.

In Ohio, Hubbard and his co-owner, Karl Jentgen, agree. Mr. Jentgen has bought several homes with friends, with the intent of renovating and reselling them. Having a common goal for the property helps them make renovation decisions. Jentgen's never had a partnership agreement.

"I know the people I get into the partnerships with, and they're honest and fair, and that means more than any piece of paper," says Jentgen, who married in the summer of 2000, but kept paying his share of expenses for the house he owned with Hubbard.

When circumstances change

Changing lives is part of the risk. Amann and Hooper talk about not wanting to be "tied down," a term once almost synonymous with house ownership.

"Neither one of us had any idea what paths our lives would take," said Amann, who recently decided to leave public relations to become a pastoral counselor. That means more schooling, probably on the East Coast, a year from now. He'll rent out his bedroom. But if school gets expensive, he'll have to sell, meaning that Hooper also might have to. They'll have been in the house two years.

That isn't long enough, says Justice Hill, who didn't buy a house with two friends in Seattle because he couldn't commit to the area. In April, he moved to Cleveland, leaving his friends to buy condos, individually.

"Young people who make $40,000 to $50,000 a year and want to live in the city can't afford [to buy alone]," Mr. Hill says.

Often, though, co-owner friends find real estate flexible enough to meet their needs.

In Montana, Fullum and his friend look forward to a long future together, though both also hope to raise families.

They didn't consider that when buying their dream house, though it will be OK, says Fullum. They're allowed to build a second house on their land, so the men eventually could be neighbors instead of roommates.

Velazquez wants to keep his Washington row house for at least five years, as most realtors would recommend. The next few years will be less stressful, he says, in part because he's leaving the area next year to study screenwriting.

Renting his room will be no trouble. This summer at their open house to seek a new roommate, 100 people showed up; 50 people applied for the slot. "It's nice to have that as an owner," he says. "I'd hate to be on the other end of it."

Buying with a friend has been more positive than negative, but "it'd probably be a lot easier [alone]. Doing it with two people is just twice as difficult," he says. "It's high-risk, high-reward."

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