Retired management consultant Bonnie Moore, 70, found herself in the middle of the 2008 recession divorced and left to live alone in a recently-renovated and heavily mortgaged 5-bedroom house that was suddenly worth half its value. With half the income to support her dream home in Bowie, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., “I was in kind of a panic,” she recalls. “Do I give up and move into a little apartment or do I try to save it?”
Her answer was to start looking for rent-paying roommates. Moore soon filled her house, founded Golden Girls Network, a national matching service, wrote a guide on starting a Golden Girls house, and became prominent voice for a national trend of shared housing.
The trend is spiking. Baby boomers—often shouldering higher mortgages and more debt than their parents but deprived by the recent recession of opportunities to work or healthy 401 (k) retirement accounts, are responding to their dilemma with innovative verve. Since 2000, when there were about 820,000 households with single people 46 to 64 sharing housing with non-relatives, according to AARP, by 2013 that number had risen to 1,090,000. Roommate-matching Web sites are flourishing. Moore, a new contributing writer for Boomer-Living, recently talked with Editor Bruce Frankel about starting Golden Girls Network, how to select roommates and run a shared house. In forthcoming articles, she’ll offer insights, anecdotes and tips.
Bruce Frankel: What prepared you to do something once so unconventional for an older adult?
Bonnie Moore: I was in a rebellious stage when I got married to a Mormon who was also in a rebellious stage. The marriage didn’t last long. My father was a military officer, and I was raised with rigid expectations and had become a small-town wife. Right after I graduated in 1972 from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, I got in my car and drove myself and my two kids (then ages four and six) to San Francisco to become a Hippie. We landed in Haight Ashbury after I picked up a hitchhiker near Golden Gate Park. He said, “Where are you guys staying?” I told him I didn’t know yet. And he said he was living in one of those big Victorian flats with a bunch of people and we ought to come stay there. And we did. That’s just the way it was then.
How long did you stay there?
Until I got a job and found a place to live. I began living a more traditional life. I bought a house in Noe Valley and lived there for twenty years. When I was 45, my kids were grown up and my second marriage ended. I had worked my way through my undergraduate schooling as a paralegal and I was bored with being an accountant. So, I decided to get my law degree at Golden Gate University Law School. When I finished at 50 and was about to start my second half of life, in 1995, my 29-year-old daughter got infected with AIDS. (Her boyfriend, it turned out, was a drug user.) At first, I couldn’t move forward with my life. My daughter moved back into the house. I told her, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll get better” and tried to act like I believed it. I was really going crazy with worry inside. She soon stared in a new special program that was trying a new AZT (anti-HIV drug) cocktail. It saved her life. She turned around almost immediately. I decided I needed to get out of the house. I had never been east of the Mississippi and I figured that because Washington is the capital of the non-profit world, I’d find work there. I drove cross-country, by myself, in a two-seat 1984 Pontiac Fiero.
That’s pretty gutsy. But how did you end up in a big house in the suburbs looking for roommates?
I found a job in Washington and began working my way up. Also, after a couple of years, I found husband number three. He was divorced and wanted to move out to the suburbs to be close to his children. I had never lived in the suburbs. At first, I hated it. But then I came to like it. And we ended up buying this big 5-bedroom house that we put a lot of money into remodeling it, so that all our children could stay there. Then the marriage fell apart. I had a wonderful house, so to save my house, I started looking for roommates and I found some great friends.
Why did you turn it into a business?
I made some bad choices of early roommates. It’s a challenge to live with five strangers. Eventually, we had a pretty good bunch. It was such a positive experience. Then one night we were all sitting around joking and came up with the idea of making matching roommates into a business. We came up with the name Golden Girl Network (after the popular 1980s TV sitcom starring Betty White and Bea Arthur). I ran to my computer and bought the domain GoldenGirlsNetwork.com. I put together a business plan, got business cards, did some marketing and eventually found someone who wanted to do a test case.
Did it take off right away?
No, after nine months it wasn’t working out and I was about to give up. People were interested and curious, but they weren't signing up. We were originally going to help people find roommates. As a lawyer, I should have known it wasn’t a good idea. No one wanted to pay the fee. Then, I decided that I was going to have to build a database and let people self-select roommates. I went through three software people before I found the right one. Everything was so hard, and then I got a call from NPR. They were doing a story on shared housing and wanted to talk to me. I told them I didn’t have anything yet, but they came out and interviewed me. Within a week of the story being broadcast, I had a thousand people on a mailing list. I couldn’t give up then. Reporters from all over the world began calling. I even had a TV station from Paris, France come.
So, you were off and running?
No. I tried to launch in September 2013, but the site didn’t work and there were so many complaints, I had to take it down in two weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, at a Christmas party I met a woman who designed websites. She turned out to be good. On June 17, 2014, The Washington Post did a story—and we were overwhelmed by interest in adult roommates. I moved the business out of the house; I hired staff, and I put together a team.
What do you teach homeowners who want to start a Golden Girl house?
I had to learn to be assertive. At first, I let people walk all over me. So, I tell people who take the 2-day class that you get to make the decisions. You get to make the rules. One of the best things I came up with was how to make an agreement so that people know what my expectations are and they know that I’m in charge.
You talk about the “deal breakers.” What constitutes a deal breaker?
Smoking and pets are two things that are deal breakers for me. A strong religious practice and belief is another one. I have had some overly religious women who were going to save me. One very religious woman didn’t celebrate certain holidays. When we got out the Halloween decorations, she was upset. Two weeks later, she was gone. It’s best to put together non-religious people with other non-religious people, and religious people with each other.
What about housekeeping and cleanliness?
It's best say what you expect. For instance, I consider myself clean enough. Occasionally, I may have a glass of wine at night and leave my glass on a table overnight. I had a woman once who would get up in the middle of the night and scrub the floors and clean out drawers. That ended when she started throwing out things that were important to me. Having a cleaning service is a must.
What about dating or bringing someone home? How does that get addressed?
Every homeowner gets to make her own decision about this. I tell women that if you’re not comfortable with overnights, say so. In my house, having an occasional overnight visitor is okay. We did have a roommate who was bringing a man home. When it started to get a little rowdy one night, we knocked on the door. The next day, we told our roommate that her friend had worn out his welcome. She soon moved out. The women I have now are not dating.
Are dietary habits ever an issue?
If you can’t stand the smell of bacon, you need to say so. If you’re a vegan and don’t want meat in your house, you have to say so. You need to give others, in your house, their own shelf space. Once in a while we share. We have a woman who makes cornbread for us all. But most of us do our own cooking and eat separately. But we try to come together at least once a month. It’s very nice.
What’s the most important thing in living together like this?
Personality. You have to have a positive attitude. In the beginning, everyone’s positive. When you interview potential roommates, it’s very much like a job interview. They’re going to show their best side. You have to figure out what’s going on underneath. I’ve made mistakes. There was a woman, the first day, I knew I had made a mistake. She was negative, negative, negative. People in the house started to avoid her. She left on her own after three months.
What do you do if you do make a mistake in selecting a roommate?
The first month is always a honeymoon. In the second month, you see who they are. By the third month, you know. I tell people not to put up with anything too long. Stay in charge. Don’t let people get away with something you don’t like. It’s like a child. You really have to stay in charge.
What’s the best part of sharing your house?
There are two big benefits. First, I get to live in my house that I couldn't otherwise afford. If you’re a roommate, you can live in a very nice house for half what you would pay for an apartment. Second, I don’t have to be a 70-year-old woman living by myself. And if someone has a medical emergency, we are there to help each other. The best part is that you’re not alone. You have someone who leaves the porch light on for you.