CHICAGO The big four-story house in suburban Pittsburgh might remind you of the set of "The Golden Girls." But unlike the hit TV sitcom of the late 1980s and early '90s, the three women who live there are not in it for the laugh track.
Karen Bush, Louise Machinist and Jean McQuillin bought the Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, home together in 2004, when they were in their fifties. They wanted to share living expenses, live a greener lifestyle and - most importantly - enjoy one another's companionship. All are single professional women in their mid-sixties who are still working, but they expect to retire in their house, too.
Much has been written about retirement living arrangements that break the traditional mold. Some people have embraced co-housing, where people band together to buy land, build a cluster of homes and share some responsibilities. Intentional communities - Beacon Hill Village in Boston is the pioneer - are grassroots organizations that support residents who want to age in place by providing services and a sense of community.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows about 4 million households inhabited by unrelated adults, but many of them are younger roommates.
The Mount Lebanon women call their arrangement "cooperative housing," a legal partnership where all own, live in and manage the house.
"This is the quick and easy alternative to the larger community concepts," Machinist says. "It has many of the advantages, but there's a big difference in the level of community involvement and community-building effort required to make it work."
She and her housemates have written a book about their experiences, "My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household," and St. Lynn's Press is publishing it this month.
When they made their plan, all three women were divorced, living independently in Pittsburgh and pursuing careers. Bush is a corporate consultant, Machinist is a clinical psychologist, and McQuillin is a nurse.
The women, all members of the same church, began talking about a shared retirement living situation as they watched their parents age and contemplated their own futures.
Aging alone is a challenge facing many Americans. One-third of baby boomers are not married, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, which also reports that the divorce rate among adults ages 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2009.
HOW IT WORKS
The Mount Lebanon trio took out a $300,000 mortgage on their $395,000 purchase and worked with a lawyer to form a general partnership that owns the property. They also established a fixed monthly fee to cover household expenses.
There are specific limits on the number of overnight guests each owner can have. And no partner can sell her share in the home without the permission of the other two. The agreement also has a provision for binding arbitration in the case of an unresolvable difference.
"Although we love each other like friends and like sisters, we took a rational approach because there's no room for sentimentality when it comes to protecting our financial security," says Machinist. "We trust each other completely, but planned it as if we don't."
For all the formality of the business partnership, the social arrangements are loose.
"We cook when we want to; all the food is up for grabs," McQuillin says. "Sometimes we are actually home at the same time and enjoy eating together. Someone might say, ‘I'm making something; do you want to join me?' Or not."
The shared house has allowed the women to conserve energy and save money. Their annual utility bill runs around $5,000; each had been spending around $3,000 to heat and power her individual home.
Each pays the monthly household fee of $1,600, which covers the mortgage, taxes, utilities, home maintenance, food and other costs. Machinist says that is about the same as her old mortgage and tax payments alone.
One thing the women have not figured out is how far into old age the cooperative house will carry them.
"We knew from the start we couldn't continue to stay here forever," McQuillin says. "We don't have a specific plan on how we'll dissolve the partnership, but each of us knows our years are numbered here. We'll decide when the time is right to put it on the market."
But not before echoing the sentiments of the theme song from "The Golden Girls": "Thank You For Being a Friend."
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Linda Stern and Lisa Von Ahn)