House Sharing: Melbourne's fastest growing property trend VERONICA RIDGE reports, "The Age, Wednesday, June 18, 1997"
WHEN Micki Ewing moved from Sydney to Melbourne last month, she scanned the rental classifieds for a one-bedroom flat. "I came down one weekend and saw four or five places but two of them were horrible and a friend who came along to see another said: 'You can't live in this'." So the 36-year-old sales and service manager with a mortgage company did something she has never done before. She moved in with a group of complete strangers. A few weeks later, Ms Ewing is used to bumping into other pyjama-clad residents in the hallway and keeping her food stocks confined to one shelf in a shared kitchen. She says she couldn't be more chuffed with the arrangement. "They've been great. We all get on really well. You can come home and usually there's no one here. "But, on the odd occasion when someone is, you can chat and ask where's this and where's that. "I don't know anyone in Melbourne so I thought it would be of benefit sharing with people my own age." The group - medical practitioner, Peter Lewis, 38, retail representative, Piri Sinclair, 28, and pharmaceutical representative, Steve Mayes, 33 - chose their new housemate from 10 who replied to a newspaper ad. Ms Ewing pays $110 weekly for an airy bedroom in a neat, brick house in Malvern that is a study in carefully calculated domestic equality. The arrangement allows them to achieve what many singles could not afford alone - a large dwelling behind a security wall in a handy location, which also includes the luxury of an in-ground, salt-water swimming pool. Despite horror stories depicted in American movies such as Single White Female and endless tales about lesser hassles such as bickering over bills, house sharing in Melbourne in the mid-'90s is one of the property market's fastest growing industries. Many young professionals, who might previously have scratched together the deposit to buy a small flat, have been priced out of today's market. And fashionable suburbs, such as St Kilda and South Yarra, have record low rental vacancy rates. Location choices are rarely met if you want to live alone. Chris Kaine, from Chris Kaine & Associates share agency, says changing demographics and lifestyle choices have also propelled the soaring popularity of share accommodation. Fewer people are marrying and broken relationships create two households where one used to suffice. "Students share by necessity. But because so many more people are single, a lot of them are sharing their own homes," says Ms Kaine. "Young professionals are buying and sharing. De facto couples in their late 20s with good jobs are buying three bedroom houses and finding two other sharers because it's cheaper than renting. "They get to own a house in the end and the other two people are paying it off for them. "We're also doing more and more matching of people before they find a place." Share renting and share ownership usually means singles can afford a better house closer to the city, she says. "People don't want to live in boxy flats. Every file in this office, whether they want to be alone or with someone else, says they don't want to live in a flat." The company, which has listed more than 10,000 clients in the past decade, matches people with similar lifestyles, standards, basic values and interests. "In a way, you can even divide people into suburbs. For instance, a Fitzroy-type of person usually finds it difficult to move into a place in Prahran. It's a totally different culture." Clients pay $145 to register ($75 for subsequent matches). They receive a shortlist of suitable matches, which they contact themselves. Rentals range from $85 weekly for sharing a flat to $250 weekly for something more luxurious with a private bathroom and a Toorak or South Yarra postcode. Ms Kaine says the idea of sharing can be a frightening prospect initially. "But once you've met the people, you can imagine it working, especially if you think of it as an extension of the arrangement you had when living with your family." Among successes have been "heaps of marriages" and a couple of individual cases she remembers with satisfaction. "We matched a single mother with a girl who was handicapped. The girl's carer wasn't needed any more be- cause the sharer did all the work and the handicapped girl did the baby sitting." Most clients, however, are busy professionals either offering or seeking smart homes in the inner-suburbs. The household is encouraged to hire a cleaner to avoid tiffs over chores and make firm agreements about the payment of shared utilities. A common aggravation among badly matched tenants in the '90s is the dedicated Internet user who hogs the phone line. "I guess the big issue when sharing is consideration. People who don't consider another person's position are not going to share well. " The company suggests clients contact them within the first couple of months if an arrangement is not working. "We usually find it's the chemistry that's gone wrong." The Malvern household was formed seven years ago by Peter Lewis who got used to the concept when he was a medical student paying $11 for a room in the 1980s. Dr Lewis owns a flat yielding a similar rental to the cost of his current address. "But you don't have any garden in a flat," he says. "You usually don't have a lot of street parking. You don't have a lot of living space. It's a lifestyle issue. "'A lot of us are young, middle-aged professionals working long hours and not spending a lot of time just sitting around the house doing nothing. "Therefore, it's not really necessary to have exclusive use of a house that one doesn't use all that often. It's quite reasonable to share." The first group of tenants lasted three years. Those leaving the clan have given lifestyle or business reasons rather than unhappiness. Among strict household rules are prompt payment of bills to Dr Lewis and first use of the bathroom by ten ants as opposed to partners who may be staying the night. Dr Lewis says another "unwritten law" is no romances between tenants. "You form a relationship at your own risk," he says. "We've all done it from time to time but it's usually at the price of the household. "After such a thing ends, usually someone has to move out. If two people move out, the whole thing falls apart. " After three years in residence, Ms Sinclair has taken up the offer of a one-bedroom flat elsewhere and moving out at the end of the month "I've never lived on my own before so I think it's high time I did," she says. "And, to be honest, I would like to be able to walk out of the bathroom without a towel." However, she has nagging reservations about the change. "It's going to be very hard to move A good blend of personalities make work and it's a fabulous house." The replacement advertisement calls for a professional male or female aged 28-plus with a budget of $95 weekly. No kids, no pets. Dr Lewis comments on the eventual choice: "I don't think balance is necessarily determined by a person's gender. You balance housiness and non-housiness. What you don't want more than one or two housey people the same house because they get each other's way." Ms Sinclair's co-tenants say she could never be described as "housey" so the new tenant is probably well advised to leave plenty of kitchen space for the cooks. Interested parties should contact Chris Kaine & Associates. Fighting for a better deal for the sharing community CHRIS Kaine would like to see shared households get a better deal. For this reason, she presented to a parliamentary committee reviewing the Residential Tenancies Act, in April 1995, to outline possible reforms. At present, only one person in a shared household is listed on a lease. The others pay on an honor system. Among Ms Kaine's recommendations was that all sharers in a household be included on a lease - not as equal lessees but as a lead tenant and a sub-tenant. Bonds would be assigned accordingly and the lead tenant would have control over the selection of a sub-tenant. The suggestion was not taken up but Ms Kaine continues to campaign for this fast-growing group. I'd like people to respect the fact that sharing is frequently a lifestyle choice," she says. "Real estate agents think that people who rent who are on the lowest rung of society and people who share are even below that. "Many choose not to buy a box in Murrumbeena because they'd rather live in Prahran in a $300,000 house and share it with a couple of others." She says that half of the clients seeks share tenants own a house or flat while the other half are renting through a real estate agent. A misconception is that a tenant is required to seek permission from a landlord before sharing a property. "You need to tell them who's moved in but they can't refuse." However, Ms Kaine says co-sharers should be made responsible for their share of utilities by having each name on an account instead of only the person who holds the lease.