by Marc Linn | June 18, 2019
Friendly neighbors in cohousing

Privacy and company are essential – and you can drive someone crazy by depriving them of either.”
-- Robert Heinlein

If you like the idea of privacy AND company – in proportion to YOUR liking – you might enjoy cohousing. As one happy resident put it, “When I want privacy, I just close my door. When I want company I just open it back up!”

The legendary science-fiction writer might have foreseen today’s contentious society when he made his observation. Many experts recognize the ever increasing alienation and loneliness experienced by many as the source of many of our difficulties.

Advocates of shared housing format cohousing are convinced they have a remedy for the “alienation and loneliness” part. People living in cohousing communities don’t have to choose between too much privacy or too much community. They have access to as much or as little of either as they prefer.

How well does it work? Based on the comments in this video of a senior cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado, it appears to be working quite well for some.

What is Cohousing?

Wikipedia offers the most succinct definition of “cohousing” that I have seen yet:

“Cohousing is an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space.”

A typical cohousing arrangement would consist of ownership of an individual home in the community, as well as partial ownership in the common areas. The primary “common area” is usually a kitchen and dining area, where community members can share meals and take turns with food preparation.

It sounds like a wonderful combination of “privacy and company,” as the above quote by Robert Heinlein suggests. Many cohousing communities expect a certain amount of help from the community members, but it is probably safe to say that people can generally decide for themselves just how much “community” they want.

There are variations within the cohousing definitions. Most of the time, the community members own their homes, but some cohousing communities have rentals available as well. While the detached home is the primary cohousing living unit, there are “condo cohousing” communities as well. See the Cohousing Examples section for an example of one for seniors in the Oakland / San Francisco Bay area.

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Is cohousing new?

Modern cohousing began in the 1960s in Denmark.

But the “communal living” concept is hardly new; the modern, “nuclear” family is the newcomer. People have been living more or less “communally,” or at least with much more variety in terms of living companions, for centuries. Cohousing and other shared housing formats might be the leading edge of a move away from the isolation experienced by many in modern societies.

Here is an excerpt from a fascinating 2016 article in The Atlantic that provides some historical perspective on housing through the ages.

Industrialization made extended communities less vital for earning a living. When societies were mostly agricultural, production was centered near the home, and families needed all the labor they could get to run the farm during busy seasons. But as industrialization took hold, people started leaving home to go to work, commuting to factories and, later, offices.

 

Something communal was lost, and by the early 20th century, industrial efficiency permitted a lifestyle of domestic privacy: Households shrank down to nuclear families, much more closed-off from relatives and neighbors than ever before.

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What are some examples of cohousing communities?

According to cohousing.org, there are over 160 cohousing communities in the United States. Here are a few examples:

Oakland “condo cohousing” for 55+

Bellingham cohousing, founded in 1995.

New Hampshire cohousing video / interview:

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How is cohousing different from coliving?

The terms tend to be used somewhat interchangeably; I don’t think there are hard and fast rules. But from what I have seen, cohousing usually refers to neighborhoods, a number of individual homes with a common building or other facilities. Most of the time these are owned, although some cohousing rentals do exist.

Coliving usually refers to a “group home” or building in which several people have private rooms and shared spaces for food preparation, working, and general lounging. These are inevitably rentals.

One way to put it, then, would be “Cohousing is coliving with equity.” This ignores the big additional factor, the difference in the living spaces themselves.

If you want to know more about coliving, take a look at my recent article.

Cohousing requires a substantial commitment

A big difference between cohousing and coliving is the time, effort and commitment necessary for each. Most coliving operations emphasize the simplicity of moving into one of their units. They take care of everything, such as utilities and household necessities. As they like to put it, all you have to do is show up!

It is a completely different ballgame where cohousing is concerned. Most of the time, residents of a cohousing community own their home along with a portion of the shared facilities.

Both coliving and cohousing require you to complete an application before they approve you for membership in their building or neighborhood. Moving out, at least in a coliving operation, is pretty simple. The minimum stay required for many coliving operations is fairly short, such as one month. You give your notice and hit the road.

With cohousing, however, the ownership of the residence (the typical scenario) can add an additional layer of complexity to leaving. Not only do you have to find a buyer – potentially an ordeal in itself – but many cohousing communities require first right of refusal or other means of approving a buyer. This is understandable, given the “intentional community” concept behind cohousing. But it is a potentially significant issue for someone wanting to sell a cohousing residence.

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How is cohousing set up physically?

The typical cohousing community consists of a number of detached homes with at least one common structure centrally located within the area. There are no hard and fast rules, but these will generally consist of between roughly 20 and 40 homes. The common structure, usually providing group food preparation and dining facilities at a minimum, is generally jointly owned by the individual homeowners.

The ”detached homes” model may be the most common cohousing arrangement but it is by no means the only one. Many cohousing communities consist of condominiums, town homes, or individual homes in varying combinations. The common denominator will be some shared facility, usually a substantial food preparation and dining area shared by the community.

One big difference between many cohousing communities compared to a typical neighborhood involves automobiles. Many cohousing locations don’t allow driving our parking within the community itself; cars are parked at the periphery of the area. This results in a completely “walkable” neighborhood. In addition to providing much more completely safe space for children to play, the arrangement encourages socializing, spontaneous conversation, and increased interaction among the residents.

This video tour of Yulupa Cohousing in Santa Rosa, California, gives a good idea of how a cohousing’s layout can encourage interaction and socialization.

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How is cohousing set up initially?

While cohousing is becoming more popular, it is still very much in the minority – especially here in the USA. Each of the communities represents a “labor of love” on the part of those responsible for its creation.

Many of today’s cohousing communities have been started from a complete blank slate, with nothing but an idea on the part of the founders. The entire process, which can take a couple of years or more, starts with finding enough interested individuals and capital to proceed.

From there, the adventure includes finding an appropriate site, arranging for zoning and other permissions, arranging financing, and a host of other tasks.

To get an idea of the dedication required to bring a cohousing community into existence, take a look at the story of Fair Oaks Ecohousing in the Sacramento, California area. This is a fairly current project; the original target date for completion was June 2019. The story is a great job of illustrating the effort required to create this kind of community.

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How is cohousing set up financially?

Property owners in a cohousing community are financially responsible for their individual house or condominium. In addition, they agree to pay for a portion of the shared facilities, such as common building,” or group kitchen and dining facility.

In many cases, the financial and legal set up is similar to a traditional Homeowners Association. This is not intended as legal or financial advice so be sure to check the particulars for any property you are considering.

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How does buying or selling a cohousing property compare with a traditional property?

The whole point of the cohousing concept is the ability to live in an “intentional community.” As one advocate of cohousing puts it, “Your neighborhood is too important to be left to chance.” Given this priority, it seems inevitable that a cohousing community will insist on some control over newcomers to their community.

The direct result of this is an additional requirement to fulfill for those wanting to buy into a cohousing community: the community needs to approve the transaction. Obviously this will also affect someone wishing to sell their property in a cohousing community.

Rentals in cohousing communities, while not as numerous as owner occupied properties, do exist. I believe most cohousing communities have similar requirements for approving potential renters as well.

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Can you save money with cohousing?

Joining a cohousing community, especially as a homeowner, represents a substantial commitment of time, energy, and resources. Becoming part of an “intentional community” is the main reason for those who make the effort. Financial benefits – saving money – are generally not the primary reason for getting involved with cohousing.

It turns out, however, that when you take everything into account, including many of the social benefits a cohousing community offers, that saving money can in fact be a big advantage as well. An excellent example of how this can work appeared in a 2018 article in the Journal of Accountancy: “What CPAs need to know about a growing housing option.”

The article discusses Pat Darlington, one of the founders of Oak Creek Community, the first cohousing community in Oklahoma. Every situation is unique, and her experience is clearly no guarantee that another one would be equally positive. Still, it is safe to say that her decision resulted in some terrific financial benefits.

From the article:

“She estimates she saves as much as $10,000 a year now with a smaller home and her monthly homeowners’ fees of $316 covering water, sewer, trash and recycling, cable TV, high-speed internet, phone service, and the insurance, repair, and maintenance of her home’s exterior and the community’s shared spaces.

 

She no longer has to hire someone to clean her pool, clear out her gutters, or mow her lawn — all expenses she was solely responsible for in her previous home. She also spends less on entertainment and going out to dinner, now that she lives in an area with a rich social environment.”

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How are “group” decisions made in a cohousing community?

If you are anything like me, you might be concerned about having important decisions about your home environment made by others. The legal and financial structure of many cohousing communities is essentially that of a homeowners association.

There have been many unpleasant stories about homeowners associations in which some individuals apparently let their authority override their good judgment. This could be the kind of thing that prevents some individuals from embracing a shared housing model.

The good news is, the cohousing world appears to be aware of this and makes it a point to avoid this kind of issue. In most cohousing communities, decisions affecting the entire community are made, not by individuals but by consensus. In theory at least, everyone has to agree on decisions before they become finalized.

In practice it may not always work out quite this smoothly, but I find it encouraging that the cohousing community generally attempts to obtain as much agreement as possible from everyone involved. The Foundation for Intentional Community offers some clarification:

“Some groups that use a consensus decision making process require that all group members consent to any proposal for it to be adopted by the group. Other groups use the consensus process to maximize agreement, but allow proposals to pass without full unanimity. A super-majority threshold is common. Regardless of the required threshold of agreement, a consensus process values the inclusion of all perspectives in a collaborative effort to generate as much agreement as possible.”

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Who benefits from cohousing?

Since we are “social animals” by design, virtually anyone can benefit from the emphasis on community, more involvement with one’s neighbors, in a cohousing environment.

Here are some specific examples of benefits:

Kids. Children may be the biggest winners of all in a cohousing community. They have far more people – adults and children – to interact with on a regular basis. They get to learn to interact with many different kinds of individuals in a natural, ongoing way.

Children in a cohousing community don’t have to be as concerned about things like cars and “stranger danger” as they might in a more traditional residence. Many cohousing communities limit motor vehicles to the periphery, which encourages spontaneous conversations and interactions among the residents. The lack of vehicles also creates a safer environment for children at play.

Parents, especially single parents. By sharing things like childcare, child-related errands, and responses to emergencies, single parents in a cohousing community can reduce the extra burdens resulting from raising a child alone. In a traditional marriage, there is (at most) one other person to help raise the kids. In a cohousing community there can be many!

Seniors, especially those who are determined to stay in their own home as long as possible. Being part of an active community with regular interaction with others is not only beneficial psychologically, it is definitely an improvement in safety. Someone needing a little extra help around the house, provided they had a spare room, could look into homesharing as well. Here is a good introduction to homesharing:

Home Sharing: An Affordable Housing Solution for All Ages

What are some pros and cons of cohousing?

Pros

There was a popular TV series some time ago – I don’t remember the name but the tagline was something like “When you are here, everybody knows your name.” Everybody seemed to agree that this was a good thing, being known by the group.

When you belong to a cohousing community, everybody also knows your name. This is probably the most important benefit of cohousing, the number one reason people want to be part of this kind of community. People have plenty of opportunity to get to know each other, to share thoughts and ideas as well as meals, and much of the time to genuinely come to care about each other.

But there are practical advantages as well. Many expensive items that are generally used infrequently can be shared, reducing the outlay required by the individual’s involved. Things like lawnmowers and power tools are examples, but almost anything can be shared if there is enough interest.

Cons

One possible drawback for some people could be the expectation that you will contribute some of your time to the cohousing community. Helping with food preparation for the group meals is probably the most common example of this, but other kinds of “volunteer” help are frequently expected as well.

Someone with an extremely busy schedule, or someone that just doesn’t care for this kind of group effort might not appreciate this aspect of cohousing.

It is also true that some people simply “want to be alone” most of the time and just aren’t that interested in community and socializing. Since the social aspect of cohousing is its primary benefit, it wouldn’t make much sense for someone absolutely uninterested in this.

Then again, sometimes even the most diehard “loner” winds up enjoying a bit of companionship.

What about cars and parking?

A reservation I would have, something I’d want to check out more closely, involves cars and parking. I understand many cohousing communities keep motor vehicles on the periphery, maintaining 100% walkability among the homes.

This is great for the kids as well, certainly. But I don’t think I’d want to lug my groceries any significant distance from the car to the kitchen, to say nothing of larger items. I assume provisions are made for deliveries, moving day, things like this but I’d want to determine how well it works in practice.

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Would you do it? Would you join a cohousing community?

I have no direct experience with cohousing so my opinions are based entirely on my reading and other research for this article. Before I would sign any dotted lines, I would definitely do a lot more – including as much “up close and personal” research as possible.

But from what I know right now about cohousing, I am certain that I would be willing to give it a try. I enjoy my privacy as much as the next guy, but I have always felt that our way of living tends to isolate us from each other much more than is desirable or healthy. Cohousing strikes me as an excellent step in a very positive direction.

How would I go about finding the right cohousing community for me? It is a great question, and if you are considering cohousing, it’s probably one that has occurred to you as well. I have some ideas, which I will discuss in the next section.

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How can you find the right cohousing community for you?

So you have decided that you would like to join a cohousing community. It would be nice if there were thousands and thousands of communities to choose from but unfortunately cohousing is still pretty rare, especially here in the USA. But you will have enough to choose from: as of 2018, I believe there were a little over 160 cohousing communities in the country with something like 50 or 60 more planned.

Like so many things in life, your resources will have a lot to do with how you are able to proceed. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to do a fair amount of traveling your chances of finding the best fit will no doubt increase.

Even if you are able to spend a fair amount of time visiting several cohousing communities, it’s a good idea to spend time, maybe quite a bit of it, online first. Since cohousing is very much the exception to the rule, many of those currently involved with it seem to be comfortable with the role of “ambassadors” for a lifestyle that many truly enjoy.

Since the whole point of cohousing seems to be increasing the quantity and quality of connections we can make with each other, why not start now? I think it would be a terrific idea to begin reaching out and making contact with as many current residents of cohousing communities as possible.

You can probably get plenty of useful information with email and online forums. Don’t forget about YouTube as well. People that take the time to make videos about something they believe is important are frequently quite knowledgeable and in many cases willing to help.

There is another possibility involving communication that might give you even more insights, although it would take some time and effort to set up. I’m referring to “real-time” group conversations, like conference calls or videoconferences. These have become readily available with little or no additional expense. How would this work?

Let’s say you manage to begin correspondence with, say, half a dozen or so cohousing participants throughout the country (or the world, for that matter!) They might enjoy an opportunity to have a live chat with several others who are also living this somewhat unusual lifestyle. If you were willing to organize it, and you could get several individuals to agree to participate, it could be a wonderful way to get even more of a feeling for cohousing even before you hit the road.

The actual content of your conversations, the things that you choose to investigate as thoroughly as possible, are up to you. Much of this process is probably fairly intuitive, since we all learn how to make difficult and important decisions as we go through life.

One thing that is probably worth adding, although this is probably pretty obvious as well, is the extreme importance of “try before you buy.” Some communities offer rentals. If you make enough connections with enough residence, you may be able to take advantage of some kind of a housesitting situation. And something just occurred to me – I have no idea whether it is feasible or not – I wonder if Airbnb has listings for cohousing?

Good Luck!

I hope you find this information about cohousing to be useful. At Affordable Housing Tips, we plan to keep an eye on this exciting trend in housing. I’m sure we will be adding additional articles, possibly including additional ideas and developments for people looking to get involved with cohousing. You can sign up for our newsletter, get a free report, and find out about developments like these as they happen.

If you do wind up living in cohousing, I hope you enjoy it! Who knows – maybe one day we will be neighbors!

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