Sharing space can be hell (or heaven)

20140118142056By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever lived — after leaving your family of origin — in shared housing?

I’ve spent the majority of my life in apartments, not a single-family house. I lived in houses, in London and Toronto, ages 2 to seven, then again from 15 to 19. That’s it.

Much as I’d love the privacy, space, outdoor space and autonomy of a house, the places I’ve chosen to live, chosen for my career in journalism and publishing. in those countries’ respective centers for same, Toronto and New York — also offer some of the world’s costliest real estate. (A good friend came by yesterday, who sells real estate in New York City, where a not-very-special apartment now runs $700,000+ while anything large or new or nice — $1 million and up.)

But a small, 1950s house in my town, 25 miles north of Manhattan, also costs about $500,00 to $700,000 plus $1,000 a month or more in property taxes. I bought a one-bedroom top-floor apartment in 1989 and am still here.

Until we retire, I don’t foresee owning a house. I’d rather sock that money away for retirement and travel and entertain than prop up some enormous mortgage or fear a roof repair or other five-figure disaster.

Our view of the Hudson River -- one reason we stay!
Our view of the Hudson River — one reason we stay!

So…shared housing space is my life.

But — having just had our annual co-op meeting this week — it also means facing the many competing wishes of the 92 other apartment owners here.

Our most recent investment was an $80,000 generator for the building, needed because we get so many storms that rip down tree limbs that cause power outages. In addition to losing heat and power before, that was also costly, as we had to several times camp out in a local hotel.

Luckily, we like the neighbors with whom we share a living room wall and our bedroom wall, as well as those on our floor.

I spent one frustrating year as a volunteer on our co-op board and that was plenty — as two elderly men on the board bullied the rest of us into silence and submission. It’s a very tough job trying to balance so many people’s needs and tastes.

Do you share space with (relative) strangers?

How’s it working out?

Here’s a chilling piece from Maclean’s — Canada’s national newsweekly — about what it’s really like to live in a condominium or co-operative building:

As thousands of homebuyers flock to condos for the promise of affordable home ownership and carefree living, they’re learning that life in a condominium is far different from the suburban houses where so many of us were raised.

Never mind that owning a condo usually means sharing your walls, floors and ceilings with your neighbours. Canadian condos are rife with internal politics, neighbour infighting and power struggles stemming from the complicated network of condo boards, owners, investors, tenants and property managers.

In some buildings, the rule book governing what owners can and can’t do with their property can span 70 pages. Disputes over issues such as pets, squeaky floors and visitor parking spots are escalating into epic and costly court battles. “They are little fiefdoms,” says Don Campbell, senior analyst with the Real Estate Investment Network, who owns several condos in B.C. “Each one has a king. Many of the people who get elected to the boards have time on their hands, and this is the only place in their world where they have power. Unfortunately, that starts to go to their heads.



13 thoughts on “Sharing space can be hell (or heaven)

  1. I grew up in an apartment – more than 80% of Singapore’s population lives in massive apartment blocks, at times, with 2 or 3 generations inside a relatively small space. For me, that was normal.

    Then I came to Perth with its suburban dreams and was flabbergasted. Regular size family homes are HUGE here, like they are in a lot of suburban USA. I’ve never wanted to own one – the thought of cleaning the place is off-putting enough, nevermind the cost of it.

    Now that I am nomad I share space with people all the time. It’s been more than a year since I’ve had any space to myself.

    So when I do need some time/space, I resort again, to what people in my land of birth do – i find a public space for privacy.

    1. Interesting. When I lived in Paris, I saw that, for the same reason.

      When I see huge houses, all I can think of is the cost of furnishing them and maintaining it all. No thanks.

  2. I was moving through your post just fine until I got to the ” $1000 a month or more in property taxes. ” I almost spit out my coffee when I read that! I can’t think of anyplace I like well enough to pay that price.

    We live in a small house by American standards, but big for the two of us. We have four bedrooms, with one being the size of some closets in the US, but big enough to house a double bed, and we have three bathrooms.

    Our house was much smaller, a three bed/bath and a half before we did a bit of remodeling and built the extension. It looks small from the front, but people always say it’s a Tardis once they have the tour. We’re not sure how we could fit our lives into a smaller space, plus we love it here.

    My husband is keen some days to move to Wales where he grew up, but the seafront places we could afford (the only thing that could make me move) are mostly two bedroom flats with one bath (about $469,000) and I can’t imagine sharing a bathroom anymore.

    Neither of us are that interested in sharing a building with other people either. We both hate bullies and the idea of having to make decisions by vote and sharing floors and walls with people who may not be so nice, not to mention condo fees and assessments, puts us off the idea.

    I am curious as to where you and Jose are thinking of living when you retire. What’s your dream and what’s most likely?

    We dream of a house by the sea, but being ten miles away from coast with the moor at our back door and the woods and river at our front makes us grateful to have a home in as lovely as space as we do.

    1. But you know how America works — all those taxes pay for the schools, too. In Canada, where I grew up, education is funded differently, so you can buy a million $ house and pay very little in property tax. Out here people trade the annual cost of private school, per child ($25k+) for access to good/better public schools.

      What is a Tardis?!

      Jose grew up in Santa Fe but we could never afford to live there, which is sad. He dreams of going back to Las Cruces, NM (his college town) but real estate there is no bargain either — I just checked last week and $300K doesn’t buy you much. We are not going to have a lot of $$$$$ to buy a second place as I would, ideally, like to keep our NY place once the mortgage is gone, even if we rent it out for a year at a time; it’s 40 mins into Manhattan, has great views and a pool. Hard to beat all that for the price.

      I’m here because, to stay in NY and not live in an apartment, would mean 1) a longer commute 2) a dull town with nothing to do 3) a big mortgage, just smaller 4) ugly housing stock. Just not worth it to me.

      I want to retire to France, even part-time. Jose would like Normandy (not great weather) and I like Paris ($$$$$). We have not even started looking seriously as funds just don’t allow it. If we sold our NY apartment, we’d have more options, but renting a nice place, even a house, might be a better choice.

      We also wonder about retiring back to Canada, even part-time…residence in France and Canada will give us a break from medical bankruptcy, a fear here in the U.S. I also loathe the politics and income inequality in the U.S. It just gets worse every year.

  3. Every time I think about selling and transferring to a condo I only have to remember those times I stay at my mother’s condo. I am far too used to the privacy of my space and yard to suddenly find myself encumbered by such close proximity. I guess I will continue weeding and mowing in order to have elbow room for thoughts.

  4. after getting divorced, i’ve shared living spaces for many years, and finally have bought my own little cottage here, a mile’s walk from our downtown. i love your view and location, and think if i was there, i would be in a shared space as well, no way around it really. all depends on the space, the location, and the people you share the space with.

    1. Your cottage sounds so cool!

      If I could afford a house I actually really liked — (not hated but could [barely] afford) — that might be different. The kind of house around here I really find appealing starts around $700,000 and up…I know too many people who are “house poor”, and shoveling all their $$$ into their mortgage, taxes or repairs. Just not how I want to spend my hard-earned money.

      1. i completely agree and understand that, caitlin. what use is throwing all your money into where you live if you can’t enjoy your life there, do to worry about paying for it all? i think you made a good choice )

  5. lrose

    Going on 17 years in my condo. I have a like/hate relationship with the association (I can’t go far enough to say, “love”). As associations go, ours is not so bad and I am lucky that my neighbors on my floor are tops, save one, who fortunately keeps mostly to himself. And I’m close to my city’s downtown, which I love. But, I am done with loud, creaking floor boards from the unit above me, thin bedroom walls (if you catch my drift), and a communal laundry. I would love to have better storage, a small patio garden instead of a tiny deck that only holds 3 potted plants and a tiny chair, and anything other than a gallery-style kitchen. If I could get my income to match my heart’s desire, then I’d sell this place in a heartbeat a move to a single-family house. I’d even give up being close to downtown for all the rest I would get in the bargain.

    1. I hear you! We’re awaiting a price quote for installing soundproofing and a false wall between the next-door neighbors and our living room wall adjoining their place. I’m so done with that noise!!

      We are on the top floor (luckily) and our balcony is small (12 feet by six feet) but bearable. My husband enjoys (?!) doing laundry downstairs, so I am spared that chore.

      We pay $75 a month (which I think exorbitant) for our garage here, but it offers a lot of storage space as well.

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