Across Britain, millions of older people are living alone, often craving company or struggling financially on a small salary or pension. Yet many of them have at least one unoccupied bedroom in their home. Meanwhile, for many young people, buying their own home is out of reach, with house prices increasing more than 150% over the past two decades – more than seven times faster than income. According to Shelter, nine million people rent privately and often pay more than those with a mortgage.
So, is intergenerational living the solution? It can provide extra income for the householder and cheaper rent for the lodger. But it can go much further, bringing social, emotional and psychological advantages. Here, both sides of one happy house-share explain why it works for them.
A year after he was widowed, Robin Burt is living a life he never anticipated. At social events, he takes to the floor with aplomb, showing off his recently acquired ballroom dancing skills, and he enjoys mixing with a diverse circle of new friends. ‘I’ve turned out to be a late developer,’ chuckles the 75-year-old, who formerly ran a picture-hanging company. ‘I’ve suddenly found all this confidence.’ He puts much of it down to his decision six months ago to rent out part of his four-storey house in Putney, south-west London, to a young couple, professional dancers Brian Dibnah, 23, and his partner Georgiana Muja, 21.
When Robin’s wife Paddy, who wrote a witty hotel review column for a newspaper for 18 years, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, he says that the house felt a bit empty. ‘I’d been busy travelling with her before her death and we hadn’t had much of a social life outside that. Now I had nothing to do all day or evening. And I felt guilty living all alone in a big house.’
Tenants might be a good idea, he decided. ‘I didn’t want a single person as they might be on the sofa next to me every night. A couple would be good. Most importantly, they had to be congenial.’
He put the word out and Brian, a coach at a ballroom-dancing school Robin had recently signed up to, jumped at the chance to move in with his girlfriend. They now occupy the top two floors, where they have a bedroom, their own sitting room and two bathrooms, paying two-thirds of the market-rate rent, inclusive of bills – a valuable boost to Robin’s retirement funds.
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‘They have access to the whole house,’ says Robin. ‘We meet most often in the kitchen. On their first day, I was cooking and was suddenly aware of someone beside me. Now I’m always expecting them to be there and I like it. The house feels so much cosier when they’re around.
‘I put in a second fridge for them and gave them their own cupboard space, so there’d be no arguments. But I like going into the kitchen and finding things are slightly different. It gives me a sense of life going on around me.
‘I have radios around the house all set to Radio 4. Sometimes I’ll find Radio 1 on in the kitchen. Fine – but I’m not a convert. Brian and Georgiana use their phones for most forms of communication and entertainment, but they’re not frivolous. In many ways, I view them as my superiors. They’re very talented dancers and so businesslike and mature.
‘Brian made a lovely comment recently when I thanked him for something. “That’s OK,” he said. “You’re family.” I see them a bit like my children and want them to do well. I could have slipped into depression, but now this is a different house to be in. On a practical note, I know that if anything happened to me, I’d have reliable people to feed the cat and look after things.
‘I’ve been astonished at the change in myself. I had a supper party recently with three couples all from different generations, including a 50-something couple from across the road – I’d often seen them on a motorbike but had never spoken to them. I followed them into the pub, invited them to supper and now they’re friends.
‘I’m delighted to be able to help Brian and Georgiana by offering them spacious living at a low rent. They have improved my life immeasurably.’
The young lodgers
When Brian asked his girlfriend to move in with him in a small single room he was renting in a London house, he knew it would be a squeeze. But, though they looked for somewhere more suitable, he and Georgiana (who’s from Romania) began to despair of finding something reasonably priced near enough to his dance studio.
So, Robin’s offer of accommodation was a hugely lucky break. ‘We couldn’t believe it when he showed us the bedroom and our own sitting room, then suggested a price within our budget,’ says Brian. ‘This is luxury for us.
‘We have a long day of working, teaching and training – we are Latin dancers and enter competitions as a couple – and now we have our own space to relax in and be us. It feels like home.’
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Although Brian got on well with Robin while he was teaching him at the dance school, he says, ‘I didn’t know what it would be like living with someone so much older. Robin is set in his ways in that he knows what he likes. He prefers the toaster positioned so the heat doesn’t go up the back wall, for instance. But he told me that apologetically, as if he didn’t want to burden me. He’s a very gentle guy.’
‘He likes the cat to be kept in the kitchen at night. She escaped a few times, but now we’re used to it!’ adds Georgiana.
The couple both see Robin as a very welcoming landlord. ‘He likes to see us enjoying the house and loves it when our friends come round,’ says Brian. ‘They’re envious when they see how we’re living. It wouldn’t suit all of them because they may want to come back from the pub and be noisy. For us, it’s perfect and we’re respectful of Robin.
‘With the deal we have, we’re able to put more money towards our career and training. And little things, like the fact that I can walk to work, help to save money.’
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Robin also goes out of his way to help them, says Georgiana. ‘He had a mannequin he never used. I was able to put my dance dresses on it to decorate them. He was so happy when he saw that. I have crystals and stones being delivered a lot and it’s handy to have someone to take them in.’
They feel they have contributed to Robin’s life, too. ‘I think some of our dancers’ poise has rubbed off on him. When he had different ages to dinner, he was very involved with all the guests in what seemed a new way. It went very smoothly.
‘I often chat to him in the morning while waiting for Georgiana to get ready. Sometimes, she and I want to walk through some choreography at home before a competition. We roll up the rug in the large downstairs sitting room and Robin will pop his head round the door to watch and smile contentedly.’
Need to know
The financial pros and (very few) cons of an intergenerational house share
Rent The Government’s Rent a Room Scheme allows householders to earn up to £7,500 a year tax-free for furnished accommodation.
Council tax You’ll lose the 25% discount for living alone. But if you split the tax with your lodger, you’ll be quids in.
Other household bills You could go halves, but it may not be appropriate if you like the heating on high and your lodger is out all day.
Shopping You could share basics such as tea, coffee and bread, plus cleaning items, loo rolls and light bulbs.
DIY If your lodger is handy, they may be able to do basic repairs or gardening in exchange for reduced rent.
Transport A lift from a lodger is cheaper than a taxi. And you can return the favour.
If you think intergenerational living could be right for you, here's how to find a younger tenant.
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