After seven years of living on her own, Andrea Hargreaves has moved in with two friends at the same stage in life. Each woman sold her home and sunk her savings into a new one big enough for communal living. But what did their families say?
“Mum, are you completely bonkers? It’ll never work.”
My daughter Zoë was giving me the third degree as she struggled to understand what had possessed her mum to contemplate selling her semi to buy a house to share with two female friends.
As if talking to a bolshie teenager trying to win permission to go to a dubious club with her mates, she pointed out that she didn’t even know them. And so the interrogation went on: “What if you fall out? What if one of you gets ill and needs to go into care? You could be left homeless.”
Her brother, Paul, also sceptical, was concerned about the practicalities. “How much will you be allowing for maintenance? A big house like that will take a lot of money to keep up. And what if one of you dies?”
I think they had visions of our various children turfing the other two out should one of us be so careless as to pop our gardening clogs.
Patiently, I explained that after seven years of widowhood, I sometimes felt very lonely. Never mind when things go badly, it’s just as deflating to have no one to tell about the good times when you open your front door to an empty house. And we’ll be there to look after each other.
At the age of 70 I, a retired journalist, have gone into this venture with Sally-Mae Joseph, 65, a retired calligrapher and now an artist, whom I have known for five fun years, and Lyn Sands, 66, back from Spain where she lived alone for 12 years, our eco-warrior and vegetable-grower (don’t tell the kids, but I’ve only known her two years).
We all regard this as a forever move but accept that, as in a marriage, things we haven’t anticipated may go wrong.
We were all agreed that probate for our children had to be paramount, and that no one would be made homeless because a share of the equity had been inherited. As a couple of our daughters touchingly and independently observed in a role-reversal of parent to stroppy teen: “We don’t know these people. Will your friends love you like we do?”
Yes, we think so.
While they, in that linear way that compresses future time to allow for an expanded present, seem to think we don’t have much of it left and are worried about having not only to look after us but also sort out legal issues, we are looking forward to an exciting time ahead that is ripe with possibilities.
We had no idea of moving in together until we went on a jaunt to look at a tired and emotional, seven-bedroom Edwardian pile. Could we – should we – move in and do it up? Perhaps not, but what if there were a perfect house, with a bathroom for each of us and a kitchen big enough to seat at least 10, with a large garden for Lyn’s veg, chickens for me and a studio for Sally-Mae? That very day we found it. Four large bedrooms, all en suite, so there’s room for our collective eight children and 12 grandchildren to stay. Maybe not all at once, or not yet, but when they have all got to know each other, who knows …
Of the three of us I was the only one to suffer from cold feet. Living on my own for seven years, I was used to getting my own way in all things. When I had sold the family home I got rid of most of my furniture and enjoyed starting from scratch. I was ridiculously fond of my junk-shop finds and walls full of art by local people. It was a wrench to even think of leaving my little sanctuary. When the estate agent came round she exclaimed over it and I nearly funked out several times. But, in the end, my fancy for adventure overcame my misgivings.
Meanwhile, news of what we were planning was spreading around our smallish south-coast town. While acquaintances would exclaim “How amazing! I’ve always wanted to do that,” best friends were more cautious, echoing some of my family’s concerns. One asked if I was really sure I knew what I was doing – and I did wonder.
More influenced by her than by my son and daughter, I did some straw clutching. Perhaps no one will want my house and then I shall just have a few regrets and sink back into my safe, unexceptional life, I thought.
No chance, because all three of our houses sold within days.
So, fast forward a couple of months, my early wobbles having steadied, and we were suddenly in, with people still asking questions.
We had each stipulated one thing: Sally-Mae wanted to convert a single garage into a studio, Lyn wanted us to adopt her green principles and I wanted all my furniture to be used.
Deciding where the furniture went turned out to be fairly easy but pictures were something else. How do two people tactfully tell the third that they can’t abide her oil of St Tropez harbour bought for a fiver in 1967? And Sally-Mae and I are trying hard to put everything in the right recycling box.
“Er, what about men?” is always the next question. We have agreed on no public canoodling and no sound effects issuing from the privacy of our rooms. If the door is shut, don’t even knock.
Of course we are resigned to being described as bonkers but we wear it with pride. Thanks to help from my two lovely friends, I hosted a party for 100 people to celebrate my 70th birthday only four days after we moved in, and a riotous 96th birthday party for my lively mother yesterday. We are all involved in a protest to restore our rail timetable, the kitchen is being remodelled, Sally-Mae’s studio is being converted and we are digging out raised beds for a kitchen garden. And that’s just today. A male friend of mine remarked, on seeing all this going on, that he didn’t think three men would be able to live as cooperatively as we three women. “They’d still be arguing over how to do it in a year’s time,” he said.
We realise that we have to put the emotional and physical hours in to make our version of The Good Life work. Our ways of living have changed completely to accommodate the demands of a much larger house – I don’t know when I last idled away an afternoon with a book. And we have a cleaner rather than argue about who does the floors.
Hidden halfway down the garden is a faux ruined folly. A few people intimated that that was what this adventure could be. Now those doubters understand what we are doing and think it’s cool. Already, five-year-old Noah, who lives round the corner, is disappointed if he doesn’t immediately see who he calls The Girls as well as his Grandma Sally-Mae.
Is this the way forward for older women on their own? Lyn says: “We’ve only just got here and it seems to be working.”
And Sally-Mae? “For me it’s the sharing and not being on your own, and the discussions about things that go round and round and round but we get there in the end. It’s new territory with a constant sense of adventure.”
And for me? It feels as if I’m embracing a new, vital life.
Are you interested in sharing with friends? Andrea’s tips
1. Spend time discussing your own rules and seeking solutions. If you argue at this early stage, communal living probably isn’t for you.
2. Tell a broad spectrum of people about what you are planning to do, listen to their queries, consider them seriously and ignore nay sayers.
3. If your children object, it is because they care about you being left lonely and unloved and also they don’t want to be faced with complex probate issues when you die.
4. Find a good lawyer to draw up a Declaration of Trust. Make sure they explain the legal terms as these can seem a trifle arcane.
5. If selling houses, ensure that you all complete together.
6. Find a removal company big enough to accommodate all of you at once as movers will not want to work alongside other firms.
7. If you don’t have an opinion about something – in my case what sort of unit configuration should go into the kitchen – stay out of the discussion.
8. Laugh a lot: if you don’t spend at least half an hour a day chortling to the point of hysteria, a house share is probably not for you.
By Andrea Hargreaves. Originally published in the Guardian 17th September 2017.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2017