STARTING OUT


Yes, You Can Live Rent-Free

Erin Burt

Are housing costs busting your budget? We've got five ways you can find a free or discounted place to live -- and land a much nicer pad than you could traditionally afford. Really.



They live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, but Lisa and Taylor Halverson say they make ends meet by living in a spacious five-bedroom house with an ample backyard and stylish furnishings on a quiet tree-lined street. The kicker: They don't pay a dime in rent.

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No, they aren't mooching off friends or relatives. The thirty-something Palo Alto, Cal., couple are house sitting for a Stanford University professor away on vacation. This is their sixth house-sitting gig since they moved to the area seven months ago from Bloomington, Ind., where they were paying $680 a month on a mortgage for a three-bedroom, 1,900 square-foot home. Rents for a modest two-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, however, run about $1,500 to $2,000 a month. And to rent a comparable space as where the Halversons are currently house sitting would cost upwards of $3,500, says Taylor.

The thought of going from their dream home to a cramped apartment didn't appeal to the Halversons, who made the move for Lisa's job. Nor did they want to pay five times their mortgage on sky-high rent. House sitting provided the perfect alternative: They could enjoy the space and comfort of a home without breaking the bank.

Housing costs can be a real budget buster, no matter where in the country you live. The average monthly rent nationwide is $983, according to M/PF YieldStar, ranging from an average of $493 in Tulsa, Okla., to $2,578 in New York City. It may sound too good to be true, but if you're looking to cut costs, we have five honest-to-goodness strategies that'll help you find a free or discounted place to live -- and you might even land a much nicer pad than you could traditionally afford.

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1. House sitting

Whether homeowners have multiple properties, or they're taking an extended vacation or sabbatical, they may be looking for someone to watch and maintain their home while they're away and offer a free or drastically discounted place to stay in exchange. You can search for house sitting opportunities at HouseCarers.com (you'll pay $35 for 12 months of access to listings), SabbaticalHomes.com (free to view listings) and Caretaker Gazette ($30 for 12 months). Some of the gigs may ask you take on yard care and pet sitting responsibilities, or pay a small token of rent, but you can search for opportunities that match your skills and comfort level.

The Halversons place ads at the above sites as well as on their local Craigslist site and in community newspapers. But most of their homes have been from people affiliated with Stanford whom they found by advertising in the university's newspaper. Networking is key (Lisa is a Stanford grad), and their current house sitting stint is actually a repeat customer.

House sitting isn't entirely free, though. The Halversons pay $275 a month to rent a storage facility for their belongings, $50 to $100 a month to advertise their services, $100 a month for a cell phone they wouldn't otherwise use and $28 per semester for a post-office mail box. But that leaves plenty left over to chalk up to savings. The couple figures they've saved more than $10,000 in seven months by living in someone else's house and basically watering plants, taking out the trash and making sure the home doesn't look vacant.

The downside, however, is living the nomadic lifestyle. Although some long-term house sitting opportunities are available, most are between two and four weeks, say the Halversons. "The real stress comes when you're nearing the end of your agreement and you don't have something else lined up," says Lisa. "Two times we've come within 24 hours of renting an apartment when a house-sitting opportunity would land in our lap at, literally, the last minute."

Before entering an arrangement, it's a good idea to get the terms in writing, including the length of your stay and specific instructions for the care of the property and pets to avoid any misunderstandings. See a sample agreement.

2. Roommate bartering

A similar but longer-term arrangement is the role of live-in housekeeper. Increasingly, single working adults and empty nesters are taking on rent-free roommates in exchange for their services cooking meals, cleaning the house and maintaining the yard. You can arrange such "barter roommate" or "roommaid" positions through popular roommate sites such as RoommateExpress.com and Craigslist.

Not surprisingly, however, some roommate bartering arrangers may have ulterior motives -- for example, a man looking for a female roommaid may actually be looking for a relationship. And you could also find yourself in a situation where your landlord is requiring more work of you than you expected. It's important to protect yourself in both situations. Before entering a barter agreement, both parties should run background checks on the other. Put your arrangement in writing, including the duties and services you will provide. This will come in handy in case you end up in small claims court over a dispute. Remember to specify amounts and keep track of how much work you put in for rent. If you go over the agreed-upon amount, renegotiate with your landlord. Learn more about how to live successfully with roommates.

3. Apartment managing

You also might consider apartment management. In exchange for maintaining an apartment building and handling residents, you could get discounted or free rent. This could be a lot of responsibility, so make sure you are up to the task before signing up. You can usually find apartment management opportunities among job listings.

4. Home sharing

Several cities nationwide offer non-profit home-sharing programs that match tenants with elderly homeowners who have a spare room but need a little extra cash, say, to cover rising property taxes or to help pay the mortgage after a spouse dies. Such programs are usually coordinated through local senior centers or the National Shared Housing Resource Center.

These match-up programs thoroughly screen tenants and some arrangements may require you to provide services in exchange for a rent reduction -- cooking, cleaning or providing transportation, for example.

Others may not require anything of you but rent, which can often be below market rate. For example, my brother Todd used to rent out a room in an elderly woman's home in Los Angeles for almost half of what he was previously paying for a place of his own. He wasn't required to pitch in around the house -- just pay his rent to help her make ends meet. It worked out so well for both parties, he stayed for almost four years. He moved out when he got married.

5. Moving in with Mom & Dad

Okay, we joked about this in the beginning, but the fact is about half of all college seniors move back home after graduation each year. The prospect of low- or zero-rent living, home-cooked meals and a live-in housekeeper is enough to lure even previously independent young adults back to the nest to roost a while.

Whether you join the throng, however, will largely be up to your parents -- and your own pride. But if they're cool with it -- and you're cool with curfews, chores and other household rules -- moving back home can be a good way to get your financial bearings after school while you look for a job or while you try to save up enough cash for a security deposit on your own apartment or for a down payment on a house.

But before you pack your bags, you need to sit down with your parents to work out a contract. Approach the living arrangement as seriously as you would any of the other arrangements we discussed earlier. This is as much for your protection as it is theirs. To avoid disagreements, your contract should address how long you'll stay, how much you'll pay and what the house rules will be. Learn more about so-called "boomerang kid contracts" and how to make a move-home experience work.




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