Lockdown with flatmates: not just for the young

As part of the These 4 Walls series we find out what lockdown with flatmates means when you're retired by looking at the capital's newest and fastest growing demographic of renters: the over 50s

For some, flat sharing during the pandemic has been a year-long sleepover, filled with sloppy take-aways and boozy nights-in in the living-room. For others, it has been an awkward never-ending nightmare as the un-talkative stranger from the other bedroom became unavoidable. But however we imagine lockdown flat-shares, we usually picture them populated by young – or at least youngish – professionals and students. Yet if the data from SpareRoom is anything to go by, hundreds of Londoners in their 50s and 60s have potentially spent the last year sharing their four walls with flat mates.

“We are the property-owning generation,” says Suzanne Noble, the 59-year-old director of Nestful a new start-up flat-sharing site for over 50s, “but just because you got a nice place doesn’t mean you can afford to live in it.” She says many people experience drastic changes in later life, such as divorce, bankruptcy or widowhood, which leave them unable to afford their current home, or mean that they are plunged back into a renting market far more hostile than the one they left behind in their twenties.

Noble first came up with the idea for the project, which has recently secured funding from Bethnal Green Ventures due to its positive social value, in 2018. For many years she was off-setting costs of her property up-keep by renting out rooms to tourists on AirBnB, however she found the experience to be increasingly demanding. “I was getting really tired of changing sheets all the time,” she explains, “so I thought, I might look for a more long-term solution.”

That’s how she ended up with a 53-year-old-lodger. The age similarity was an accident, she says, but it did make her more alert to the trend. Later, after her partner’s business folded and he was looking to move to London, she suggested that he should also look for flatmates. “He didn’t have the credit history because of winding up his business to be able to find a place on his own,” she says. However, she soon realised that the plan was not so simple, as existing services such as SpareRoom were visibly aimed at younger people. “He felt very alienated in the process and quite demoralised,” Noble says.

In 2019 SpareRoom revealed that searches made by people in the 35-54 age bracket quintupled over the last 10 years, while according to their 2015 survey the number of flat-sharers aged 45-54 tripled in a five-year period. Similarly, research by the charity Age UK predicts that by 2039 the number of renters aged over 65 could double, as those who never made it onto the property ladder age into retirement. The charity notes that unlike younger renters, people in older age do not expect their income to increase and do not see renting as a temporary solution. Age UK study highlighted that many older renters felt insecure in their accommodation and limited the number of their possessions so that moving could be potentially easier.

However, increasingly older flat-sharers view their living arrangement positively and lockdown has made many appreciate companionship. “I’ve been very lucky, I have wonderful flatmates,” says Caroll Kerner a personal trainer from Bethnal Green who took up body-building in her 50s. “Someone is always cooking, there is always someone to chat to when you go to the kitchen,” she says, “I’ve not been able to see my mother or socialise with my family back in France, [because of lockdown] but I haven’t felt lonely at all!

Maybe it’s because I’m mature that I can appreciate these things more than a person in their twenties.”

Follow our These 4 Walls series this week to find out more about what happened behind closed doors during this pandemic. #These4Walls 

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