While only a small share of married couples live with non-family members, the ones that do often take on roommates either as a financial strategy to cope with housing costs or as a means of assisting others burdened by housing costs. A greater share of married couples have roommates in expensive, unaffordable markets.

Most people probably assume that getting hitched means their days of living with non-relatives are over, and in general this is true – a relatively small number of married households has a non-related roommate. But the phenomenon has become far more common over the past two decades, especially in the nation’s most expensive markets.

In 2018, 3.28 percent of all U.S. households, or nearly 4.2 million households, lived with a roommate or boarder. But among married couples, that rate was just 0.46 percent (just over 280,000 married households), a scant share to be sure but nevertheless more than double the rate observed in 1995 (the earliest year for which data is available). Among all married householders, 0.46 percent live with roommates, up from an historical average of 0.36 percent. This increase is mostly driven by married homeowners, 0.34 percent of whom live with roommates, or nearly 40 percent higher than the historical average.

Trulia investigated where married couples are more likely to take on roommates, and what could be driving the rise of this phenomenon over the past twenty-three years.

Three’s Company: Where Wedded Bliss Includes Roommates

While most married couples tend to live without non-family members, the small percentage that take on roommates or boarders are seemingly doing so to help mitigate housing costs—the couple’s, the roommate’s or both. After all, sharing a home offers a financial cushion, even for married couples. In housing markets with the highest rates of married couples living with roommates, including Honolulu and Orange County, Calif., the share is between four and five times the national rate. And it’s probably no coincidence that the areas with the most married-with-roommate households are also fairly pricey: Markets exhibiting the highest rates of married couples with roommates tend to be concentrated on the West Coast, a known stronghold of high home prices.

Among the 100 largest metropolitan areas, those with higher rates of married couples with roommates also tend to have higher home prices. Indeed, on average every $100,000 increase in the median metro home value corresponds to a 0.25 percentage point increase in the share of married couples with roommates, which is more than half of the 0.46 percent national rate in 2018.

While correlation is not causation, it’s notable that as housing costs have risen in many of these expensive markets, the share of married-with-roommate households has too. With the exception of Orange County, markets with the highest rates of married couples living with roommates have also seen the biggest increases in the rate of such couples. In Honolulu, for example, the rate almost doubled, increasing 78.2 percent to 2.31 percent in 2016 from 1.29 percent in 2009. The recent sharp increase has accompanied a booming housing market with rising prices, highlighting the nexus between housing affordability and the presence of a roommate in married couples’ homes.

U.S. Metro Share of Married Couples Living with Roommates, 2012-2016 Percentage Change in Share of Married Couples Living with Roommates, 2005-2009 to 2012-2016 Median Home Price (2012-2016 average) Median Home Affordability (Share of Income Need to Afford a Median Home, 2012-2016 average)
Honolulu, HI 2.31% 78.2% $522,815 34.1%
Orange County, CA 2.06% 4.8% $631,387 43.9%
San Francisco, CA 1.89% 39.0% $929,093 52.6%
Ventura County, CA 1.69% 27.6% $548,225 38.8%
San Jose, CA 1.64% 27.7% $716,541 38.8%
Salt Lake City, UT 1.54% 83.9% $266,660 22.9%
San Diego, CA 1.50% 47.7% $482,648 39.3%
Los Angeles, CA 1.47% 33.6% $490,462 46.0%
Seattle, WA 1.47% 46.3% $373,800 27.7%
Washington, DC 1.39% 66.4% $359,818 22.4%

Roommates as a Necessary Third Wheel

The national trend of wedded couples shacking up with roommates going back to the mid-1990s provide additional evidence that housing market conditions often require the financial benefits that come with sharing a home. Having roommates is a creative solution that married couples use to navigate difficult periods in the housing market, but also provides a cost-sharing housing option for potential roommates. In fact, the share of married householders who have roommates peaked when housing market conditions were the most challenging.

It is helpful to look at the distinct trends for married couples who own versus those who rent. Whereas renters are often subject to fluctuations in the cost of housing during their tenancy or when they move, homeowners tend to stay in one home for longer periods and their cost of housing is usually stable, having been determined when they bought the home. As a result, married homeowners are less likely to bring on roommates when faced with escalating housing costs than married renters.

It is telling, therefore, that the share of married homeowners with roommates peaked in 2012 at roughly the same time as the national foreclosure crisis. This suggests that married homeowners were more likely to bring on roommates after the roommate may have experienced some financial distress, and not necessarily because of the homeowner’s own financial distress. By comparison, the share of married renters with roommates was also elevated in 2012 (1.08 percent), but it was similarly elevated in 2007 (1.08 percent), when housing affordability was at its worst, suggesting that roommates also played an important role in mitigating the housing costs of married renters.

Conclusion

Most married couples will continue to nest alone or only with family members, but it is clear that roommates often allow married couples to better manage the vagaries of the housing market (and it is certainly beneficial for the roommates). Although home price growth is slowing nationally, the rate of appreciation continues to outstrip wage growth. For first-time married home buyers, especially those looking to buy in those acutely unaffordable West Coast markets, finding a roommate to help defray housing costs may simply be the sensible thing to do.

Methodology

National rates of married householders living with roommates are calculated using microdata from the U.S. Census’ Current Population Survey (from 1995 to 2018) maintained by IPUMS-CPS, University of Minnesota. Metro-level findings rely on the U.S. Census’ 2009 and 2016 5-Year American Community Survey microdata maintained by IPUMS-ACS, University of Minnesota.

Married householders are defined here as household heads that are married with the spouse present. Roommates and boarders are all those reporting their relationship to the head of household as that of a ‘Housemate or Roommate’ or a ‘Roomer or Boarder’ since both of these categories imply a non-family relationship used to help share household expenses.

Home price and affordability data are derived from Trulia’s calculations, see the full methodology here.