For centuries, empty nesters and divorcees have rented out rooms to help defray the costs of their houses. 

But the currency used for many of those rentals has changed. Instead of cash, renters are increasingly paying with help around the house. 

About 70% of all home shares arranged by HomeShare Vermont, a nonprofit agency that helps make matches in that state, now include a service component either as the full rent or part of it.

Demographically-speaking, it makes sense says Kirby Dunn, of HomeShare Vermont. The baby boomer population is aging, and the vast majority hope to stay in their current homes. For many of them, help with everyday chores—housecleaning, grocery shopping, cooking, taking out the garbage and recycling, walking the dog, watering the plants, mowing the lawn—is more valuable than money.

And for cash-strapped renters, paying with elbow grease helps balance the monthly budget.

The social picture

There may also be a benefit to this arrangement that goes beyond the economic.

The average ages of participants in HomeShare Vermont are 68 and 45, respectively. “Things tend to work best when people aren’t too far separated generationally and are looking for social interaction, not just a transactional relationship,” says Dunn.

And that’s smart, since loneliness has been shown to increase your risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes and more.

To reap all the benefits of a service renter, however, it’s important to choose your partner carefully. Here are the best practices to follow:

Find a boarder

Put out word to family and friends; post a sign at your church or synagogue or a local college; place a classified in the local weekly paper or on Craigslist. There are also local home share matching groups, such as Nesterly in Boston, HIP Housing in San Mateo, and Match Up Home Sharing in Ann Arbor. (You can access a list at the National Shared Housing’s website). 

The average ages of participants in one home share site are 68 and 45, respectively.

Of course, there are also apps dedicated to making matches. The largest is Silvernest, which has 60,000 users, mostly in its home state of Colorado, as well as Southern California, Arizona, Florida, Washington DC, and greater New York City.

Silvernest uses a dating-site like matching algorithm to connect homeowners and renters, says CEO Wendi Burkhardt. It runs background checks on everyone, and provides liability insurance, all for $25 a month to the homeowner and a one-time fee of $30 to the renter.

Do a background check

If you prefer to find your own match, don’t publish your address in an ad. Establish a neutral site, such as a coffee shop, where you can start to get to know the potential home sharer. During that first meeting, ask to see the person’s ID and snap a smart-phone photo of it. 

“You need to google the person and do a social-media background check,” says Kirby, “and that is only effective if you’re sure the person is giving you the right name.” The address listed on the ID can further verify that you’re looking at the right person online.

Establish a lease agreement

It’s vital that you not only agree up front to exactly what the service expectations are but also put those details in writing.

“Ninety percent of the details are the same ground rules you’d want for a traditional cash-paying roommate.”
Kirby Dunn of HomeShare Vermont

Your written agreement should state ballpark number of hours spent per week on chores and exactly what those chores are, says Dunn. Typically, routine chores work best. “You don’t want to ask the person to do personal care or home improvements.” 

Furthermore, the agreement needs to be framed as a lease and cannot look like an employment relationship, or you get into payroll taxes and other complications. 

And you need to be very cautious about not discriminating against anyone in any ad you post. “You can indicate a preference for gender,” says Dunn, “Provided it’s a shared space.” But don’t list other demographic preferences. 

HomeShare Vermont offers a guidebook and sample lease agreement for free at its website. “Ninety percent of the details are the same ground rules you’d want for a traditional cash-paying roommate, such as rules about guests,” says Dunn.

Assess compatibility

Dunn suggests a two-week trial run of the arrangement to make sure you’re compatible. “Some people watch MSNBC and some watch Fox,” she says, “and that’s just one of many lifestyle differences people have.”

“I also encourage people to eat a meal together once a week,” Dunn says. “That keeps the lines of communication open,” so you are truly sharing the home, can ensure that the service aspect of the arrangement is working, and get to enjoy the camaraderie of community.