Group House Hunting in the Suburbs


We’ve been doing some house hunting recently. Two of our housemates are planning to pursue new things outside of the South Bay/Peninsula area, so they won’t be renewing when our current lease is up in a couple months. The remaining three of us found three other people in the area we know through MIT, so we will be a new living group/family of six. We like our current house a lot – it’s located in a fairly dense, transit-oriented, friendly neighborhood in Mountain View – but would be a bit small and parking-limited for this new group. So we were looking for a 2,500+ square foot, 4-5 bedroom, 3-3.5 bath house in the Mountain View/Palo Alto/Los Altos area.

Sankey diagrams are always fun, so here’s one showing all the houses in our hunt:

One complicating factor in this process that I had not really experienced before was that a number of landlords seemed to not want to rent to us because we are not a traditional family. We got the strong sense that many landlords in this area preferred to rent to a traditional nuclear family.

We identified 15 houses as potential candidates from searching Craigslist and Zillow. Of these, we did not reach out to six for various reasons (e.g., looked to be in poor repair, concerns about privacy, not big enough).

Of the nine places that we did reach out to for a house viewing, three responded and declined us a viewing because of our group size or type, or stopped responding after we described our group. One more did not respond at all, possibly because our initial message described our group size and makeup (but maybe not! always good to give the benefit of the doubt). Five granted us a house viewing.

Of these five, we decided we were not interested in two. One more, a beautiful Eichler, had multiple applicants already, and it was implied we were unlikely to get the lease given the competition. We put in applications to lease the remaining two houses. These two landlords used a similar application system to verify our incomes, run a background check, pull our credit scores, and talk to our current/past landlords for references.

Purely speculating here, I think their findings should have been pretty stellar. All six of us are working full-time in tech, earning a comfortable amount of money for Silicon Valley, and have good or great credit scores. Our current landlord likes us and told us that she said a lot of good things about us when asked for her reference.

After having done all this homework, one owner declined us a lease, saying that they preferred to continue leaving the house on the market. We think that this is very likely due to the fact that we are not a traditional family, as we can’t think of any other obvious reasons why they would have made this choice. (If there’s something else we might be overlooking, I would be interested in knowing!)

Owner declining us the lease after we applied. To be clear, the realtor was really nice and great to work with!

Translation (credit to one of my new housemates): “I would rather have literally nothing than even consider taking your money.”

Fortunately, the other house we applied to approved our application. We’ve now signed a lease for our new place in Los Altos and are looking forward to moving in soon.

Sharlene and I could have chosen to live on our own, but we made a very clear and conscious decision that we wanted to be part of a living group. I think a big part of the college experience value is in living with others and sharing your lives and learning from them, and we wanted to keep that going. And it’s proven true — there are lots of benefits to living in a good shared house! Your housemates are people to talk to, people to cook with and share meals with, people to offer their own perspectives and life experiences on whatever thing you might be struggling with or trying to figure out. Especially this past year with the pandemic, I’ve really felt thankful to live with my awesome housemates, and I think it would have felt much more lonely and much less fulfilling otherwise.

More broadly, I think there are a lot of potentially great benefits that can come with non-traditional, non-nuclear family structures. David Brooks’ article “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” for The Atlantic in March 2020 is a great read on this topic if you’re interested. I won’t go on too much about it, but he writes about the past role of extended families, the rise and fall of the nuclear family in the mid-20th century, and how there’s now a new need for new family structures in our changed, modern world.

Finally, it’s impossible to ignore that financial constraints are a big motivating factor in shared living situations all across the world and especially here in the Bay Area. Just to put some numbers on things:

We’ve been paying about $6k in rent at our current house; split among the five of us, that’s $1200/person. We consider this a pretty good deal. For most of my time in the Bay Area, I was not working in tech and thus was spending about exactly 30% of my take-home income on rent — right at the upper limit of common guidelines for how much to spend on rent.

At the house that turned us down after we went through the application, rent was $7.5k/month, or $1250/mo split among the six of us. But they decided to pass on us, likely to hold out for a more traditional family.

For a traditional nuclear family, assuming both parents splitting the annual $90,000 rent equally, they would each need to contribute $45,000. Following the 30% guideline, each parent’s take-home pay would need to be $150,000. Based on the SmartAsset income tax calculator, in order to have that amount of take-home pay here, each parent would need to be making a little over $230k.

I’m sure there are plenty of these people out there, especially in the Bay, but I think there are also many more “normal” people like us who would also be good tenants.

Last thought in what has become a somewhat long and rambling post – when I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, I thought this would more or less wrap up the story for me, but it seems our house hunt may only have been the beginning of an interesting adventure.

Our group visited the house recently to take a second walkthrough before move-in, and during this visit we were approached, unprovoked, by extremely hostile next door neighbors who were visibly upset seeing us at the house. (Among other things, they threatened to call the police if we parked on the public street in front of their property, which anyone is legally allowed to do.) All of our group, including the property manager showing us the house, were taken aback by the interaction. I hope we can resolve this in a peaceful manner and all just get along, but it seems that the NIMBYism may run strong here.