Kathi Shamer, 52, was looking for a way to bring in a little extra income after her work hours as a grant writer were reduced, so she decided to rent out a room in her Parkville home.
Through the help of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore, she found a roommate in Brenda Burton, a 53-year-old city bus driver who was looking for a way to save money so she could pay down some debt and perhaps be able to buy her own home one day.
The pair have lived together for the past month and have found the living arrangement beneficial. Burton's rent covers nearly half of Shamer's mortgage. The two women share common areas of the house and have set up a few basic rules. For instance, no wild parties and no male visitors.
"If I have a man, he ought to have his own place anyway," Burton said with a laugh.
The weak economy and mortgage crisis have left people with lost jobs, pay cuts and the inability to sell their homes. Many have turned to renting out rooms to deal with the financial mess.
But finding the right housemate can be a daunting and intimidating process. Shamer's worst fear was that she would end up with a thief or a drug user. She is also very neat and was concerned about finding someone with similar living habits.
"I was a little reluctant," she recently said.
Experts say to take precautions when choosing a roommate. Living with another person can be a very intimate thing and means giving up some privacy. For the homeowner, it is allowing a stranger access to what is most people's biggest and most important life investment.
Shamer went through the St. Ambrose Housing Center, which screens potential roommates for homeowners. It also tries to match the most compatible people and charges a nominal fee.
For homeowners who want to go it alone, there are some tips to weeding out what could be problem tenants.
References can be very important, said Annette Brennan, program director of home sharing at St. Ambrose. A person might say he's neat and clean, but a call to the person's sister or last roommate might turn up a different conclusion. Homeowners also want to do a credit check. That extra income won't do any good if the person ends up not paying the rent.
eHow.com recommends becoming a member of a tenant/landlord association that can tell you where to go for credit checks.
eHow.com and Brennan also suggest writing up a rental agreement with house rules and presenting it to prospective tenants. Homeowners shouldn't assume a renter has the same living standards and habits.
If a homeowner doesn't want the television on after midnight, let the renter know. Will the homeowner be sharing a phone and cable or must the renter pay for them? Can the renter leave dishes in the sink overnight?
Agatha Munu, 51, began looking for a roommate a few months ago when her bills increased but her salary remained the same. She was also tired of living alone and wanted a little company at her three-level townhouse in Randallstown. She too went through St. Ambrose, but was also a little wary about how things would turn out.
"I was worried that I wouldn't get along with the person or would end up with someone who wasn't as organized as me," Munu said. "Or maybe they would have a different lifestyle that didn't match mine."
Munu, a high school teacher, had no need to worry. She and her roommates, David Wood, 61, and his wife Elaine, 60, have become fast friends.
Wood lost his job selling aluminum and other industrial metals when his company downsized in April. By renting from Munu, the Woods pay half of what they used to pay for a condominium in Glen Burnie. They get the entire first floor, and Mumu stays on the third floor. The second floor, which has a kitchen, living room and television, is shared space. Wood mows the lawn even though that's not in his rental agreement.
Wood said it's important to make sure tenants and homeowners are compatible. He and his wife met with many homeowners about renting but felt most comfortable with Munu.
"There are a lot of different places we thought about moving," Wood said. "When we finally hooked up with Agatha, it was no question."
Some rental experts recommend signing month-to-month leases. It's easier for both the homeowner and renter to get out of the arrangement if it doesn't work out. Wood and his wife signed an open-ended lease in case he finds a job that requires relocation.
Renting out a room also calls for a person to be a somewhat flexible. The homeowner will be sharing a kitchen and shouldn't get too upset if the renter doesn't clean exactly as they would.
"Some people have an attachment to everything being just where it is in their kitchen," Brennan said. "If you have someone else coming in, they're not going to do it exactly the way you did it."
On the other hand, the renter needs to remember that he is living in someone else's house and the homeowner has the final say.
"There's only one queen bee to a hive," Brennan said. "She could be a very lovely queen bee. But the home seeker has to understand that it is the other person's home."
Brennan said that rental arrangements often work better when a person has a room with a private bath.
Grant Frederick is looking for renters for two rooms in his waterfront condominium in North East after watching business drop 50 percent at his residential remodeling company. He said he needs help paying his $1,800 mortgage.
"My income is down and I want waterfront, but in order to afford what it is that I want, I'm going to have to subsidize my costs," Frederick said.
Frederick has been using online classified site Craiglist to search for roommates and said his biggest obstacle has been weeding through spam messages.
Frederick said he'll screen applicants closely. He's looking for a flexible lease in case the tenant doesn't work out. "I live decently, so I won't tolerate anything less than that," he said.
Before renting a room
* Make sure house rules are written out clearly
* Call references
* Decide which parts of the house will be shared
* Decide if the renter will pay utility or other bills
* Consider a month-to-month lease