Considering Cohousing? Three Big Questions to Answer

Cohousing communities are a growing trend among seniors seeking aging-in-place options which offer extended independent living in a supportive community. Cohousing communities — and there are some 165 in the United States — provide companionship, a sense of neighborhood, and shared costs. Additionally, a cohousing community can offer a way to stay where you are longer, despite physical and mental capacities that may become compromised over time. Here are a few of the issues to keep in mind when exploring cohousing.

Question #1: What is the Why?

What is the central reason or drive for considering cohousing? Is it companionship and a sense of neighborhood? Money and savings? The ability to live in a particular climate or location, or a specific type of housing? Is it about remaining independent as long as possible?

This is all about a deep and honest conversation with self.  Clarity upfront about these issues ensures better decisions throughout the search process. 

Question #2: What Will It Really Cost? Who Pays What, and When?

One of the main areas to examine and ask questions about when evaluating a potential cohousing community is finances. What are the initial costs (e.g., above and beyond the purchase price)? Is it more costly to purchase a unit in an existing cohousing community or to purchase in one being built? If the latter, does the timeline agree with when you need to or want to move in? What are the ongoing fees? Cohousing communities have monthly dues or fees, similar to homeowner or condominium association fees. The Cohousing Association of the U.S. suggests that a well-planned community will structure their monies in three segments. First, a portion of cohousing fees will go to such operating budget items as utilities, insurance, essential community maintenance and landscaping needs. Second, a portion will go to a reserve fund, which slowly builds up over time to fund major projects (roof replacements, solar power upgrades, etc.). Finally, a portion should be earmarked for such items as committee budgets, special purchases that enhance the community (e.g., internet and/or cable/satellite TV installations).

Additionally, always ask a prospective community about how its finances are handled. Almost all cohousing communities hire a professional CPA to, at a minimum, review the books and file the community’s taxes each year. Many have a CPA that handles the bills. Others have a financial committee or team that works together to handle the books. If the community you’re investigating does that latter, the Cohousing Association of the U.S. cautions, make sure it also has a CPA to annually review the books and prepare the tax returns, and that the CPA is experienced in cohousing homeowner associations.

Insight is also gained when one tries to discover whether there are any long-term issues with the property (e.g., a major community-wide installation that was done incorrectly and needs rectifying). These usually are required by law to be disclosed in the paperwork from the seller. It’s always a good idea to see at least a few months’ worth of association budget reports before purchasing a home. The assets and expenses can give a good idea of any problems and also of what items are most important to the community residents.

Question #3:  How Does The Community Operate? Who Does What, When, and Why?

Along with finances, another item to consider is the volunteer contributions owners are expected to make. What kind of upkeep is necessary and when are community members expected to pitch in? While some communities may hire a management company, most are self-managed, via board committees. Many communities have “participation agreements” delineating the number of hours and types of involvement expected from each homeowner.  Sometimes the work is committee-related or board-related (cohousing associations, as opposed to condominium associations, for example, customarily consider all owners part of the board); other times it can be volunteering to help prepare a community-wide dinner once a month, or other similar duties. Many agreements also specify how illness or reduced capacity to contribute will be handled. (See a sample agreement from Nomad Cohousing in Boulder, Colorado.)

Additionally, find out before purchasing what the governance structure of the community looks like. A well-thought-out, planned structure — as opposed to meetings where, for example, all the owners argue with each other for an hour over minutiae — will ensure a solid frame for decision-making and the overall health of the community.

Cohousing is a major decision. It is about shelter, being an active member of a community and long-term care.  It is important to thoroughly examine both the reasons and motivations for moving as well as whether the community is a good fit for one’s needs — socially, financially, and geographically. There are few right or wrong answers: it’s about personal comfort and being honest with self. It’s the Third Chapter of Life — Take the time to get it right!

1 Comments

  1. John Zeisel on August 8, 2022 at 7:37 am

    This excellent analysis seems equally applicable to the due diligence everyone needs to do when they consider living in any condominium or cooperative living arrangement — not called co-housing but with many of the same issues and concerns. Co-housing definitely represents a greater commitment to “living together” and sharing responsibilities, which ought to be part of why people as we age move into any living situation. As we live longer and healthier , the importance of how and whether such communities purposefully address and provide support for those living with what is referred to above as “reduced capacity to contribute” cannot be underestimated — often meaning cognitive decline — at a minimum Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).

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