Memoir: it seemed crazy to buy a house with my in-laws, but I did it anyway
When our daughter, Sharon, was a year old, my husband, Neil, and I faced a major domestic challenge. My maternity leave had just ended, and the babysitter we’d lined up was no longer available to work for us. Both of us held stable administrative jobs at U of T, but between our student loan payments and rent on our two-bedroom Etobicoke apartment, we couldn’t afford to pay $1,200 a month for daycare.
That weekend, we visited Neil’s brother Anil, a successful contractor, and his wife, Leeann, a stay-at-home mom, at their house in Brampton. We spent hours agonizing over our situation, blaming ourselves for not being able to pay for daycare. Anil and Leeann, meanwhile, told us about their problems. Leeann loved staying home with their kids, Adam and Anissa, and was pregnant with their third child. She and Anil wanted to buy a bigger house and envied our regular incomes. At first we joked that if we pooled our resources, we’d have the perfect family—we could all buy a house together, and Leeann could watch Sharon. But over the course of the weekend, we started to get serious.
We spent Sunday afternoon researching neighbourhoods, calculating mortgage rates and creating budget spreadsheets. A week later, the bank approved our loan. If we’d given ourselves more time to think about the arrangement, we probably would have chickened out. We made an offer on an affordable 2,600-square-foot house in Brampton. It had two master bedrooms with ensuites, plus two additional bedrooms and a bathroom for the kids. We also drew up a legal agreement that broke down our individual investments, how we’d split expenses, and how we’d handle large or unexpected costs. It stated that we’d live together for four years—that would give us enough time to save some money, and once Sharon was school-aged, we wouldn’t need full-time child care. We closed the deal on June 10, 2003, three months after we first hatched our plan. Anil and Leeann’s daughter Alissa was born that same day.
For the first few months, we were all on our best behaviour. We helped out with each other’s chores, like making beds or cleaning up after dinner. And while we’d initially thought each family should have their own living rooms on the main floor, we quickly realized that we preferred to hang out together. We had a shared spreadsheet for expenses, where utilities, taxes and household costs were split 50-50, and we planned our menus as a team: each couple was responsible for preparing two dinners during the week, on Fridays we had takeout, and the weekends were used to finish up whatever was in the fridge. Most nights, we ate together as a family. Neil and I are Christian, and Anil and Leeann are Hindu, so we celebrated both Christmas and Diwali: we put up a tree, told the nativity story, learned mantras and lit diyas around the house.
Six months in, the novelty had worn off. We started getting frustrated about who should clean the common spaces or take out the garbage. I became irrationally annoyed when I’d find abandoned loads of wet laundry in the washer or used tea bags in the sink. Little things turned into big things—I’d spend entire evenings venting to Neil about our new roommates. It became clear that we had to start speaking to each other directly instead of complaining behind closed doors. To give each other more breathing room, we made a point of trading off weekend getaways every few months so each couple could get some time to recharge. Within a year, we’d settled into a routine, and I was expecting child number two, Anita. Market value on our first place had skyrocketed, so we agreed to sell the house and buy another one. The new house was nearby and the same size as our old place, but far less expensive, so we all made a significant profit.
Before we knew it, our agreement was up, and we sold our second house. Neil and I found a place in Mississauga that would reduce our commute. Leeann and Anil stayed in Brampton, and Leeann planned to go back to school. We were excited to buy our own homes and reap the financial rewards of our savvy social experiment, but we were worried about how this change would affect the children, who’d grown up like siblings. We talked to them about the new living arrangements and tried to emphasize the upside: the kids would all have their own rooms, and there would be far fewer coats to cram into the front hall closet. Yet those first few months were bittersweet—we missed sharing cooking duties, chores and bills, as well as the convenience of always having an adult around to watch our kids.
Eight years later, we’re still incredibly close—we consult each other when making decisions about investments and education, and our children still think of each other (and fight like) siblings. We’ve developed the kind of unbreakable bond that only comes from living together—and we’ve made a pact to do it all over again when we’re retired, so the grandkids have a place to visit.
Lorretta Neebar is an associate registrar at U of T Mississauga.
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