Shorty after Stephen McCarthy moved to Las Vegas in 2004, he offered a female friend an interesting proposition: if she kept the place tidy, cleaned up after his dog Maya and brought in the paper each morning, she could live in his house rent free. It worked well until, McCarthy says, his friend began to get possessive, jealously questioning him when he went out on dates. Her argument that she had a right to ask after his whereabouts since she did "everything, just like a wife," prompted him to ask her to move out after a year. "That's the point," the divorced architect says. "I didn't want a wife."
Well, not exactly. But like a growing number of unmarried men, McCarthy, 54, did want someone to look after him without having to take on the financial burden of hiring a housekeeper or the emotional commitment of living with a lover. He found the solution in what you might call an adult au pair. With more Americans single than ever and rents sky high in cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, many women are open to the idea of keeping house for a casual acquaintance or even a stranger in exchange for a rent-free place to stay--as long as there are no sexual strings attached. According to nationwide matching service RoommateExpress.com about 25% of its male clients specifically ask for a female barter roommate, up from less than 10% just three years ago.
These relationships horrify some feminists. "It fits in with traditional economic patterns and gender roles," says Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. For men, she says, "this is one of the biggest examples of hedging your bets that I've ever seen." But women who have tried them say the arrangements offer them perks too. "I do this to save money," says Veronica Verve, 28, who moved to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2004 and since then has lived with four different men in exchange for cooking their meals. "I like to be mobile and don't want to live in a dumpy apartment that I could actually afford."
Still, the men usually set the parameters for how the relationships will work. McCarthy invited the 62-year-old retired schoolteacher who moved in last October to view his house as her own--but within limits: he forbade her to have male guests. "If you've got girlfriends, fine, bring them over. But I don't want guys hanging out here," he says. "It's too much testosterone." She moved out in December.
Setting house rules early on can stave off sexual tension and feelings of being used. Ken Mackay, 29, a New Yorker who has had a dozen people (mostly women) live in his two-bedroom Harlem apartment in exchange for help with his dog-training business, used to ask his roommates to "find some time" to help out, but he now requires them to dedicate three hours each weekday to those chores. Similarly, Gerry Freitas, an athletic recruiter based in San Jose, Calif., enjoyed a collegial relationship with his housemate but asked her to leave after she started slacking off on the typing she had agreed to do in exchange for reduced rent. "I can't say, 'I have a nice friend,' and let my work fall by the wayside," he says.