— Money Matters

These people pay almost nothing for their rent — here's how they do it

David Sutherland/ Getty Images

If you don’t own your own home, you’re likely feeling the squeeze of what’s become a rental crisis.

Rents will grow an average of 4.2% this year, according to a report by the real estate database ATTOM Data Solutions. Worse yet, 62% of the 540 counties the firm analyzed have fair market rents rising faster than average wages.

Desperate times call for radical alternatives. Building superintendent and live-in nannyjobs are probably the most obvious routes to free rent — but there are other, more unusual ways to trade time and talent for a place to rest your head.

Need inspiration? These five households have slashed their monthly housing costs to almost nothing.

Singing for Her Supper

At Judson Manor, a retirement home on the lip of Cleveland’s “University Circle,” students at the nearby Cleveland Institute of Music get a free private apartment, with a kitchen and bathroom, in exchange for occasional recitals. Since 2010, 18 students have taken Judson up on that offer, according to a spokeswoman.

Justine Myers, a graduate-level oboe student and a current “artist in residence” says the arrangement is an intergenerational social experiment of sorts, with young and old mingling over coffee, happy-hour drinks and spontaneous music performances. Myers says she’s also formed lasting, meaningful bonds with her elderly neighbors, one of whom has a dog Myers walks nearly every day.

“Music students get really used to living in a bubble,” she says. “You go to your apartment, to your practice room, and repeat. This has expanded my life. I’m a lot less stressed out about being busy and getting things done, because the pace is slower. It kinds of takes you out of yourself. It’s very peaceful.”

Babysitting the Millennials

Luke Solomon has also scored free rent by providing a service to his household — though his fellow residents were of a decidedly different ilk.

For a number of years, Solomon lived in a San Francisco “hacker house,” a Victorian mansion converted into dorm-like living housing for budding tech gurus. Solomon, a computer programer, served as the resident advisor (RA) for his house, which was filled with students from a nearby technology bootcamp. Other hacker houses are populated by groups of entrepreneurs, or young engineers. Some have angel investors.

The culture is exactly what you’d expect it to be: Young coder types up all night, frantically typing on their laptops, sometimes under a haze of pot smoke. Solomon moved out not long ago, but says it wasn’t a bad experience — just very Silicon Valley.

“I had to deal with some weird roommate issues,” he says. “One kid wanted to do the ‘Uberman’ sleep schedule, where instead of sleeping at night, you sleep for 20 minutes every three hours. It annoyed his roommates so much, because the alarm kept waking everyone up. It’s an absurd thing to deal with that only happens in San Francisco.”

Perma-sitting the Pets

In 2014, Shelly and Al McCullough sold most of their belongings, found renters for their home in Canada and flew to Panama. They started out in a short-term rental home — but by the time it had expired, the couple had met a slew of English-speaking expats who needed someone to watch over their properties (and pets) while they traveled.

For the next 18 months, the McCulloughs bounced from house to house in South America, and eventually back to North America, living for free in exchange for simple tasks like getting mail, tending to outdoor pools, and walking dogs.

It was an immersive experience, for better or worse. At the start of their house-sitting career, the couple agreed to watch five dogs and a cat for 10 weeks in a remote village in Nicaragua. They were miles from a town, the water in the house wasn’t drinkable and they were forbidden from using the one car on the property for anything other than emergencies.

And yet: “Every morning, we got to watch the sunrise over a crater lake,” Al McCullough says. “It was beautiful.”

Hitting the Road

To save on rent, some people forgo the idea of home altogether.

Two years ago, Charlie Miller and Kam Biehl were living in a Brooklyn apartment that wrapped every sad New York cliche into one dingy room. The ceiling stood inches from their heads. There was no shower, so they had to use a neighbor’s. There was also no oven, so they had to use a hot plate. And it was expensive — particularly for what they were getting.

Then, the couple bought an RV, putting down $1,000 and financing the rest. “It’s actually kind of a step up,” Miller says. “It’s 8 by 30 feet, which isn’t much smaller than where we were living. And it has a convection oven. And a shower.”

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