How To Decide Which Cohousing Community Is Right For You
So many exciting cohousing communities! How does a seeker decide which one is best?
The Short Version:
• Can you afford it?
• Is it located in an acceptable geographic location?
• Is the urban vs rural location right for you?
• Is their timeline compatible with yours (not perfect but acceptable)?
• Do they have a mission, vision and/or values and do you resonate with those?
• Do they accept you? Is there a place for you? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel like you fit in?
• Is the pet policy compatible with your pets or lack of pets?
• Do they have a governance system in place and are they using it? Can they get things done without long lengthy arguments?
• Do they have a team of professionals helping them or are they trying to go it alone?
• Are you right for cohousing?
The Long Version:
I have been recruiting members for our community, Sunnyside Village Cohousing in Marysville, Washington, for a number of years. I have talked with well over 1,000 people who are looking for a community. It is not easy, for either the recruiter or for the seeker.
I recently wondered what it was that made a person choose one community over another. Of course it would be a different decision making process for each family but here are some thoughts that may help you. We, at Sunnyside, believe that the community should be a good fit for you and should feel right. We believe you should keep exploring until you find the place that feels like the right fit for you and your family, where ever that might be.
Existing or forming?
There are over 160 existing cohousing communities in the United States and more in Canada, several in Mexico. My understanding is that most existing communities rarely have openings and when there is an opening it is often filled by word of mouth. So if you find an existing community you are interested in with an opening, I’d advise you to grab it, even if it’s not perfect. Some friends moved to an existing community into a unit that wasn’t the right size for them and waited for two years until the unit they wanted came available. They were patient and flexible.
You are more apt to have a broader choice of locations and communities if you look into forming communities that are not yet built. Forming communities, by nature, are looking for members and open to talking with seekers. Forming communities are opportunities for you to help in the development and planning process and become part of a beautiful whole. When you all move into your new homes together you can celebrate what you have accomplished together. You have created a beautiful thing for humanity on our planet!
Early Stages of Forming Communities
You will probably hear the statistics many times of how many groups make attempts to start a cohousing community but never get off the ground. We talk about “pioneers” and “settlers.” A forming community needs brave and adventurous pioneers who are willing to take risks, form their vision and pursue it. If you can do this, please join in and help because even though the way is difficult, the rewards are even greater. Every community needs “settlers,” too, so jump in as soon as you can.
The seeker should understand what they are looking at when they research a community. If forming cohousing was a professional business then you could expect to see a beautiful website and marketing materials, logical processes, good decision making, consistent requirements, and trained, knowledge “sales people.” But forming communities, of course, aren’t professionals (it’s why we like them, right?) and there is no money to reimburse volunteers for their many hours of work – they are all volunteers doing the best they can in areas they usually have no professional expertise or experience in because they believe in their dream. So while there are basic expectations you, the seeker, can have, try to see through to the intent. And look for progress. When you first approach a community, you may feel it is reasonable that they are a little disorganized about how new members are welcomed in, but if that hasn’t improved in 6 months I’d say that’s something to be concerned about.
Under each topic below you’ll see “On the Other Hand” which is meant to help you think, perhaps, outside your decision box.
1. Price – Can You Afford it?
Unfortunately, there are no easily available subsidies for cohousing in the United States like there are in some European countries. At this point we, the people interested in living in cohousing, have to have the financial means by which to finance our dream. Most often this means being able to afford a brand new home because that is most likely what a forming community will be. Some communities may try to get creative and buy up existing homes in a neighborhood, or renovate an older building. Some areas of the country have lower constructions costs (which can result in lower home prices). If the community you are interested in has housing prices beyond your ability, that, unfortunately, is an end to your participation in that community. Unless you can get creative and find a room mate(s) to share a home with, or find a person with investment money who will buy you a unit to rent, or you think of other creative solutions you must be able to afford the price of the home. If you have already decided that you want to live in cohousing then the price of the units needs to be within your ability.
Understand that the way cohousing communities are built is by members contributing money, which pays the bills for the architect, the builder, the permits, the roads and utilities that need to go in, the foundations and eventually the homes. The money that members contribute go toward the downpayment on their home. The longer it takes to find members, the more expensive the homes, so forming communities need to find members as quickly as they are able.
You will need to figure out, perhaps with the community financial person and/or your financial planner how you will come up with the cash you will need for the downpayment on your home. This cash will need to be contributed to the community before the house is built. If you don’t have cash saved for a down payment, some people have used a Home Equity Line Of Credit on the equity in their current home, or in some way turned their equity into cash.
So, price really becomes the first decision point.
On the Other Hand
On the other hand, do you really need to live alone – can you have a roommate to share costs? Do you really need to live in that location, or can you move to a part of the country with a lower cost of living? How can you be creative to get yourself into cohousing if thats really what you want?
Have you checked with your financial advisor? Is it really a question of whether or not you can afford it or is it difficult for you to take a risk? Only you can answer that for yourself.
2. Location -Is it located in an acceptable geographic location?
The next logical decision making point is the location of the forming community. Because while there may be things that can be changed, location isn’t one of them.
On the Other Hand
Have you been flexible about where you will live? Choosing cohousing isn’t like choosing a neighborhood. You are choosing a community of people. If the community is full of wonderful people you connect and resonate with, perhaps the location isn’t as important as you once thought?
Weather and Climate
Closely related to location are weather and climate.
According to the Washington Post (January 5, 2022), 40% of Americans live in counties hit by climate disasters in 2021. Realize that with climate change issues, the climate and weather may be more unpredictable everywhere and there may be more weather extremes in every state.
On the Other Hand
Your home will have a heater and probably some type of cooler, so you will most likely be comfortable indoors year around. There are trade offs everywhere because no area has the perfect weather at all times. You can take a vacation to a cooler or warmer place to balance out winter cold or summer heat. As the Norwegians say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”
3. Is the urban vs rural location right for you?
If your prospective community is in the middle of a dense urban setting and you long for the wide open spaces, you may be looking in the wrong area. If your prospective community is in a beautiful rural tree-lined meadow but you are an hour from health care or retail shops you depend on, you may need to reconsider your choice. One thing I can pretty much assure you – in order to find a location that is walking distance to all the services you want, you will be located in a fairly urban setting with a higher price. You don’t usually get walkability and a rural setting in the same community.
On the Other Hand
What do you want to walk to? Realistically, will you actually drive if you are picking up shopping or are in a hurry? Can you bus, bicycle, scooter, electric car or ride share to get around? If you land in an urban location, can you make regular trips to parks, wild life preserves and forest areas to compensate if you are not living as close to nature as you’d prefer?
4. Timeline – is their timeline compatible with yours (not perfect but acceptable)?
If you desperately need housing right away and a forming community is still in the design process then it probably isn’t the right community for you. But if you need time to downsize and clean out a basement or attic and sell some of your belongings, maybe their timeline is close to what you really need.
On the Other Hand
If you are concerned that a forming community seems to have a longer timeline than you are comfortable with, can you jump in and help out? If you help with recruiting members will it get built faster? If you put in hours on the Finance Committee or the Design Committee, will the process move along faster? The more volunteers helping, the more solid the community will be.
5. Do they have a mission, vision and/or values and do you resonate with those?
This is fairly straightforward. If the community doesn’t have a mission, vision and/or values then what do they stand for? Where are they going? How will you know if you fit in or not?
On the Other Hand
It is a good exercise for you to figure out what it is that you truly value. If you truly value community, you may have some trade offs for other things you currently enjoy. You may find there are eventually more benefits to a cohousing community than the things in your life you currently find important.
What if they do have a mission, vision and/or values and those don’t match up with yours? Just my opinion – I’m not sure there is an other hand in this subject. If you don’t feel connected with a community’s vision of who they are, I suspect you may never really feel like you belong.
6. Do they accept you? Is there a place for you? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel like you fit in?
There should be an easy way for you to get to know the people in the community. Do they make you feel welcome or like an outsider? Does it feel like they will accept you for who you really are? Is there a way for you to help out in some capacity? You will feel more a part of the community if you can contribute to the work, at whatever level you are able. Are they interested in finding out about you and what you bring to the community?
Beware of the communities that have controlling people in charge. They might be able to get a lot done and look productive but will there be a place for you to fit in? If everyone is trying to be in charge is everything a continual power struggles?
In the community, is there a balance between work and play? Both have their place in our lives and too much of either is not satisfying.
On the Other Hand
Make sure you are doing your part to reach out and get to know the community. Whatever unresolved personal issues you have in your life, they will not magically disappear when you move into cohousing. If you lack patience, flexibility or tolerance you may want to work on those things you can control, accept the things you can’t and pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
If you are an introvert you may need to reach out a little more than you feel comfortable just to get things started. If you are an extrovert, you may need to listen more. There tends to be a larger percentage of introverts in cohousing than in the general population, so extroverts might want to make a point to listen rather than dominate conversations.
Jump in and look for ways you can help, or ask about what is needed. There is usually something a person can do, regardless of physical ability.
7. Is the pet policy compatible with your pets or lack of pets?
If you have companion animals that live with you, is the community’s pet policy compatible with your pet’s needs? They say that one of the things communities argue the most often (and repetitively) about is whether cats should be indoors only or both indoor and outdoor pets. If you have strong feelings you should find out if the community policy is OK for you.
If you have strong feelings against pets or some types of pets, make sure the community policies mesh with your feelings. Don’t leave it to assumptions.
On the Other Hand
Some people may need to make some compromises. Only you can decide if living in community is worth possibly making some changes to the companion animals you live with.
8. Do they have a governance system in place and are they using it? Can they get things done without long lengthy arguments?
Prevention is the best cure, right? Does the community have a good structure for decision making and problem solving? Is it written down in some fashion? Do the members know what their processes and procedures are and do they use them? Unless you love sitting in meetings and arguing every little point, a good governance system and members trained in using it will help a lot. I’m prejudiced, but I believe Sociocracy is a wonderful system. It is transparent and egalitarian yet is very effective at getting things done.
On the Other Hand
A community in the beginning processes may not have gotten to the point that they have decided on a governance system. Again, it’s not whether or not they are perfect, its whether or not they can make progress. But if they can’t even agree which governance system to use that may be a red flag.
9. Do they have a team of professionals helping them or are they trying to go it alone?
In the beginning of our process of developing a cohousing community we were told “Sure you can build cohousing without a professional team of consultants. But it will probably take you 10 years or more.” After having worked on the process for a number of years with a wonderful team of professional consultants, I would say a group would be lucky if they could get a community built in 10 years without professional consultants. Unless you have in your community building contractors, and people who are knowledgeable about how to develop cohousing, you will need to pay professionals for advice. It will be worth it.
On the Other Hand
There is no other hand. Any group that is serious about cohousing needs professionals.They will be cheaper in the long run than trying to do without. By far.
10. Are you right for cohousing?
So, lets say you found a forming community in the geographic location you are interested in at a price within your range and close enough to your time line that it is feasible and they still have dwelling units available that are what you need. Their values mesh with yours and you like the group of people who have made you feel welcome. They are using Sociocracy and seem to be organized and making good progress. They have a team of consultants and professionals who seem to be steering them on an appropriate path. The next important question may be to ask yourself: Am I right for cohousing?
Cohousing is outside of our mainstream culture today. It is a culture of sharing, being cooperative, and trusting people which are all counter to how most people live today. You may think you want it but do you really understand the realities of it?
Your friends and/or relatives may think you are joining a cult or becoming a hippie. They may wonder if this strange group is trying to take all of your money and scam you. Are you ready and able to explain all of the details to them, or is there someone in the community who is willing and able to do that?
Do you have (or can you develop) patience with other people who are not perfect, and may not be able to communicate their needs as well as you can? Are you willing to learn new skills, such as how to facilitate a meeting or about a governance system that maybe you are unfamiliar with? Are you willing and able to attend trainings and classes and conferences and read books on cohousing? Remember, this is outside the mainstream culture today and most of us will need to learn different ways of communicating and collaborating and being in meetings to make decisions together in a respectful and cooperative way without depending on a leader at the top who makes all the decisions. It probably won’t be instinctive.
Are you willing and able to physically and emotionally move your household goods (or have them moved for you)? Are you ready to leave your cozy home and move to a new, unfamiliar one where you will need to get accustomed to new surroundings which will probably be better but will surely be different? Are you ready to go against our entire cultural expectations of competition, trying to get ahead, trying to look better than your neighbor and putting your family at the center of your universe?
Are you willing to accept the reality that, as in most organizations, 20% of the people will probably do 80% of the work, and it’s never fair but has to be done anyway? Every community I have had any contact with had requirements for members to provide work for the community and they all struggle with how to make it fair and get more participation. It appears to be the nature of community living. Are you willing to join work teams or committees and contribute volunteer hours to the community in order to accomplish what the community needs?
Are you willing to often put the needs of the community before your own needs, not putting your personal desires first? Are you willing to pitch in and help your neighbor who might be in need? Or perhaps more difficult, are you willing to allow your neighbors to help you when you need help?
On the Other Hand
If all of the pieces fall into place – why not? Why not enter into this big adventure? Why not see what the community can offer you and what you can offer the community. If it doesn’t work out, you can always move, right? It’s not a life commitment!
But in the meantime, let’s hold the vision together, of living in a community where people know each other and care about each other. A community where people celebrate life transitions such as the birth of a baby, anniversaries and graduations, and at the same time provide support for life transitions such as separations, and unemployment or other bad things we wish wouldn’t happen to anyone but are a part of life. Knowing we are not alone can help a lot. A community where people work together to share resources and reduce their consumption by sharing and cooperating. A community where people who want company can hang out in the Common House and people who need a little time alone are not criticized. A community that always has a jig saw puzzle in progress on a table in the Common House, a pot of tea brewing and game night or talent show night for endless (and free) entertainment. All just a short stroll away down the garden path.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought, and hopefully somewhat of a guideline for decision making.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest you check out our website: www.sunnysidevillagecohousing.com
We are a forming community and look forward to telling you about our community. But ultimately we want you to find “your” community. The place that feels like home to you, where “your people” welcome you!
Membership & Marketing Circle Lead
Sunnyside Village Cohousing
FaceBook: Sunnyside Village Cohousing
Article by Katie McCamant about the pricing of cohousing
There are several resources to help both communities and seekers, the Cohousing Association of the US, and NICA (Northwest Intentional Communities), FICA (Foundations for Intentional Communities).
Category: Finding Community
Tags: cohousing, living in cohousing