SARASOTA — Isabella Wasser and her fiance, Thomas Ganter, are looking for a roommate to share the 2,600-square-foot home that they already share with Wasser's adult son, four dogs and three birds.
One room is unoccupied, and the couple wants to rent it out, even if it means crowding a stranger into the family home.
"We're actually renting ourselves, and I really don't think the owners mind. They know what the situation is," said Wasser, 48, a graphic designer who has not been able to find steady work in a year. "I think if we owned the house, we'd be in foreclosure by now."
Florida's recession and foreclosure crisis is prompting people to take unusual steps in a desperate gambit to make mortgage payments, stay afloat financially and even avoid homelessness. People who once might have tapped into their home equity are instead parlaying empty rooms into much-needed cash.
While statistics tracking these ad-hoc living arrangements are elusive, housing experts say they are rising across the country. More people seeking housing assistance or falling into homelessness are clear secondary indicators of the trend.
Single-room rentals are often for tenants and homeowners who have run out of options. They frequently accept verbal rental agreements that can be short-lived and end in a sour parting.
Homeowners trade a loss of privacy and the risk of theft or other crimes for the promise of money for groceries and expenses. For renters, the arrangement eliminates the daunting burden of security deposits and other up-front costs.
"There might not be a lot of choice," said Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit. "I think these are people who probably cannot go to the housing authority for assistance."
Neither Wasser nor Ganter has a car. Ganter rides a scooter to his job fixing power line transformers for a local company. After losing the last tenant, a day laborer who ran into health problems, the couple used grocery money to cover May's rent.
Wasser and Ganter have had five people rent temporarily in the past year. They called the police on one couple whose fighting got out of hand.
Others say they put up with major and minor inconveniences, ranging from inappropriate nudity to renters eating all the food in the refrigerator.
"We're just asking for someone who's sane and doesn't want to party all the time," Wasser said.
According to the University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, even before the current downturn, working families nationwide were having more difficulty keeping up with rent and mortgage payments.
"People were beginning to slide," said Bill O'Dell, manager of the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse at the Shimberg Center, citing U.S. Census data.
"Those very lowest incomes are seeing higher cost burdens than they had," he said.
Carol and Mark Tuttle might open their 1,100-square-foot Bradenton home to another roommate. The tenant renting from them left recently, leaving them without $600 a month in much-needed income.
"We don't know what to do, and we're living off of credit cards," said Carol Tuttle, 47.
She refinanced during the boom and now owes $150,000 for a house that might be worth half that. Carol's 18-year-old daughter is staying at the house, and Mark Tuttle's son and daughter from another marriage stay with them on weekends, leaving space at a premium.
But with Carol suffering a back injury and unable to work, and Mark facing bankruptcy, they rely on a roommate to make ends meet. They need the cash, even if budgeting experts do not recommend it.
Carolyn Gregov, director and general manager of the Sarasota County extension of the University of Florida, counsels against renting a room to shore up budget holes, citing taxes and local codes that regulate boarders.
Instead, Gregov recommends people study their finances closely, then cut costs, save and look for other ways to generate income.
But many renters say they need money immediately.
Couch of the Low Income Housing Coalition said that doubling and even tripling up on living space in lean times is a national phenomenon.
The Tuttles, who want a quiet male roommate to avoid getting a "sleazy" boarder, have considered trying to sell and move in with relatives, another trend experts say is rising. But, owing more than the house is worth, they want to wait for a market turnaround.
"The Realtor told me I could short-sell it, but it's going to hurt my credit," Tuttle said.
North Port resident Paul Ouellette has been advertising a room on Internet bulletin boards for several weeks. He recently went through a divorce and says he does not make enough money to keep the house alone.
So far Ouellette has not been able to strike a deal with a boarder.
He met with a real estate agent recently to explore sales options but is pessimistic.
He said he is likely to hold out for a roommate.