Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with four friends—two married couples—who met through their church in Washington, D.C., and bought a house together in 2018. One of the couples had a baby three months after they moved in. They discuss how they navigated everyone’s needs during the home-buying process, explain the logistics of their group mortgage, and share their philosophy on why life is better living in a community of friends—even after you’re married.
Bethany Fleming, 30, a curriculum specialist for Center City Public Charter Schools
TJ Fleming, 31, a client-services coordinator for a commercial-real-estate company
Luke Jackson, 36, a sales manager for a video-game company
Deborah Tepley, 41, the executive director of the Church of the Advent
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: What was the origin of the idea to buy a house together?
Deborah Tepley: I was raised in a very large family. I really love having a lot of people around. Luke was also raised in a big family, but for basically 10 years of his life, he lived alone as a bachelor. So I would always go, “Hey, we should live in a group house.” There are a lot of group houses in our church, of people who are renting together, both singles and married couples. I kept putting it out there, and he kept saying no.
Then there was this series of events in our life. We heard a woman who spoke at an event about buying a house with friends. Then we listened to a podcast, where a pastor that we loved had said he and his wife were empty-nesters, and they had decided that they shouldn’t live alone. We visited some friends at church who own a house and who rent out a lot of rooms. We had all these things happen in a row, and then one day Luke said that he was open to it.
Luke Jackson: This is all tied up with faith for me. Thinking about how I’ve grown in my faith and grown as a person—it has pretty much always been in the context of relationship. It’s other people who call out the best in us—and sometimes the worst, too—and provide opportunities for us to grow in compassion and wisdom and all these things. Being in daily contact with Deborah had really made me a better person, and I wanted that trajectory to continue.
Then I was thinking, TJ and Bethany are great, and I really like them. I think they have the spiritual maturity that it would take to be able to work out conflict and also be able to celebrate good things together. It would probably be really fun to live with them. Deborah and I had TJ and Bethany over for New Year’s brunch last year, 2018. We were enjoying large mimosas, possibly without orange juice, and we started talking to them about getting a group house together. I popped the question without actually talking to Deborah about it beforehand.
Beck: How did that conversation go? What were people’s initial reactions?
Luke: Everyone was pretty excited about it. I think Deborah fell out of her chair with surprise.
TJ Fleming: I was looking to get into the real-estate profession at the time, so it was really interesting to me. And Bethany and I loved our condo, but at the same time, we were also missing that group living. So I was interested in it for both personal and professional reasons.
Deborah: The fact that we were all excited was remarkable, but I think the more remarkable thing was that it happened. You can have a lot of conversations over New Year’s brunch that don’t go anywhere. But we started meeting together weekly. We were very transparent in sharing our finances with each other. We talked about our family plans for the future. TJ and Bethany wanted to have kids, and we’re kind of on the cusp of that. So we started hashing out what this would actually look like, and we started intentionally setting aside money.
Luke: Intentionality is something that’s marked this whole process. There’s plenty of room for spontaneity, fun, and unplanned adventures. But at the end of the day, to manage a relationship like this, you have to be thoughtful about it. I try to be clear as to what my expectations are, both to myself and to other people. That’s something all four of us have done well, that has really helped to make this be a lot more conflict-free than we thought that it might be.
Beck: As you were in the initial stages of planning, what were you each hoping for from the arrangement, and what were you afraid of?
Deborah: We did this exercise where we had a bowl in the center of the table. [The prompt was], basically, imagine in a year that you regret this and it really isn’t working. What would lead to that kind of scenario? We all wrote down lots of things, and we put them in this bowl. Then one by one, we went around, pulled them out, and talked about them. There were tears shed during that time.
Honestly, my biggest fear was that TJ or Bethany would regret living with us. I was thinking about the pain of how bad that would feel, if we bought this house with them and they didn’t like living with us.
Luke: I think we’re all always afraid of rejection. The possibility that somebody might purchase a house with you, live with you, and then decide that, actually, “You’re a jerk and I don’t want to live with you,” that was a pretty significant fear. I might’ve also been a little worried around potential conflict. Conflict is hard, at least for me, and I was worried about, what if we have a disagreement and we can’t figure out how to navigate that?
TJ: My biggest fear was the finances of it all, because I was going through a career crisis. I was pretty sure I was going to end up taking a drastic pay cut pretty soon, which ended up being the case. Also, my worst nightmare was that our condo wouldn’t sell, and that actually also happened. So my worst fears came to fruition, and everything’s okay. But it’s been really awesome to go through all of those struggles in [a] community, and that Bethany didn't have to bear the weight of every one of my stresses [alone].
Bethany Fleming: When we did the exercise, I was pregnant at the time, and my biggest fear was that our baby would be born, and she would be severely allergic to cats and she would just die in the middle of the night. Deborah and Luke had two cats. Also TJ is allergic to cats, and we had never had pets. But our pediatrician assured us that our daughter would be fine.
Deborah: We really have so much fun together, and we have great chemistry between the four of us, but you’ve got to plan for the worst. You don’t want to make this kind of decision lightly. But I would say, 99 percent of the time, we just have a blast together. We share dinner almost every night, at least when people are home, and it feels like I’m in college, living with my roommates. But we’re drinking nicer wine.
Luke: It is so great, just having other people there to share the joys and sorrows of the daily grind, to sit down, eat together, and talk about our days. That’s been a very precious part of the day, for me.
Beck: Nowadays, at the age where traditionally, one would buy a house, a lot of people can’t afford it. Is this something you would’ve been able to do without pooling your finances?
Deborah: Speaking for Luke and myself, we could have bought a house. It would’ve taken us longer to save up, and we would have had to rent or get roommates in order to afford it. I think if TJ and Bethany had said no, that’s what we would have done. And thinking about repairs—we already had to repair the roof, and suddenly a $3,000 bill becomes a $1,500 bill. It makes it a lot less intimidating burden when you can share the house expenses.
TJ: We were aggressively paying down our [condo already]. We had a lot of equity, so that’s why we were able to do this. But it was probably less financially advantageous to buy this house than do something else with the money, at least in the short term. We did it because we believed we were investing in something better than the financial goals we had at the time.
Beck: So as to the logistics of the actual home-buying process—can we do this House Hunters style? What are the features that you were looking for in your house? How did the house you ultimately chose measure up?
Luke: We had a shared spreadsheet. We came up with a list of all of the things that each couple was looking for in a home. We set location parameters. Every couple needs their own bathroom. [Each couple] obviously has their own bedroom. I wanted an office. Bethany and TJ needed a room for [their daughter], Mary Hayley. We wanted entertaining space, because we wanted to be hospitable and open our home to people. We wanted a guest room, ideally, because we all come from large families, and people want to come visit. Bethany was very insistent on good air conditioning.
Bethany: Because I had lived in several group homes where I was hot.
Deborah: Initially, we thought that the best-case scenario would be if everyone had their own floor aboveground. We felt like we would need privacy, and also TJ and Bethany were having this baby. We were worried about the baby crying. So TJ, Bethany, and Mary Hayley would be on one floor, and we would be on another floor. Then we started looking at houses, and we realized [the ones that had that] were outside of our price range. So then we thought: We could be in the basement, TJ and Bethany could be upstairs, and we would share the main level. We did actually find a house that fit that parameter. But I realized quickly that I was not very happy being in the basement.
Luke: It was two nights in. For the record, I’m a troglodyte, and I don’t like bright sunlight. I was very happy in the basement. It was nice, dark, quiet, and cold. But it turns out that Deborah didn’t like any of those things.
This is an example of the honesty and clear communication that has been a hallmark of our house: After a couple of days, she was like, “Hey, I am resenting the fact that I’m in the basement, and I don’t like it very much. I thought that I would. I feel really guilty. I want to move up into the guest bedroom.”
She and I had this conversation, and then she had to go to work. [And TJ wasn’t home.] So, after she left, I sat down with Bethany, and was like, “I’m really sorry, because we bought this house thinking that we would be living in the basement. But this is what Deborah’s saying. Can we find a solution? Is it okay if we move upstairs? The guests can stay in the basement.”
Bethany: TJ and I went on a walk, and talked through our feelings about it. We totally understood why they didn’t want to live in the basement. And I was hot in our bedroom and had noticed that the other side of the hallway was a lot cooler. The thought had already crossed my mind that maybe I wanted to move over there. Our fear was that if everyone were upstairs, our screaming baby would keep them up at night and they would resent us. So I think we just all laid it out there. No one wanted to resent each other, and it’s everyone’s house. We made the executive decision: We’re just going to move, and when Deborah gets home, she’ll have a new room. So that’s what we did.
Deborah: I felt so guilty, kind of like, I've done a bait and switch. But I also felt so loved throughout this whole process, and our relationship did not implode. I remember talking to a friend about it, saying, “We agreed to live in the basement.” She said, “No, you agreed to work it out.”
Bethany: I love that, Deborah. That’s so true. Anyway, it’s not a big deal that there are five people living upstairs. We all have sound machines. It sounds like an airplane upstairs. And they have never heard Mary Hayley scream in the middle of the night, which has been really great.
Beck: Can you explain how your group mortgage actually works?
TJ: We pretty much split everything down the middle. If at some point we take up a significantly bigger portion of the house because of children, we might pay more. We have a side contract that lays out other things, like if one couple has the capital and wants to do an improvement but the other couple doesn’t, that couple can pay for it and get all the perceived equity. If one couple wants to move, they would pay the other to help manage the property.
Deborah: If TJ and Bethany were to pass away, the house would go on to their heirs. It wouldn’t just go to us. We wanted to make sure that was clear, because TJ and Bethany were having a baby.
Then we signed a three-year contract, internally, basically saying we are on the hook for three years, and at that point, we will reevaluate and decide if we want to re-up or if we want to sell, or one couple could buy the other out.
TJ: We’ve already done a planning session this year for the house. Deborah’s big on doing a yearly planning retreat. Nothing’s on the table at the moment as far as big renovations or anything.
Beck: I can’t imagine this is a super-common arrangement. Did you get strange reactions from the realtor or anyone else?
Luke: From most people. We used a realtor who has helped a lot of people in our church find houses. Our first meeting with him, he didn’t try to talk us out of it, but he did say up front, “Hey, I don’t think this is a great idea.” His hesitations were very sensible.
We all faced some pushback. I know my family had some reservations, like, “Wait, you’re buying a house with friends? Are you sure that’s wise?” Everybody had a lot of the same concerns. What happens if you start fighting? What happens if they get divorced? What happens if someone dies? Everybody has very similar disaster fantasies about how this could go wrong.
We talked to other friends in other churches who had bought houses together, and they talked about being very clear about expectations and worst-case scenarios. That’s why we developed that internal contract. I found that that allayed a lot of people’s fears, [so that] if somebody has a mid-life crisis and goes crazy, there’s a mechanism in place to help resolve conflict.
Beck: So you move in, and not long after that, TJ and Bethany have a baby. Tell me what it was like going through both of those transitions at once.
Bethany: The buying and the move, I think, were pretty smooth. Having trouble filling our condo, that piece was really hard. At that point, I was eight months pregnant, and TJ was hoping we would make enough money for him to be able to spend some time at home after I had the baby. We realized that wasn’t going to happen. Letting go of the condo and some of the other hopes that we had for this transition into a family of three was really hard.
Once we had the baby, in early January, that was a really happy time. While I had a range of emotions after giving birth, the one that sticks out is being really thankful for the community that we had entered into with Luke and Deborah and our greater church community. Care calendars are a really big deal in our church, and we had people bring us meals three nights a week for, I think, eight weeks. Luke and Deborah cooked on the nights when we didn’t have a care calendar. TJ and I were able to focus on our new family. I felt really taken care of as a new mom, and I know that my experience is very unique, because of our house and because Luke and Deborah are who they are.
Luke: I’m like, “Well, I don’t really know what having a child means, but I can at least cook you something.” It’s been great. It’s just really fun having a front-row seat—with a lot fewer responsibilities—to watching a child grow up.
Beck: You mentioned having dinner together every night. Is there anything else that you do that’s notable, to organize your home life? Do you have assigned chores, that sort of thing?
Deborah: We do have a weekly house meeting, where we go around and share something that’s working and something that’s not working. That way you can normalize sharing what’s not working, and it’s not going to explode at some point. As part of that meeting, we plan for the future. Are there house guests we want to invite over? What's going on in each person’s life the next week?
Everyone cooks at least two nights of the next week, and other nights, we do leftovers. We have a chore chart. We also hire a cleaner who comes once every two weeks. We share groceries. We actually went in on a house phone plan. So we share a phone bill. Most of our expenses are shared. We really have, unexpectedly, gone all in on a shared life together.
Beck: All of you are married, and you were married before you bought a house together. I think the predominant view in our society is that marriage is a closed system, that once you get married, your home life consists of you, your spouse, and any children that you may have. Obviously, you all have a different view.
Deborah: I’m definitely more of an extrovert than Luke. My extroverted needs can be too much for one person to bear, and living with TJ and Bethany, I get to share myself with more people. Ultimately you’re responsible for yourself, but there’s not just one person who’s bearing the weight of your needs for interaction. Our home is very lively. Our definition of family has expanded, and we get to just care for each other. If you want time alone, you can have it, but if you want interaction, there’s always someone around to hang out with. I’m an evangelist now. I really think this is a great way to live life.
Luke: More philosophically, if you look at human history, what we’re doing is far more normal than the standard American understanding that you get married, buy a house, and live in suburban isolation with your children. Humans, throughout history, often lived in much larger, extended families. In a lot of parts of the world, this is still true.
I think that life is richer and we flourish more fully in a community. Looking around our culture, I think a lot of people are starting to experience the limits of individualism. That can really leave people feeling isolated, alone, and misunderstood. I also think living in community has such wonderful benefits. We measure ourselves against the people around us, right? It would be great if I were more like TJ and Bethany. I want to be shaped by the people around me. Living in community is really a way to become more fully human, I think. Living with other people makes me more fully myself.
Bethany: The other piece is Mary Hayley. I’m so thankful that she is going to have so many adults in her life who she has a close relationship with, other than her mother and father. She’s also going to have Luke and Deborah, and I know that that is going to be so valuable for her.
TJ: Luke and Deborah are our daughter’s godparents.
Life is better with people. Not that I don't love Bethany and always want to be around her, but I think we're made to know more people than just our spouse, and I think it's unhealthy to put all that weight and burden on your spouse. All four of us have discovered new things about ourselves. When you're being pushed by other people, you don't really have a choice but to grow. To experience that part of relationships is not only for spouses. The culture has pushed people into more of this dualistic, one-on-one relationship. To learn from people and to grow with people, I think that's a taste of the divine.