For weeks, mortgage banker Ben Marsh has been swamped with questions from clients worried about losing their homes in this bad economy.
"What should I do? What should I do?" they have asked Marsh, who has offered up several options, including renting out a room to help cover the mortgage.
"Now I'm following my own advice. I figure an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."
Marsh is looking for a boarder to rent a bedroom that has a plasma TV and stereo surround sound in his spacious three-story home in the hillsides above Woodland Hills and Calabasas; the home includes a baby grand piano and other musical instruments, a Jacuzzi and a gym. All for $1,000 a month.
"Times are tough, and I'm not closing the 12 to 15 loans a month I used to," said the single man in his 30s. "So I figured that before things get too bad, I'd take some steps to keep them from getting bad."
As the financial crisis worsens, Marsh is like more and more middle-class homeowners around the country who never thought of taking in boarders but are now quietly doing so, hoping to use the extra money to help pay mortgages or other debts.
"In this economy, we're now in uncharted waters, and I've never seen anything like homeowners taking in boarders except in stories about the Depression," said Bob Stern, president of the Center of Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, which examines political and economic issues in the Southland.
Although there are no statistics on how many homeowners are renting out rooms for the first time, services that place boarders say that in recent months they have received a rush of calls from those who had rarely used their services - middle-class professionals living in upscale suburbs.
"We've seen an upsurge in homeowners renting out rooms in their homes. It's a sign of the times," said Mark Verge, owner of Westside Rentals, which also places roommates.
"I was recently in our Valley office, and a 62-year-old woman walked in looking to share her home with a roommate, and (there was) another homeowner who said, `I've never done this before, but I'm looking to rent out a room in my house to help me with my mortgage."'
Verge said that with residential mortgage foreclosures still on the rise in the U.S., more homeowners nationwide are considering that same choice.
In recent weeks, "room for rent" signs have been spotted on the lawns of some homes in Woodland Hills. Other homeowners have resorted to the Internet site craigslist.org to list rooms in their houses.
Marlene Mazzi of Winnetka said the threat of losing their two-story, four-bedroom home is what drove her and husband Carlos to list two of the bedrooms with baths for $750 a month each. They have rented one bedroom and continue looking for a second boarder.
Mazzi, 48, who operates a home business selling natural and organic products, has mounting medical bills. Her husband, a home remodeler, has been out of work because of the downturn in the Los Angeles home-building industry.
"We need the extra money to help with our house payments," she said. "We have our life's savings invested in our home, and we have to do whatever we can to keep it."
Renting out part of their home, however, is not without sacrifices for Mazzi and her family, who live under the same roof, including daughter Stephanie, 20, a student at Pierce College who has her own bedroom; and grown nephew Paulo Taborga, a construction worker who sleeps in a converted family room and also pays a share of the rent.
"We are renting out each bedroom with a bath and we only have three and a half bathrooms," Mazzi said. "So that means that our family has to share one full bath."
Renting out rooms is also a humbling experience for many of these homeowners, who don't want relatives, friends and neighbors to know they have rented out rooms to strangers or that they have financial problems.
Many of the homeowners advertising for boarders on the Internet confirmed they were taking that step because of the hard times today, but most were reluctant to be identified in this story.
"It was hard enough coming to grips with renting out a room in our home," said a Northridge homeowner who would only identify himself as Jeff.
"I don't think I'm ready to announce to the world that I need help paying my mortgage."
Others said they were still dealing with the loss of privacy and security involved in opening up their home to an outsider.
But ultimately there is one unifying, overwhelming incentive - the hard times.
Garrett Swayne, a singer- songwriter and music teacher who has owned his three-bedroom home in Canoga Park since 1988, said having recently had a friend stay with him for a couple of months had made his decision easier.
"I'm just now, for the first time - and in many ways driven by economic reasons - realizing that maybe renting a bedroom to someone else wouldn't be that bad," he said. "And having another $700 in my pocket isn't going to hurt the bottom line."
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