Two Families Are Better Than One
Finding a first home isn’t easy. But for two couples who are friends, living together has allowed them to become more independent.
TEXT AND PHOTOS Catherine Bernier
IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
This is part of the Dossier First Home Stories.
The golden light of late summer falls on the cornfields leading to the town of Saint-Cuthbert in Lanaudière. At the end of a country road, tucked into the woods, sits a large house covered with hemlock boards. Two young families live here: Marilyn Claveau, Pierre-Marc Duguay, and their son, Léon, together with Julie Larose, Julien Lefort, and their daughter, Simone.
An apple tree lush with new apples winks at me from the front of the house. Marilyn, who’s just returned with fresh eggs from the chicken coop, invites me inside. Simone and Léon greet me shyly from the doorway; they’ve grown up together and act like brother and sister. Julie and Pierre-Marc have known each other since high school. Over time, their friendship has expanded to include their partners, and together they’ve formed a quartet linked by a passion for board games.
Julie and Julien, both teachers, had a hard time envisioning how to reconcile their profession with family life while living in Montréal. The pair began to dream of more simplicity and food autonomy, inspired by the revival of market gardening in Québec.
Pierre-Marc and Marilyn also found themselves at a professional crossroads. Pierre-Marc, who’s a graphic designer, was in the process of becoming fully self-employed, while Marilyn was beginning her studies in communications, unsatisfied with her job as a nurse.
Over their board game sessions, the friends kept returning to the same idea: it would be smarter to reduce their costs and share a larger space, far from the daily grind.
The group took a first step in 2016 when they moved into a six-bedroom apartment together in the Rosemont neighbourhood of Montréal. They were already intrigued by the idea of buying a house and leaving rent behind — but it was out of reach at the time. The four of them quickly fell into a routine, and both couples benefited, sharing daily tasks and expenses. After a few months, living together was already showing its advantages: they were living at a pace that was closer to their idea of fulfillment and were all able to save money.
In 2017 the building where they lived was sold, and the new owner wanted to take over their apartment. This was the catalyst they needed: the friends started to look for a house in the country, where their dreams of becoming self-sufficient could take root.
After visiting several houses in the Eastern Townships that didn’t match their budget, the couples found a rare pearl: a single-family house built by its former owner on 48 acres of land in Saint-Cuthbert, Lanaudière.
The common spaces were big enough to fit everyone and left room for their families to grow. The basement, which was almost finished, could be divided according to their desires. With their buying power effectively doubled and the savings they’d managed to accumulate, the four friends were able to buy the home they loved. Cohabitation continued, now with a blank canvas of land to build the life they wanted.
Julien took classes in beekeeping, and Pierre-Marc did a course in marketing non-timber forest products (things like haskap berries, plums, and sea buckthorn berries). Julie and Marilyn started making natural products; cold-process soap became a real passion. Together, the friends grew a large kitchen garden and used their skills to start Les Racines Sauvages, a business that allows them to live off the land. Like the house, they each own an equal share in the business.
But as the months passed, the challenges of food self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship piled up. Everyday reality became more and more burdensome.
With the arrival of the children — Léon and Simone were born just three weeks apart — and a pandemic, the quartet decided to revisit their priorities. Living together was a real bonus; it allowed them to support each other in parenting and to counter feelings of isolation.
“The dream of self-sufficiency we held so dear has faded over time. It’s a lot of work!” Marilyn humbly admits.
“In the evenings after dinner, we prefer board games to weeding. So we grow plants that need less maintenance, and we take care of our chickens and rabbits. We’ve decided that everything should be fun.”
Instead of burning out at a pace they had all chosen to leave behind in the city, the friends revised their ways of working. Les Racines Sauvages now focuses on candles and bath products made of natural ingredients. Julie, who makes them, is still the only full-time employee, though everyone puts their nose to the grindstone when needed.
Julien teaches music in primary school but keeps his handyman side alive. He’s made soap moulds, drying racks, storage shelves, and even a greenhouse. Pierre-Marc continues his self-employed work in graphic design and is behind the visual identity of Racines Sauvages. Marilyn helps with candle making, customer service, accounting, and communications — tasks she’s able to do alongside her new job at Jardins de l’écoumène. Every day, she learns more about organic vegetable seeds and the importance of heirloom varieties.
Each of the four now feels that they’ve gained more balance in their lives, without ever giving up on their beliefs.
Outside in the yard, the parents try to teach their children the basics of gardening while doing chores themselves. Léon bites into a just-picked red pepper; Simone takes one too. “The vegetables have often been nibbled before even making it to our plates,” laughs Julien.
Julie distracts the kids with the task of harvesting chamomile, calendula, and bergamot, which will be added to her soaps. With their chubby little hands, her apprentices pick the fragile flowers without too much damage: mission accomplished.
We take a moment in the fresh air to talk more about the two families’ healthy cohabitation.
What lessons have you learned from buying your first house?
JULIE On our own, we wouldn’t have been able to buy a house that met our needs and hopes.
PIERRE-MARC Everything stems from the advantage of living with four people: having four salaries to be able to save, dividing the down payment and monthly costs, increasing our purchasing power, and, especially, being able to access a loan.
MARILYN I should also say that we don’t spend much. We tend toward used items. We do things DIY, we garden and help each other as much as possible — out of a need to economize, yes, but above all because it’s part of our value system.
What advice would you give two families looking to live together in a single-family home, like you?
JULIE You have to be flexible and forgiving by nature to live with others — and choose well who you do it with! Each one of us had lived with roommates before we had our apartment together. We had also travelled and stayed in youth hostels. So we were used to living in a communal way.
PIERRE-MARC You have to choose your battles and ask yourself, “Am I really going to get mad again tomorrow because so-and-so didn’t empty the dishwasher?” There are important things we need to communicate about, and others we need to just let go.
MARILYN Honestly, we’ve never had a fight. And it’s because of the fact that we deal with frustration with our partners first, to defuse it and get some perspective. Then we decide whether to bring it to the table or not. With four of us, we always have a way out and somewhere to let off steam.
JULIEN Dividing up tasks at the beginning of each month in a calendar helps a lot. For example, everyone has to cook one night a week, and if it’s your night, you don’t do the dishes. Same thing for daycare: each of us takes turns going to pick up the kids. In the end, we save time!
MARILYN We keep up traditions, like a big family back in the day. For example, we always make sure to eat together; that’s our time to be together. Then we have a game of Wingspan — a strategy game about bird identification — when the kids are asleep.
What new projects has the house allowed you to undertake?
PIERRE-MARC With children, our dynamic has changed a bit. We decided to start renovations to redesign certain spaces. There were already three bedrooms on the second floor, and we added two in the basement: one for Léon, who’s grown more independent, and one as a guest room and second living room.
JULIE Part of the basement will also serve as a workshop and store for Les Racines Sauvages. Eventually we hope to offer introductory classes in soap making, creams, and candles.
JULIEN We have an ATV at the moment to move more easily across our 48 acres. We’re hoping to do some upkeep on the path the former owner made to access different water sources. The space feels enormous!
Harvests in hand, everyone returns to their activities. Julie patiently lays out the flowers on a drying rack, with help from Léon. Pierre-Marc and Marilyn make lunch at the big kitchen island, and Julien gets Simone ready for her afternoon at daycare.
Even amid the whirlwind of daily life, a certain serenity reigns in the house. They make cohabitation seem sweet and inviting. I leave with new questions on my mind about our ways of engaging in community. To what extent are we ready to sacrifice the model we’ve always known for a different one? According to these four, there’s a lot more to gain than to lose.
For over 120 years, Desjardins has been supporting its members and clients in their financial autonomy, putting money in service of human development. In summer 2023, the co-operative launched FSHA, a new registered savings account that allows people to save money tax-free to buy a first home. desjardins.com/celiapp
Catherine Bernier is a creative director, a freelance writer and photographer, and the co-founder of The Parcelles, a seaside retreat for artists in residence in Nova Scotia. The influence of nature and culture on human choices and stories remains one of her core interests.