Back in September, Rightmove reckoned that 29% of Londoners were spending more than 50% of their take home pay on rent, illustrating that housing in the capital will chew through your paycheck with more aggression than a certain Uruguayan footballer. Underneath these sorts of statistics is the less well documented struggle to actually find a room – even if you have some dosh, you have very little choice about where you’ll end up.
I graduated last year and in the autumn was lucky enough to land a job next to that ridiculous balloon on Old Street’s deceptively named “Silicon Roundabout”. Due to the current economic shambles, most of my mates were at home trying to find something – anything – that would pay them a wage (and still are, incidentally). Oh well, I thought naively, I’d like to meet some new people so perhaps going it alone is a blessing in disguise. How wrong I was. It turns out that if your primary search tool is the peculiar world of Gumtree small-ads, finding a reasonable room with acceptable flatmates is more challenging than getting on that first cracked rung of the employment ladder.
Firstly, you may find that one of your fundamental characteristics – being male, say, or your age – will immediately disqualify you from certain setups. I'm 22 and generally a fully-functioning adult who is (hopefully) pleasant to be around. OK, I come with a bassy sub-woofer and am probably overly fond of drinking cheap wine but I’m also partial to baking and listening to Jeremy Vine stir up hysteria on Radio 2 – hardly volatile house-share material. Time and time again though, people in their late 20s discriminate against us youngsters when it comes to searching for flatmates, explicitly stating in their ads that only people over 25 will be eligible for consideration. What's the problem? Are you scared of frequent subconscious reminders that you're almost thirty? Do you think we’re going to vom all over the floor as soon as we move in? If we’ve got a job and can afford to live in Zone 2 we’ve probably got our shit together, trust me.
Of course, the insane competition for rooms permits people to be fussy. Consequently, most applicants endure a two or three round process that involves wowing potential homies with an initial email and then turning on the charm for a meet ‘n’ greet stage, which is essentially an awkward interview over a cup of tea. One girl who showed me her place had received 200 messages in two days; with this volume of applications, people can afford to be picky. Even so, when it isn't you that gets selected, you can't help but take it a little bit personally. What did I do wrong? Did the joke about hipsters wearing red vintage sunglasses in the middle of winter cut a bit too close to the bone? Often you will not even be informed if you haven’t made the cut, leaving you feeling even more uncertain about your situation when checking out the next place.
Some ads are simply bizarre, like the one below from a few weeks ago. It's apparently 100% real and comes complete with a picture of the man himself. If you're tempted, I'm sure he's still looking:
“hi, iam M*** 32years old from azarbijan i am a building contractor .i have got double room which i pay all of bills i am looking for nice girl to share my room with and she can live free no rent !”
Other posts promote deals that are comically improbable. Oh right, so you really expect me to believe you when you say that you've got a luxurious double in Islington for £60 a week? Is this some sort of literal rent boy agreement?
The quality of the rooms and apartments themselves is a whole other issue. Needless to say, you ain’t going to get much bang for your buck. I’ve lost count of the amount of cupboard-sized kitchens, mouldy bathrooms and piss-scented stairwells I’ve been shown over the last few months, usually by someone who has just unleashed their inner estate agent. At one second floor flat in Hackney, a man tried – with admirable conviction – to pass off a miniscule landing area at the foot of the staircase as a living room.
‘This is what we like to think of as our “amphitheatre” or “chill-out zone”,’ he told me. ‘We often hold little performances in this space, and as you can see there're a few bean bags to relax on.’
They were draped on the stairs and appeared to be a tripping hazard more than anything else. I nodded, and then looked him in the eye to try to determine whether it was a joke. Apparently it wasn’t.
When you do actually stumble across somewhere that seems remotely habitable you have about thirty seconds to make a decision about whether you want to take it before another forty viewers pile in. There’s no time for grass-is-greener dilly-dallying – this business is more cutthroat than the later stages of The Apprentice. I don’t know what the answer is to this madness – maybe Boris should penalise the bastards who only live in their flats for a few weeks a year – but with the city continuing to devour the country’s population and investment cash, I can’t see things getting any easier. Newcomers to London should just chuck all their expectations out of the window and get ready for a furious scrimmage.