Forget Dating — Finding a Roommate Is Our Most Important Modern Courtship Ritual
"In my free time, I love running (training for a marathon right now), drinking coffee, going out and hanging outdoors," the first email (female, 25) said.
"I enjoy riding my bike, doing yoga and cooking/eating," read the second email (female, 29).
"I like books/writing, movies, music, riding my bike, sitting around at coffee shops, those types of things," said another email (female and 30).
I studied the wording carefully. They all seemed great, but like so many online suitors before them, they all sounded exactly the same — flirty, upbeat, active. The real problem was these weren't women interested in taking me out to a nice Italian dinner and sending me off with a goodbye kiss. No, these were women who wanted to rent the medium-sized bedroom in my fourth floor walk-up apartment in New York City.
I was on the hunt for the elusive perfect roommate. And doing so required a courtship process more serious than any kind of romantic dating: It's all the work of dating, only you have to literally live with this person.
A generation of Chandlers and Joeys: If it feels like each new visit to Facebook yields more "Gotta find a roomie" posts than the last, you're onto something: Roommates have replaced spouses as the people we most commonly share our 20-something homes with. A 2014 report from Zillow found that the number of people living in houses with roommates has increased to almost one-third of all households and is most common in states like New York, California and Florida, as Business Insider reported.
With delayed marriages and higher college enrollment, it's no wonder. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 27% of millennials ages 18 to 31 lived with a roommate who wasn't their family or spouse, while only 23% lived with a spouse — a huge increase from the 6% of young adult roommates who split the rent in 1968.
Dating your way to the right match: Finding, attracting and signing a roommate is no small feat. So we approach the search for one as we would for a romantic partner. We start, as one does, with mutual friends: The initial Facebook posting, hoping for some social media serendipity that connects us with the engaged friend moving out or an old acquaintance transferring cities for work.
When our friends fail us, as they so often do in the courtship process, we get even more vulnerable and open ourselves up to strangers. We craft ads using descriptions — "drama-free, clean, friendly and comfortable," as one woman described herself to Mic — that might as well be ripped from our OkCupid profiles. Then we take to the listing sites to weed out and woo, Facebook-stalking each potential match to see if they look like "us."
"I was looking for things like 'between the ages of 24 and 30,' 'clean but not OCD,' 'male or female fine,' 'respects personal space but into getting drinks here and there,'" Jim*, 27, told Mic about his recent roommate hunt on Craigslist.
When Jim went to meet a woman at her apartment to see if the fit was right, Jim felt himself wading through a minefield of potential dealbreakers as their talk progressed. "I needed to be fun but not too fun. I needed her best friend to like me but not too much. I needed to get along with her dog. I needed to make it clear I wanted to spend time with her but without conveying a shred of romantic interest," he recounted.
When he was finally offered the spot, then turned it down, it felt like the housing version of "It's not you, it's me."
Turning up the dating intensity: Such question-and-answer sessions may in fact be the norm, with other "daters" taking an even more intense route. Darcy, 27, essentially speed-dated to fill the empty room in her three-bedroom East Village apartment.
She and her roommate, Paul, posted a no-frills Craigslist ad, then recruited friends to assess the responses. "Lacking humor. Make a joke, Brittany," one friend remarked about a dry post. "No one that is 23, that is the worst age," another friend advised. Darcy and Paul then invited the finalists over for an open house with sangria and light music, spending a 15-minute session with each. (They eventually settled on an older film student.)
Had a round-robin been too much, Darcy and Paul could have tried one of several new roommate apps. MatchPad borrows from OkCupid with questionnaires to assess compatibility, Roomi is part Craigslist and part dating profile, while Roommates asks users to pick a price range, neighborhood and makes mutual matches, Tinder-style.
Of course, just as with online dating, apps rob us of some of the magic. Gone is the "Fuck yeah, they own Steely Dan on vinyl" moment we get when sitting face to face with a kindred spirit. "I could tell within the first 10 seconds of meeting a potential new roommate if they were going to be a good fit," Tom, 27, told Mic.
The partners that matter: These are people we interact with just as much (or more than) the people we date, poking around our Netflix queues and clogging our shower drains. They also influence our decisions, increase our social networks and broaden our interests, Bruce Sacerdote, a leading researcher on the effects of college roommates, told the Science of Us. Research shows that roommates even end up adopting anxious behaviors, drinking habits and even mimicking conversation patterns from one another.
That's why the "dating" process is more important today than ever before. And getting a little crazy about it, well, just isn't that crazy.
"Ask them, are you an alcoholic or drug addict? Do you have a crazy ex that plans on stalking us? Is your rich uncle that pays your rent going to stop supporting you when you turn 32? Is your pregnant girlfriend going to move in?" Todd, 26, who's had his share of horror roommates (and one glorious one), joked to Mic. "Just to break the ice."
* Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.