One of the last posts on a long-abandoned Facebook group reads: “Whoever fried an egg a few days ago and left it, please wash it up. It is stinking out the kitchen.”
The group, set up in 2014 by me and my old housemates, was meant to be a place to organise house matters. At home and offline, conversation was pleasant. Online, the tone was starkly different. Most posts were passive-aggressive complaints.
Online groups have become an essential way of avoiding confrontation for housesharers in rental properties. Keeping disagreements online helps to make living together in the real world more peaceful, says Sophie Wilson, a 21-year-old student who lives with three strangers in Bath. Once discussed online, “[the problem] never gets mentioned again”.
Jonathan McAloon, a 30-year-old freelance writer who rents in London and reviews for the FT, agrees. “Everything is kept to WhatsApp, so you don’t have to say in person: ‘Can you not get the bathroom floor so wet all the time?’
“It gets rid of any minor anxiety about stressing over the best way to frame something in person.”
Beyond airing gripes, flatsharers use technology in other ways to smooth the daily tensions of shared living arrangements. For example, housemates are among the biggest users of Splitwise, a free app launched in 2011 that allows them to keep track of shared expenses and pay back IOUs, says Zoe Chaves, the app’s product manager. She claims there are millions of users around the world.
“Even if everyone has the best of intentions, tracking who owes whom can be really tricky,” Chaves says. “[It] take[s] that awkwardness and that tension out of sharing money.”
Danny Gallagher, a computer game designer who rents in Berlin, started using Splitwise in 2015. He describes the app as “fundamental” for tracking finances and as good as WhatsApp for containing awkwardness. “We never have to [talk about finances] out loud. Being British, we never have to be like, ‘Oh, you owe me £3’ .” Gallagher, 32, remembers uncomfortable flatshares before the app. “You’d always think, ‘Ah I feel like I’ve bought the shampoo the last five times in a row,’ or something. You could never really know.”
He has been using technology in this way since he moved into a London flat with someone he hardly knew. Now, they are friends, and three months ago moved together to Berlin for a short stint, finding a place to stay using Airbnb (which, he says, was “super easy”).
His flatmate will be moving back to London, while Gallagher is considering staying in the German capital. If he does, he will use SpareRoom, a website that connects people looking for rooms with those who have one to fill. He hopes he will be just as lucky with his next flatmate.
Many housesharers are less fortunate. One young renter, who does not wish to be named, describes how in a previous house share in 2012 he was working from home when he spotted a boiled potato floating in the toilet.
“Instead of it disappearing, a load of things came up including a chicken drumstick. I had two housemates, and it transpired they had made a big pot of chicken soup and chucked the ends of it down the toilet.” When he told them to sort it out, they fetched a handheld mixer to try and blend the scraps until they were flushable. He stopped them.
Five of the most useful apps for renters
Splitwise Keep track of shared expenses (free) splitwise.com
HomeSlice Manage bills, supplies and tasks, all in one place (free) homeslice.appstor.io
IOU Keep on top of your small household debts. ($3.99/£3.10) ioutool.net
On that occasion, the renter was unfortunate. He had needed a place quickly, and the room he found on Gumtree, the online portal, was let by an unreliable agency. Could he have found a room a better way? He says if he had known then about a flatmate-finding app such as Badi, he may have used it.
Badi was launched in Barcelona in September 2015 when one of the founders, exhausted by flat-hunting, finally found his housemate on a dating website. He realised this was an opportunity to personalise the flat-searching process by borrowing the system of a dating app.
Users fill out a profile and the app’s algorithms give personalised recommendations. It works like Tinder, allowing users to skip through people and chat to those with whom they match. If they get on, they arrange a house viewing. The app, with 1m users, operates in Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, London and Rome.
Richard Stratford, who found his flatmates through Badi, says the people he lives with are now some of his closest friends. Aged 28, he had never had the “like-minded connection I was lucky enough to get through the Badi process”.
Is there such a thing as a perfect housemate? Just as Tinder cannot guarantee romance, Badi cannot promise a happy home. But increasingly, technology is filling the cracks, helping house sharing, with all its awkwardness and complications, become just that little bit easier.
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