I'm in a bar, armed with a glass of wine and a Biro. On my chest is a bright pink sticker, emblazoned with the words "I need a room". No, this isn't a new low in desperate housemate-hunting – it's all part of an organised "speed-flatmating" night. I'm faced with a sea of other sticker-wearers, all keeping our eyes peeled for someone who, on first glance, we think we might be able to bear seeing when we step out of the shower each morning. And I'm not talking about some kind of morning-after scenario here. While the speed-flatmating set-up might engender all the same nervous flutters and shy eyeing up of each other that you get at a traditional speed-dating night, the ultimate aim is strictly business – we're here because it's cheaper to share.
Flat-sharing is the new home-owning. Admittedly, not always out of choice – many of us who might have preferred to own a property, or at least to rent in peace and privacy, are having to bunk in with friends or strangers while rocketing deposits and rents make having a home of one's own utterly unaffordable. With a chunky deposit of up to £40,000 required for your first property, it's no wonder that about three million people are being priced out of the market. Instead of buying, we have to try to make homes out of rented rooms and other people's tastes in furniture.
A report last month by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) confirmed that home ownership is simply out of reach for many people who in previous generations would have been clawing their way on to the bottom rung of the property ladder. The CIH's chief executive, Sarah Webb, said the "golden age" of home ownership was coming to an end, and that it was "time to move away from the notion of 'right-to-buy' and 'wrong-to-rent'".
While there was a 26 per cent rise in the numbers potential tenants in the last quarter, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the bad news is that the number of homes available to rent is staying low. This gap between supply and demand can mean a struggle to get your mitts on even a rented property, with demand at the highest across London and the East of England. This has resulted in a marked increase in house-shares. The sort of behaviour we might once have reserved for student years is now standard well into our professional lives. Sharing no longer just means that you want to continue your partying days into your late 20s, it is also an economically driven move. Sixty-two per cent of people who choose to share do so because it's cheaper, according to a survey by EasyRoommate.co.uk, compared with 21 per cent who say they like the sociable side.
The savings can be substantial. Compared to living alone, sharing a two-bedroom flat can put an extra £3,750 per year in your pocket, while those willing to live with four people stand to save a whopping £5,225 in shared bills and rent. "Since the credit crunch kicked in, more and more renters have had to dismiss the ideas of not only buying, but also renting alone," says the director of EasyRoommate, Jonathon Moore. "Instead, they are choosing to see out the economic slump in flat-shares."
Sites such as EasyRoommate are, of course, doing well out of the current situation – it reported an increase of 17 per cent in flat-sharer numbers in July compared with the same month last year. The classified advertising website Gumtree, which lets you sidestep annoying estate agency fees or reference checks, is also popular with people looking for rental properties, new housemates or temporary sub-lets.
But hunting for a house, or housemate, over the internet can be arduous. When seeking a roomie on the web, you need to set your weirdo filter pretty high. It can also result in what feels like an endless stream of pointless emails to people who don't reply, or whose house is snapped up in seconds – and even if you do get a viewing and interview, there's no guarantee they'll pick you. With competition to get a rented room at all stepping up, it can feel like an impossible search.
One website has come up with a smart way around the problem: speed-flatmating. It's like speed-dating, but for people looking to share a roof, not a bed. Spareroom.co.uk has been running speed-flatmating events since 2004 and the basic premise is simple: get lots of people who are searching for a house or a housemate together in one room, and speed up everyone's hunt. In the informal environment of a bar, the thinking goes, you are likely to gravitate naturally towards someone you might actually enjoy living with.
I pop along to So Bar in Fulham, west London. While Spareroom's central London events regularly pull up to 170 people, tonight it is a smaller affair and those seeking rooms outnumber those offering. This is pretty typical, however, for the time of year and the current economic climate. Ben Craft, one of the organisers, says: "We are seeing more people renting. There has been a major increase in the whole business. And there is always a noticeable increase in people looking for rooms around the beginning of September; you've got your students, graduates and people coming in from other countries, all looking for rooms. There's a massive spike – and even more so than usual this year."
I slap on a pink sticker (slightly dishonestly, given that I do already live in a very happy house-share with two friends). But I enter into the spirit of things and write down the details of my imaginary ideal location and my imaginary budget. Add a glass of wine, and I'm ready to mill about the bar in the aim of finding a white "I have a room" sticker. The stickers make it easier for speed-flatmaters to discount people quickly on grounds of location or price. One room renter has brought a mobile-phone video of his house so that people get to see what he's really offering. But the event also allows natural selectiveness to come into play, in a way that online browsing never really can.
"When we started speed-flatmating, we had the whole 'ring a bell, two minutes with each person' speed-dating formula," Craft explains. "However, we are all superficial people – we realised people can be judgemental from a distance. We find that, left to wander round a bar, people pair off and group up naturally. It is really interesting to watch people gravitating towards people they will get on with."
Alastair Cross, who has come over from Dublin for a week to hunt for a room before he starts a visual-effects course, agreed the events were good for finding someone you might actually click with. "I've talked to some of the older guys here, but it's like 'let's be honest, we're not going to live together', so you move on," he says.
Cross had, however, hit it off with another young room-seeker, Tom Raffe. Both were looking to share a house, not just for economic reasons but social ones too. Raffe, who works in Fulham and was trying to find a house within walking distance, explained that he quite wanted to live with strangers because he would double his potential friends. "If you live with people you already know, you just spend all your time with them," he explained. Not that finding the ideal housemates was proving easy – he had had various viewings and interviews with little luck. "It was easier to find a job than a house in London," he complained.
Several people I talk to are on a tight timescale, with courses or job start-dates looming, or simply being keen to move on from friends' sofas. "For people who are looking, especially at the moment, it can take a week to look round 10 or 12 properties. But here, you can go through that in half an hour," points out Croft. "Plus, you can discard people on facial features or dress sense alone," he jokingly adds.
Times may be tight for renters, and many people are having to get used to the idea of doing a virtual stranger's washing-up, or sharing a shower when they had hoped to have their own bath. But with flats being snapped up in double-quick time, hastening the hunting process, having a chat in a bar over a glass of wine or a pint certainly has the potential to smooth things along and ease your housemate pain.