Vanessa Winer has been scouring the web since February looking for the perfect match. But the 25-year-old talent acquisition professional isn’t looking for romance – she’s looking for a roommate.
Currently living in Markham, Ont., with her parents, Ms. Winer is hoping to move to downtown Toronto to be closer to work and avoid having to buy a car. Her plan is to find another woman roughly her age to split rent, but it hasn’t been easy.
She has roommate profiles for herself on a Facebook group devoted to house-hunting and a roommate-search site, where she has sifted through more than 40 expressions of interest.
Recently, Ms. Winer did find an ideal co-living companion and quickly teamed up with her to house-hunt. But after losing out on three offers, the other woman, who had a tight deadline for finding a place, moved on.
The whole experience has been “frustrating and exhausting and draining,” she said. And, she added, very much “like dating.”
Finding roommates has always resembled dating in some ways – looking for a compatible match among perfect strangers before the right one comes around. But with soaring rents and rental shortages in many Canadian cities, those searching for roommates are borrowing tactics from the online dating world.
Many are taking to social media – in addition to traditional classified ad sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji – to introduce themselves as potential housemates. In some cases the posts – featuring flattering, filtered photos and listing anything from personality traits to interests and hobbies – are strangely similar to profiles on dating apps like Tinder or Bumble.
On TikTok, a popular format for house-hunters to promote themselves involves a playful text-on-video take on actress Lindsay Lohan’s own famous 2013 spoof of a personal profile on dating site eHarmony.
There is also a growing number of businesses – from dedicated roommate-matching sites to rental management companies offering tenant pair-ups – that promise to help deliver that most sought-after and elusive goal: a happy platonic co-habitation.
It’s easy to see where the pressure to live with housemates comes from. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was more than $2,800 a month in Vancouver and more than $2,500 a month in Toronto, according to June data from rental listings site Rentals.ca.
In both cities, Canadians would need to make more than $100,000 a year to rent on their own and keep their housing costs below 30 per cent of their before-tax income, a common threshold of rental affordability.
Renting alone increasingly requires solid incomes even in smaller cities like Victoria, Ottawa, Kitchener, Ont., and Halifax. There, rents for one-bedroom apartments are hovering around $2,000 a month, which calls for an income of around $80,000 a year at least.
Sharing a larger apartment with one or more roommates can be considerably cheaper. In Toronto, Ms. Winer is looking at rents in the range of $3,300 to $3,600 a month for two-bedroom, two-bathroom condos. Sharing such a unit with another person would work out to between $1,650 and $1,800, which Ms. Winer said is manageable for her budget.
To maximize her chances of finding a rental suitable to both her needs and her income, Ms. Winer has been looking for fellow house-hunters willing to sign a lease with her, in addition to looking for available rooms for rent.
People looking for roommates before they’ve even found a place to live is a recent and growing trend, said Sundeep Bahl, a salesperson at the Bahl and Yew Team, a Toronto-based full-service real estate brokerage.
“From the past six months to a year now, it’s taken off way more,” Mr. Bahl said, adding he frequently sees three or more unrelated individuals sending joint applications for rentals.
Finding roommates can also be a stressful, speed-dating-like experience for those who already have a lease. Quickly replacing housemates who moved out is often the only way for existing renters to continue to make ends meet and preserve below-market rental rates.
In midtown Toronto, Annik Carson knows that scramble well. The 35-year-old project manager, who works at an artificial-intelligence startup, has been subletting her current three-bedroom apartment since 2014. The rent for the whole unit, which is subject to rent-control legislation, is $2,200 a month, below what landlords are currently asking for a vacant one-bedroom but still more than what Ms. Carson said she would be able to afford on her own.
Ms. Carson, who has become good friends with her current roommate, isn’t looking to fill spare bedrooms at the moment. But the last time she did, in 2019, she received more than 100 applications. Over the years and through several roommate searches, she’s been leaning on her project-management skills to manage the volume of responses and quickly zero in on the most promising prospects.
Her go-to tool when advertising an empty room is a Google questionnaire that automatically compiles answers into a spreadsheet. The document, which briefly introduces Ms. Carson and her two cats, asks a series of pragmatic questions about cleanliness and smoking habits, work schedules and preferences about friends and romantic partners coming over or spending the night.
Online roommate-matching platforms often use a similar pragmatic approach. On Roomies.ca, for example, creating a housemate profile involves answering many of the same questions, although the prompts also ask users for some additional, key information such as whether they’re looking for an LGBTQ-friendly home.
Toronto-based apartment rental marketplace Ryna, which launched in 2020, quickly learned that lifestyle compatibility, rather than personality traits, is the key to a happy, stable roommate relationship, said co-founder Sheryl Song.
The company, which helps renters and landlords find roommates in addition to providing traditional rental management services, dropped questions about personality entirely after two years in business, Ms. Song said.
“It’s not about personality because we are not matching best friends,” she said. In fact, friendship is not always a positive in a roommate relationship, said Ms. Song, whose company also helps resolve conflicts between tenants and replace housemates when an existing renter moves out.
“If there’s friendship that develops, it could be amazing or it could be that boundaries get blurred,” she said.
And yet, roommate-matching in the current hypercompetitive rental market does require one line of invasive questioning that few people would dare ask on a first date. Before getting to lifestyle matters, for example, Ryna’s online prompts ask users about their annual income and credit score.
“Basically, we evaluate: Can you even qualify to rent this place?” Ms. Song said.
In Toronto, Ms. Winer has also learned to ask those questions upfront.
A good income, good job and good credit score are a must, she said. She has also begun to ask how long someone has been in a job, knowing that landlords are leery of someone who’s still in their probationary period at work.
“It’s tough right now,” she said.
PERSONAL FINANCE COLUMNIST
The Globe and Mail, July 16, 2023