If home is where the heart is, then the UK’s broken rental market often feels like an exercise in romantic rejection.
For many years, being a renter in the UK has meant feeling abandoned, unwanted and unloved by policymakers and the public. But for users of flat-sharing apps and websites, the sensation of being spurned has become all too real.
Take, for instance, SpareRoom, an app founded in 2004 that connects people seeking a place to live with landlords, agents or tenants with a room to fill, and boasts about 2mn active monthly users. Visitors to the site create personal profiles, with biographies and photos, and set criteria for ideal flatmates such as age, gender and occupation. If you see someone or some place you like, you can send them a message and arrange a viewing.
If this sounds like a dating app, SpareRoom’s communications director Matt Hutchinson agrees that the analogy is a useful one. “We’re bringing people together and allowing them to make the connections they need,” he tells me. SpareRoom, which is free at its basic level, is not a letting agent and has no involvement in any rental agreement.
Mixing housing and pleasure can be risky. There have been troubling reports of men using the app to offer rooms in return for sexual favours. SpareRoom says it invests heavily in technology that screens users’ posts for signs of illicit behaviour on its platform. But the stories are a reminder of the desperation of many renters.
When I used SpareRoom last summer, I thought deeply about how I presented myself. The image I wanted was someone easy-going but tidy, friendly but not socially dependent, reliably employed but not boring, serious about finding somewhere but not needy.
What transpired was a nightmarish two months of unanswered message, conversations going cold without explanation and cancelled viewings. I tweaked my opening line (was I coming on too strong?). I swapped around my photos (too silly?). Tantalising prospects would appear but swiftly vanish.
It felt far more personal than any rejection in my dating days, and it seems I am not alone: both friends and strangers have reported similar experiences. The stress of finding a room on a budget is only made worse by an added dollop of rejection and low self-esteem.
But we were fighting an uphill battle. Last September, people seeking rooms on SpareRoom outnumbered accommodation advertised by eight to one. In London, where I was looking, there were more than 100,000 users jostling for just over 12,000 rooms. “There was a huge influx of people in a way we’ve never seen before,” Hutchinson explains, as workers returned to cities after the pandemic and universities resumed in-person teaching.
While I was worriedly curating my profile and messages, those advertising rooms were so inundated with inquiries from would-be renters that many told me privately that they didn’t even have time to read them. I had imagined they were being highly selective; in fact, their decisions were almost arbitrary.
SpareRoom acknowledges that some landlords capitalised on the surge, but says it does not control the prices advertised, which reached an average of £857 a month in the capital in September and has since increased further. “There’s not a great deal that can be done about it until supply and demand are balanced out better,” Hutchinson says.
As expected, the summer’s spike in demand has now subsided slightly. But a shortfall in accommodation looks set to stay. Many smaller landlords are leaving the market due to the increased cost of building work, and recent tax changes. Meanwhile new-build volumes are far below the government’s national target of 300,000 homes a year.
It seems my failed search had nothing to do with my charms, or lack thereof, but was the result of decades of policy shortcomings, from inadequate housebuilding to a concentration of job opportunities within London. Finding a decent flat is likely to be a crushing experience for years to come. In the meantime, dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have lost their edge. If it’s heartbreak that you’re after, download SpareRoom.