There is barely a person alive today who hasn't at one time or another compared property hunting to dating. From the disappointing first meeting with a basement room in Clapham, to wondering whether you can double text the spacious flatshare in Canary Wharf, searching for somewhere to live especially in a city like London can be just as difficult as searching for The One.
Unfortunately dating has a dark side and so does looking for somewhere to live, especially when you're a young woman on your own. Moving in with complete strangers is unlikely to be anyone's first choice but often poor timing, a lack of money or just plain bad luck means renting a room in a shared house or flat is the only option.
Currently the best way to find spare rooms is on the internet. There are a handful of websites that connect landlords or existing tenants with vacant rooms to those in need of a roof over their head, and they work pretty well, as long as you're willing to put the hours in and are realistic about the state of renting in this country. The issue arises in the same way it does on almost all websites and social media platforms where women are involved, when it becomes an opportunity for men to attempt to solicit sex.
As an individual person searching for a room on one of the leading rental websites you're asked to create a personal profile to improve your chances of finding somewhere to live. This includes a photo, a few lines about yourself, where you're looking to move and your budget. It sounds fairly straightforward and innocent, but with just a few clicks anyone can access the profiles of thousands of smiling young women, view all of the details on their profile and send them messages. With reams of information and images available to view it's unsurprising that these sites are attracting men with less than honourable intentions.
Once someone has created a profile and started to contact landlords it's easy to be exchanging messages with strangers on these sites multiple times a day and if interest is expressed in a room viewing its common practice to exchange phone numbers. Most people are reluctant to share their number with strangers they meet over the internet unless they're looking for a date and it seems that many men cannot distinguish between what should be a professional exchange and the opportunity to get laid.
A quick search on Google or Twitter reveals numerous reports of women receiving strange, sexual or inappropriate messages from men advertising properties. In some cases men appear to be using the site for dating and want to flirt or ask the user out for a drink and while this isn't illegal it is inappropriate, if a woman wants a date she'll go on a dating site, not a property rental site. Others are more direct, asking women for sex or suggesting they would accept sex in payment for a room; many just send explicit messages or comment on the woman's appearance. Often room rental websites admit freely that property adverts aren't vetted and their safety advice often seems more concerned with the possibility of fraud than the personal safety of users.
Although these messages aren't a physical threat, texts can be deleted and numbers can be blocked, most people associate where they live with safety and comfort. So why when women are looking for the next place they can call home, must they be made to feel vulnerable or scared?
The threat of danger only escalates once a viewing is arranged. Room viewings typically involve the landlord or an existing tenant providing a tour of the property but this often means that a woman is meeting up with a complete stranger, in an empty property at locations she is unfamiliar with. With little or no vetting carried out by websites, how can women be sure the person they're meeting is who they say they are? Or that they aren't a threat?
The answer is they can't. Every time a woman attends one of these viewings she is at risk. Many will share the time and address of the viewing with friends to provide some semblance of protection but the reality is she is at the will of whoever she meets and it's terrifying to consider what it will take to force leading property websites to prioritise the safety of their users.