Anyone who's ever lived in London has experienced flat-sharing at some point. It's part of life here, one of the quirks of living in our great capital city that one quickly learns to accept, like planned engineering works or sitting next to the sick person on the night bus. If you're a single twenty or thirty-something, earning an average wage (average for London, that is), and aren't fortunate enough to have grown up here or had parents savvy enough to buy a property cheaply in the seventies to pass on to you, then the chances are that you flat-share, and more often than not, with complete strangers.
Of course, the flat-sharing culture is by no means a new concept, nor one unique to London. Most young people share flats to save costs after leaving home. But rentals in London have soared in the past year compared to other parts of the country, to an eye-watering average of £1,260 a month. This, coupled with the extortionate cost of living in London, means that renting a room in a flat with others in a similar position to you is usually the only available option.
After seven long years of living in shared accommodation in London, I consider myself a veteran in this field. At university I lived with friends - girls I had met in my halls of residence in the first year. After graduation my friends went their own ways and I was faced with the daunting prospect of searching for a room in a flat somewhere by myself.
Happily, my first experience of flat-sharing was on the whole a pretty positive one although as anyone who has flat-hunted in London will agree, the initial process of actually finding a place is gruelling. I had experienced job interviews before but nothing, but nothing, could have prepared me for the horror that is the 'housemate interview'. After weeks of trawling through row upon row of adverts on Gumtree, Spare Room, Easyroommate (most of which are riddled with sneaky tricks promising you success in return for subscription fees), trying to spot a comfortable-looking room somewhere within your budget, you set up a viewing and before you know it, find yourself sitting on a sofa in front of a panel of sombre-looking strangers, feeling painfully awkward and being quizzed on your taste in music, your relationship status and where you go clubbing.(I invariably fail this one being an appalling liar - I don't really even like clubs).
There are constant disappointments along the way. Like when you arrive at the doorstep of a property advertising a 'stunning, spacious room in leafy Hampstead, 5 mins to tube - not to be missed!!' only to find a miniscule box-room with a single bed above a takeaway in Kilburn, a 20 minute bus ride to the overground for £700 per month (and 'Oh sorry - didn't we mention in the ad - bills aren't included').
Worst of all are the rejections from your would-be housemates. You think you've finally found the perfect place; you've dazzled them with your charm, wit and perfect blend of 'I'm serious and clean, but obviously totally easy-going and fun' and then, BANG, you get the news: 'Thank you very much for your interest in the room but we've decided to go with someone else'. Brutal. It's like being turned down for a job, but ten times worse; at least with a job, you can blame your lack of experience or the unfair questions. This is like failing a personality test which, if you are anything like me, will cause you to develop a chronic paranoia, agonising over questions that will never be answered; Did I talk too fast? Ask too many questions or not enough? Did I have something in my teeth??
My own interview experiences have been weird and wonderful - but mainly just weird. A year ago I found myself flatless once again after a break-up and in my desperate plight to find a reasonably priced room in zone one, met some of the genuinely oddest characters I have ever encountered. These included a tango dancer to the stars (or so he claimed) in Waterloo, who kept an exotic bird in his living room and asked me about my sex life, an 'eccentric' Italian woman in Pimlico who shouted at me for being late, and then stopped half way through our interview to take pictures of her three cats, and an 'artist' named Gull in Islington who, upon asking me if I was a tidy housemate (to which I innocently replied, 'yes, very!'), told me 'Sunday is cleaning day - my assistant wears a French maid's outfit. I hope you will too - this isn't a problem is it?' I still don't know if he was joking.
I've lived in three zones and five different addresses, each time going through the same arduous process of trying to find the right people/location/room-size/level of cleanliness (which is of course, never possible - you'll always have to sacrifice a double bed for an easy route to work, or likeable people for hygienic ones.) I've lived with as broad a range of people as you could possibly imagine - from obsessive compulsive neat-freaks who actually left posters around reading 'PLEASE CLEAN UP YOUR DIRTY DISHES' (I had left a small teacup in the sink), to interminably lazy slobs who insisted that having swarms of mice was 'unavoidable' in London, and that leaving week old dishes with food still lying on the plates had nothing to do with the matter. Not to mention the heating police; a rare, inhuman breed of tight-arses who believe that, and I quote, 'heating is a luxury, not a necessity' and monitor the radiators for fear of the slightest increase in the next bill.
It hasn't all been bad - I've had some unforgettable experiences, made some brilliant friends along the way and am currently living in a gorgeous flat in a beautiful part of North London with some fabulous housemates (not a thermostat-officer in sight). Even the ruthless process of finding a room could be described as character-building. But I do have some advice for the first-time flat-sharer: never trust what you see in the photos, take a friend for a second opinion, and if you meet a man named Gull in Angel, run. Fast.