By Jessica Saia
I don’t want to beat a nearly skeletal, maggot-ridden horse or anything, but in a nutshell: SF+HOUSING=INSANITY. And if you don’t have $2,000+ a month to “bid” on a studio, or the stars-aligning fortune of a friend’s roommate moving out the precise week you need a place, you will likely find yourself wading through the lukewarm waters of Craigslist’s Rooms/Shares listings. I’ve been bangs-deep in those waters myself, and it sucks. Desperation makes the prospect of sharing, say, a studio with an unblinking stranger and her selfish-ghost-friend seem somehow like a not terrible life decision. Even more disheartening is knowing that decision isn’t even really up to you.
But somehow, Craigslist has been good to me, and having spent the past few years in the lucky, slightly-drunk-with-power position as a master tenant, I always insist on putting any open rooms in our house back into the Craigslist pool. This past weekend was the sixth time I’ve posted a room, and I thought I’d take a break from my ever-filling inbox to share some tips for room hunters who have never been on this side of things (and to commiserate with those who have).
Not surprising, but a nice room in a cute apartment with normal people for under $800 (in Duboce Triangle, no less) is a bit of a piping-hot commodity. Each time I’ve posted, I’ve received between 400 and 800 responses, which my roommates and I then narrow down to about 10 interviews. Not super great odds, but there are definitely ways to stand out, or at least avoid the clichés that make you invisible. I can’t speak for what other people are looking for, but when it comes to my own roommate hunts, this is what helps:
Absolutely attach a photo of yourself
It’s incredibly rare that we’ll end up interviewing someone without a photo. (Just as it’s less likely you would respond to a room without seeing pictures.) Not because we’re trying to pack the place with hotties, it’s just really nice to see a face, and it helps us remember who you are (“Oh yeah, I liked fish-holding guy”) when we’re figuring out who should get the last half-hour slot of our interviews. Plus, Craigslist changed things so that email addresses remain consonant-riddled pseudonyms, meaning it’s nearly impossible to look you up on Facebook.
Bonus tip: If you have a cute room currently, send a photo of that, too. The few times people have done that I’ve been so into the gesture alone – and imagining what it would be like if you moved in becomes even easier.
Be funny, if possible
Skimming hundreds of emails gets really tedious, and anyone who can make me laugh out loud gets a million bonus points. So many people say they’re “sarcastic,” but only a few actually demonstrate a sense of humor, and I’m really into those people. Like this one woman, who when describing her work schedule said, “I get home from work around 1 a.m., and usually feel a song and dance in my heaviest shoes most appropriate upon arrival.” See? Funny.
Use bullet points for the boring, but important stuff
I’d say 90% of responses start with some variation of “Hey future roommates! My name is (name), I’m an (age) year old (male/female) from (place). I’ve been in SF for (number) years, studied (thing) at (school), work at (job)” –and, oh my god, hang on, I’ve fallen asleep.
I understand that this is a totally logical way to introduce yourself, but after the first 150 times of getting this email, it blurs together with all the others. Starting out with those details is really common and really boring. After a charming first paragraph, just use bullet points for stuff like age, job, schedule, etc. It makes for a much more interesting read and is way easier to process.
Reference specifics in the ad
I know that applying to rooms en masse wears heavy on command+V, but even a couple sentences that refers to a photo or detail from the post lets me know you’re into the place for more than just a roof and a vacancy.
DO NOT USE any of these phrases; everyone does and they mean nothing:
the party home.”
“Clean but not anal.”
“A glass of wine at the end of a long day.”
If I had a dollar for every time I read these sentences, I could pay the rent with the money and forgo a fourth roommate altogether. Even if it’s true, I’ve read these words so many times that I start to irrationally hate anyone who writes them. (On that note, terms like “fun-loving,” “respectful,” and “considerate” are also used so much that the actual definitions are totally lost.)
Now, you can guarantee that ANYONE getting responses for a room has read these words and phrases a thousand times, and you can use that to your advantage to stand out. One guy started his email with “I’m a messy, inconsiderate jerk who hates fun yet for some reason is constantly bringing the party home. Kidding!” God, I loved that. Or, a subtler nod to the situation is also effective; something like: “I’m considerate but not just ‘Craigslist considerate’; I actually deeply care that my roommates and I live in a sweet, healthy little home.” Saying something that indicates you are aware that hundreds of people are all saying the same thing, makes it seem like you “get it.”
I don’t even like writing ABOUT this, but I just have to. “Drama-Free/Hates Drama”: not only is it one of those meaningless phrases that so many people write, it really only makes you seem Drama-Full/LOVES DRAMA. Chill people don’t write things like “drama-free.” The thought doesn’t even cross their minds as something they would ever need to type.
Don’t list your “likes” as things any other human being would like
My absolute favorite of this strikingly frequent phenomenon is the number of people who say they enjoy “eating food.” Oh really? Too bad, because I hate eating food. Every time I go to a restaurant, I’m just like, “OH GOD, NOT AGAIN!!!”
Other mind-bogglingly boring, crazy popular “likes” include:
“Hanging out with friends”
I’m going to take a quick break from not being an asshole here to say: NO SHIT.
There are other things that may very well be a huge part of your personality, but avoid them anyway because they’re also a huge part of a thousand other people’s personalities. This list includes:
“Going on adventures”
Seriously. So many people write those things.
Instead, be charmingly crazy-specific. I just read an email where a guy said he likes “the hum my computer makes when it’s hibernating” and dislikes “the stuff stickers leave behind when you peel them off.” Emails like that are so refreshing to read. (Listing likes and dislikes in general is a nice format for expressing some personality.)
Don’t offer more money
I know it seems enticing, but it’s actually really off-putting.
If you do end up going to an interview or open house:
Bring a casual little offering
Or don’t; some people find this really weird and bribe-y. I like it, but I was told before I moved here that it was something you should do when wooing your way into a room in SF. (And I did, and it worked.) Beer or wine is a solid, not-awkward choice, pastries or flowers stand out a bit more, and anything more elaborate you should keep in your bag until you get a feel for the people. (Generally, things that expire are good; one woman once brought a hand-made candle and when we didn’t end up picking her, I felt so guilty every time we burned it.)
All of our interviews end with “Okay, do you have any other questions?” It’s kind of the last chance to make an impression. An easy one is, “I’m curious about what you’re looking for in a roommate,” because you can then confirm that you are ALL of those things (if you are) before you leave. Asking about pet peeves leads to interesting conversations too, and the answers might give you an idea of what living with these people would actually be like (either really great, or really annoying.)
Follow up afterwards
Deciding which stranger we want to live with after talking for half an hour is surprisingly difficult, and a text or email from someone reiterating how much they like the place after seeing it and meeting us is not only nice, it makes it that much harder to say no.
Of course, there are all kinds of people looking for roommates, and this may be terrible advice for applying to another apartment, so who knows. These suggestions work for at least one greenish-blue flat by the park.