New York City is not a cheap housing market. For newer professionals a job in the Big Apple means a roommate (or two). Finding the perfect roommate however, is no longer a need to be fulfilled by word-of-mouth friend of a friend marketing or constantly posting housing anxieties on Facebook. It is an opportunity in the on-demand economy, and the problem entrepreneur Sarah Hill is solving. Sara is the founder of Perfect Strangers, a roommate matching company. Like the perfect concierge (or butler) Sarah and her team help individuals find rooms to rent (within their budget), in their desired neighborhood, and most importantly with roommates that they are compatible with.
Question: How you came up with the idea?
I came up with Perfect Strangers through my own experience of having to move to NYC in a weekend and find a roommate. I was from a small town outside of Rochester NY so not very savvy back then. I ended up paying way too much for a room in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2011. Needless to say, it was less than ideal. I worked in the in Real Estate Industry so I gained insight on how the process of securing an apartment worked. I started a blog "Moving to NYC 101" where I wrote articles about finding apartments, and in doing so, created transparency around the process (how you should plan, budget, locate best neighborhoods, etc.). People started to reach out to me through my blog asking for help on finding apartments. Most of these people were new professional with strict budgets (like me). I knew their only option was living with a roommate, but I didn't feel comfortable suggesting Craigslist. Then the light bulb went off and I came up with the idea of helping people find roommates!
Question: What's the problem you're solving?
Many young professionals who dream of moving to NYC often won't because they think it is too expensive. Finding a roommate to them seems even more impossible since most of them don't have an established network here. Then add-on all the headaches of applying for an apartment, or even figuring out which neighborhood is best for you.
Question: Beyond coming up with the idea, why are you the one to solve this problem?
Through my blog, I become my first and subsequent clients' first friend in NYC. I relate to them. I understand their fears and I give them confidence that living in NYC is a possibility. I've been in their shoes so I can say I genuinely care about them. I have a lot of clients who come to me after trolling Craigslist or these other sites. They are frustrated and I lift a huge weight off their shoulders.
Beyond having the right personality for this type of work, I am also very savvy when it comes to real estate. I have been a licensed agent for 5 years so I have a lot of established relationships with landlords. Many landlords come to me to rent their apartments because they find that the apartment never really comes back on the market once I place roommates in there. When one roommate leaves, I help them to find another. When dealing with the client I walk them (and usually their parents too) through the process of renting an apartment, which neighborhoods are best for their budget, and then show them some real options.
Question: Why do you think someone seeking a roommate is willing to outsource this task?
Finding a room to rent is no easy tasks. In the height of the season (summer) you are lucky to even get a response back from the person who is advertising the available room. If you are "the chosen one", then you have to go and meet the person, for the first time, in their apartment (cue scary music here!). Then you awkwardly sit in their living room talking about yourself: what you do for a living, do you pee in the shower, do you do drugs, how many over night guest do you have? It's even worse than a job interview! If you have impressed them enough and they like you, you literally have two hours to decide if you want to live with them... for a year. Then you fork over two months rent and pray that they aren't professional scammers. It's also no easy task on the flip side. The person who has the available room is just as stressed by the process. They have to talk with all these people, invite them into their home, worry about being robbed, and then pray that the person they chose will actually be pleasant to live with, let alone pay rent on time.
I'm the middlewoman. I screen and vet applicants. My motto is "If I can't live with you, I don't work with you." People tend to be more honest with me and I can ask those hard questions and get the real answer. I also make sure people are financially qualified. I work a lot with people who are moving long distances. Usually they can't make it to the city to see the apartment in person, so they really rely on me. I usually show them the apartment via Skype or Facetime and introduce them to the roommates virtually as well. If they like each other, then I help with transferring the money and getting the keys.
Question: Is it an economic or housing shortage or Millennial attitudes that has led to the market opportunity for this service?
All of the above! NYC is expensive, I highly doubt there will be a time when you can rent a studio in the UES again for $1000/month. There's always been a demand for roommates, but it's certainly different now with the internet and people being able to connect instantly. Millennials are also very smart consumers. They do their research and are willing to outsource DIY tasks, when they know they are getting top-notch service.
Question: What are your suggestions on how to screen for character, trustworthiness (and any other feature we look for in a close relationship)?
I always suggest paying close attention to how someone communicates: from emails to timeliness to body language. I can tell right off the bat if someone is professional, by how they compose an email. You can also tell if someone is responsible if they arrive on time, or if they give you a heads up if they are running late. When you meet them in person, pay close attention to their body language. Do they engage with you, do they take a lead in the conversation and ask you questions (or simply check their phone, etc.). If you really are not sure, ask for a roommate reference. And of course, a little Facebook creeping and social media stalking can go a long way too.
Question: What makes for a perfect roommate?
It varies for each person. Besides being financially stable, responsible and respectful, the most important thing is to be on the same page about the relationship you want from your roommate (just as you think about asking someone to be your co-founder). This is my gut-check question. Some people want to be "besties" with their roommate. They need someone to go out with, check up on each other, etc. You have to find someone who is on the same page.
Question: Do you find living with a "perfect stranger" is better than living with someone you know?
For the majority of people, yes. Living with someone is intense. There's so much room for drama- cleaning, paying for things, having guest over, etc. When you live with someone you are close with you tend to let things slide. "Oh, I can leave this dish out because I know Susan won't mind." It's even more problematic if you share the same circle of friends. There's a lot of opportunity for disaster. When you live with someone you aren't close with, or don't know, you tend to be more respectful.