SpareRoom is over. What’s next for Britain’s flatsharers?

There’s an air of arms race about flatsharing adverts of the kind hosted by sites like SpareRoom.

All individuals want the same thing: to find other individuals, either to move into the spare room in their shared house, or who have a spare room to move into.

And all agents and landlords want the same thing too: to attempt to act as middleman between those two sets of individuals, taking an barely-earned cut in the process. Agents in particular have nothing at all to gain from the kind of peer-to-peer flatsharing which SpareRoom et al. are supposed to excel at.

So what do these middlemen do? They jump onto the site themselves, flooding it with adverts of their own, drowning the individuals out in a sea of noise. This heavy spamming of supoosedly peer-to-peer sites is characterised by attention-seeking tactics of ever-increasing volume.

Look closely at the first four hits in a search for rental rooms in one particular North London postcode district:

Untitled2

These adverts are laden with capital letters, random punctuation marks, and shouted claims about the virtues of the room available: “//SUPER PRICE TODAY/” yells one. Not one of these top four results is posted by an individual looking for a flatmate.

When one site becomes flooded with this kind of spammy advert (Gumtree was first to fall prey to this), attention shifts to another site where, for a time, flatsharers meet and interact unimpeded. This continues until, inevitably, the middlemen get wind of this new platform, and the spamming begins.

But this time seems to be different. SpareRoom has been pretty much defunct now for at least 18 months and, as far as I can tell, no platform has arisen to take its place.

This absence of a usable service has driven individuals looking for flats or flatmates into the walled garden of Facebook. One potential flatsharer told me:

…all about word of mouth I reckon…SpareRoom was shit!

Untitled

Flatsharing via Facebook is great if you’re a social media bigwig, and your many friends are all sharing flats too, but it’s unhelpful for people who’ve just arrived in town, or whose friends are mostly homeowners or shacked up in couples.

The move to Facebook has shown that there is a real appetite for a reliable, trustworthy way to fill a room going in a flat share. What everyone really wants is to fill their room with a friend, a friend-of-friend, or someone like-minded enough to ensure they’ll get on.

Overheads for running a site which hosts genuine adverts from genuine flatsharers come pretty close to zero, so crazy fees like those of SpareRoom are not going to be the answer to keeping a new site clean of spammers. There needs to be some kind of verification process where your Facebook friends can vouch for the genuine nature of your flatshare advert: is it what it claims to be? is the advert genuinely from a current housemate?

These are problems which have been solved over and over again in other domains. It’s indicative of the lack of renters’ collective bargaining power that the process of finding rooms and flatmates is so poorly served by the options available.

Advertisements

Author: Rob Levy

Economist at NEF. Former teaching Fellow in Economics at UCL and Bristol University. Recently submitted my PhD. We'll see what happens...