The scene wasn't so different from your typical happy hour on a weeknight: Young working professionals making small talk in a dimly-lit bar after work, with faint indie music playing in the background. I was three sips into my piña colada when I met eyes with a guy standing on the opposite end of the room. I quietly thought to myself: "Look, I'm pretty sure he just flashed a friendly smile at you — why not go for it?" I walked closer in his direction.
However, the white sticker he had on his plaid shirt stopped me in my tracks: "John*, £850 a month, Cally Road."
Shit, forget it: That's really out of my league.
That's because I'm not trying to get my flirt on with strangers at your regular speed dating mixer. The reason I'm engaging in this "chit chat, get a number, rinse, repeat" song and dance on a Tuesday night was not to to "cuff a winter boo", as Cardi B has so succinctly put it.
I was seeking "The One" — a chill, non-smoking roommate suitable for cohabitation and watching sitcoms over a shared bottle of wine. That's how I found myself at an event aptly named "Speedflatmating" (a "flatmate" is U.K. speak for "roommate"): A weekly series of mixers aiming to bring apartment hunting people — and those looking for a new housemate — under one roof.
If you've ever been on the lookout for a spare room in a big city, you can probably relate to what a pain it can be: Competition is fierce, everyone is game to commit, and openings get taken in the blink of an eye. I was unhappy with the location of my apartment and roommates: Having decided to relocate to London on a whim and made the the international move within the span of three weeks, I secured a place in a haste and committed to the first normal-looking place I found and saw on Spareroom. As it turns out, my roommates were big smokers and the neighborhood wasn't for me. Living with a couple also made me feel like a perpetual third wheel; I wanted a place that feels like home. So I started casually browsing wanted ads for roommates.
After dozens of unanswered inquiries and multiple viewings canceled at the last minute, I decided to try my luck at one of these events. It's hosted by Spareroom, the U.K.'s largest flat sharing site and a less sketchy version of Craigslist. Since responding to digital ads has been so fruitless, meeting people that I may potentially live with IRL — and going on the charm offensive when the right apartment and roommate comes along — has better odds, right?
I arrived at the bar — a chain location in Angel, a highly desirable part of London and the neighborhood of my dreams — and was asked to fill out a label upon check-in. On my name tag were all the vitals: My name, how much I could afford, and my ideal location.
"The people looking for a room will be wearing a blue sticker, while people with rooms to spare will have a white sticker on," a staffer instructed me. "Your job is to circle the room and talk to people displaying white stickers."
The color coding proved immediately that there was a numbers problem: There were at least ten blue label bearers outnumbering each person with a white label, which means that people who were desperate to find a place to live — like myself — were lining up to chat with people with a room to let. This was probably the IRL of an inbox overflowing with eager responses for their ads. I could feel my fellow blue stickers sizing each other up and eavesdropping on parts of other people's conversation — all masked in a vague sense of politeness and uneasy smiles. It feels like being at a meat market, but with half-off cocktails.
Openly admitting how much rent I could afford (because it was plastered across my chest for the world to see) also made me feel a bit queasy: Back in 2015, I attended a matchmaking expo in Shanghai for a Refinery29 news assignment where men and women had to display their age range on a big, colorful sticker. This label feels oddly reminiscent of that, in the sense that you feel a bit like cattle sporting a price tag at a marketplace. I was approached by no less than two people with white stickers, only for them to preface it with, "My room is out of your budget, do you still want to hear about it?" before a brief, courteous conversation. Unlike dealing with a landlord, it didn't feel like there was any room for negotiating the price of the room even if I was a fit. For the most part, these were firm price tags.
I wasn't having the type of "roommate at first sight" success stories as advertised. Though I had failed to find a room online, "Speedflatmating" made me appreciate the pragmatic nature of these interactions on the internet. If I saw an online ad that was out of my budget, I could simply close out the browser tab. Here, a person was standing in front of you with a tablet in hand, ready to show you photos of a room. It's awkward to say no without at least checking out the photos or the place, so I was roped into casually committing to three viewings — even when they were way out of my price range or not remotely close to where I was looking. And, there was simply no way of knowing how many rooms will be what you're looking for. At events like these, you can't rely on the convenience of rejection that technology enables.
It feels like being at a meat market, but with half-off cocktails.
As such, I ended up having a brief talk with John and promised to arrange a showing with him, even though the room he had to offer was too expensive. He was desperate to fill the room ASAP: His situation was his roommate had decided to relocate to China at the very last minute. We swapped numbers, but neither of us followed up with a text. In a way, this doesn't feel dissimilar to speed dating: You're free to ghost on anyone you're not seriously interested in, despite what you had said to them in person. I wondered how many of these exchanges happened that night.
As for me? I ended up finding a great apartment just 10 minutes north of the bar by answering another ad on Spareroom — the old-fashioned way for the digital age. My search for the perfect living situation ended up being a lot less dramatic than a quest for love. But as I left the bar, I realized that, just like my romantic life, I refuse to settle. I'm quite rigid with what I was looking for, so the event wasn't really the best option for me: I'm not going to take an apartment outside of my budget just because I was completely charmed by a stranger.
I'll probably save my friendly banter for an actual speed dating event next time around. But, if chemistry is the thing that matters to you the most, why not put yourself out there for a night? At the very least, you'll be walking away with half-price drinks.
*Editor's Note: Real names have been changed.