It took me seven years of living in London to finally get a one-bedroom flat all to myself. Before that, there was a boyfriend, followed by a series of SpareRoom strangers with whom I had nothing in common but a landlord. Then came the wives.
By wives, I mean the handful of close girlfriends I shared various addresses and gas bills with before we moved on to new cities and homes and marriages. Buttons could be pushed and eyebrows could be raised over, say, hair-clogged shower drains or a tendency to invite sleazy boyfriends back at 3am, but we remain friends, bridesmaids, sisters, wives. And as a single woman in my 30s, it’s occurred to me that some of the most significant relationships of my adult life have been with these friends and former flatmates.
As increasing home prices — 60% of Londoners are expected to be renting by 2025 — put millennials in undesirable living situations, flat-sharing with a close mate seems to be the best option out there. There’s no putting unnecessary pressure on a romantic relationship, or having some random off Gumtree put the kibosh on your Love Island viewing schedule and passion for decorative throw pillows. You can even save money by staying in! It’ll be like one big slumber party, only with a cleaning rota and a joint house account.
But as with any relationship, there can be domestic flare-ups which put your friendship at risk.
Chloe* and Gemma* formed a quick bond when they met at work a few years ago, quickly transitioning from colleagues catching up on office goss during cheeky smoking breaks to close friends who would plan trips and birthday parties together. When the opportunity to share a two-bedroom flat overlooking the canal arose, it seemed like a no-brainer to take things to the next level.
“We both found ourselves needing a place at the same time and we got along so well,” Chloe, a PR executive in her 30s, says of the decision to become flatmates. “What could go wrong?”
As it turns out, a lot. The women soon clashed over household responsibilities and the division of bills. Chloe admits that the presence of her boyfriend, who lived nearby, also created tension; Gemma was single and a homebody who preferred quiet nights in. Both women struggled to carve out space for themselves. Visions of dinner parties and late-night chats over a bottle of red gave way to a reality of domestic irritations, perceived slights and the sense of walking on eggshells.
Chloe gave it a year before she decided to move in with her boyfriend. Gemma balked when she gave notice, causing further turmoil when she complained to the landlord. Months after her move, Chloe still considers Gemma a friend but notes that their relationship has gone from close to cordial. They now rarely see one another.
The experience has put Chloe off the possibility of living with a close friend again.
“It's never worked out for me,” she says. “Friendships need to be protected and cherished and throwing household admin and bills into the mix is a surefire way to lose that.”
That's a sentiment echoed by 29-year-old management consultant Leah*, who has lost three friendships due to a messy home situation. The first fall-out, in university, was what she calls an "extreme example that was hell on earth": Her male friend and flatmate became increasingly violent and the police had to be called; the head of university welfare got involved and Leah hasn't spoken to him or his then-girlfriend, another friend, since.
Somewhat scarred by that experience, Leah opted to share a flat with a good female friend when she moved to London after uni. Though the friends got on well and had never had any disagreements, it wasn't enough to create a happy home environment. Like Chloe, Leah attributes much of the discord to their different views on financial responsibility.
"Living together didn't pan out the way I expected," she says. "I found the flat and mostly owned the communication with the landlord on behalf of us both. She often paid her rent late and I would get heat from the landlord for it. In retrospect, I didn't know what she was like with money before we moved in together and her attitude towards money was a huge issue. It was one thing for her to pay her rent late; it was another thing for me to feel the backlash from the landlord. Luckily, our rent included bills. I imagine that if we were responsible for our own bills she would have ended up owing me money and it would have exacerbated the problem."
While many renters dream of finding a flatmate who is hardly ever home, Leah says that doesn't apply when there's a friendship involved and you crave interaction. Leah says she could count the times she and her friend actually hung out together at home on one hand. The fact that her friend would be gone for days or holed up with a boyfriend who would help himself to Leah's food caused resentment and left her feeling "miserable".
She moved out after five months, and says the friendship was never the same. They've since lost touch and haven't spoken in years.
It is possible to keep a friendship intact after flatting, however. After two bad experiences, Leah opted to once again move in with a friend. This time, she chose someone who was responsible with money and at a similar point in life. They ended up living together for four years, and Leah was a bridesmaid in the woman's wedding.
"By the time she moved out she felt like a sister," says Leah, who is currently, and happily, living with yet another close friend.
Whether a friendship flourishes or falters while living under the same roof would seem to be a case-by-case issue of compatibility. I have several friends whom I love dearly but wouldn't dream of co-signing a lease with, because we have different approaches to money, or personal space, or chores, or leaping into my room before I've hit my snooze button at least four times. For Leah, finding someone who is willing to address issues, has a similar routine or lifestyle and is financially responsible trumps any funny banter or charm.
If you can find that perfect combination of companionship and commitment to adulting, choosing the "devil you know" over a stranger could be pure domestic bliss. Just be sure you really know that devil before you slap down that deposit.