New PoPville Contributor Jeremy Barr Shares His Experiences Trying to Find a Group House

by Prince Of Petworth December 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm 32 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Rich Renomeron

Jeremy Barr is a writer and journalism student. A native of suburban Maryland, he now lives in Mount Vernon Square.

At first, it seemed easy. Craigslist, I was told, is the best way to find a room to rent in this city. Intent on finding a moderately-priced option in a “good,” “pretty good,” or “up-and-coming” area, I scoured the site, sending introductory emails when listings met my criteria.

And then I waited. And waited. I soon realized that the process of getting into a group house in D.C. is as painful — if not more so — than landing a coveted job. Such was my experience in the three separate times I sought housing over the last two years.

I may have only scored a 2 on my Advanced Placement microeconomics exam, but I understand the concert of supply and demand. And in D.C., there is significantly more demand for rooms than there is supply.

As such, in the same way that job seekers are told to “stand out” in cover letters, so to are prospective roommates when emailing listers. The goal, I learned, is to check all the boxes — “correct” age, employment status, etc. — while also putting yourself outside the box. So, while I was happy to report to prospective housemates that I attended a “name-brand” university, was in my early/mid 20s, and was gainfully employed, I was sure to weave in my time teaching English in Hungary and backpacking through Eastern Europe.

I learned quickly to cast a wider net in my search than I would have liked. In one ad I responded to, for a house between Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights, prospective roommates were informed that they might be compelled to engage in a foot-race to “win” the room. Ultimately I decided that I could find less insufferable (more sufferable?) people to live with, and, more importantly, that I probably wouldn’t win the race if it came down to it.

Continues after the jump.

More so than to entertain your readers, the goal of these emails is to get an “interview,” a chance to see the room, see the house and, most importantly, meet the housemates. As the saying goes, for every 10 resumes you send, you get one interview. The same is true for Craigslist housing interviews. In my three housing searches, I estimate that I sent close to 250 emails and only heard back on about 20-25 of them.

In one experience, an “interview” turned out to be less personal than I was lead to believe. At 9:00 p.m., I showed up at a group house in Adams Morgan. I ended up being one of five guys, all a little startled and surprised to see one another. After a cursory tour of the house’s dusty and rundown ground floor, I headed for the door. As I turned to leave, a roommate asked me why I was ducking out early. “You already have several of me here,” I said, having noticed that almost all the prospective roommates had boxy glasses and facial scruff.

The eight or 10 interviews I did were strikingly similar. After a 10 minute-long room and house tour, I sat down in the living room with my potential roommates. I normally was given a chance to make a short opening statement — just the basics — before the roommates started posing questions. “What do you like to do on weekends?” “What are your hobbies?” “Do you cook?” I quickly learned the importance of being able to say “yes” and “no” to every question. ‘Yes, I cook (read: I am a foodie and will watch ‘Top Chef’ with you), but not every day (read: Don’t worry, I won’t clutter up the kitchen all the time). ‘Yes, I like going to bars on weekends (read: I have friends and social skills), but I don’t go out much during the week and don’t get too drunk (read: I am responsible, mature and won’t vomit on our couch).

After an interview, I would send a “thank you” note, just as I would after a job interview. And even when I did well, it generally wasn’t enough to get me into the house. On several occasions I was told that, while the roommates liked me, they ended up giving the room to a friend of a friend. Or a third cousin of a roommate. And, while I wanted to, I couldn’t blame them. Picking a known entity seems safer than picking a likable person you found on the internet.

In my case, after months of frustration and emails, I lucked into the same situation. In January, a colleague informed me that she had a room opening in her group house in Mount Vernon Square. After a quick chat with the roommates, I was in. No need to answer questions about my politics, relationship status or social sport preferences.

  • ceeps

    (slow clap)

    This is exactly what happened to me – I dunno if its just DC, but people can be pretty wack.

    • Anonymous

      So true. Despite all the really great people I’ve come to know in DC, it is still the capital of insufferable people.

  • Roz

    I think the primary reason that it can be so difficult to find a good living situation in DC is b/c the city has so many nerds.

    • SJHNDC

      +1 Just find someone who can pay rent and be on your merry way.

  • Anonymous

    This is totally a baptism by fire that I think most 20-somethings go through when they move to DC. It’s certainly not pleasant. Luckily when I got to DC a friend and I were looking together but it was still hell. We looked at one place that was a DAMP basement in Columbia Heights where the walls were covered in mold and the land lord was insisting on charging us about $1000 each. We finally found a place where the living room could easily be converted into a third bedroom. But then we had to find a third roommate so we hosted our fair share of those roommate interviews so yeah, I totally empathize with anyone looking for a place to live in this city for the first time.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been on the opposite side of this situation and that is not fun either. Whenever my roommates and I posted an ad for a room in our house we would get at least 50 responses. It really is like going through resumes, if there was just one little thing that rubbed us the wrong way in an email, we would just toss it out. There weren’t lots of opportunities when we all were home, so when we were we would invite 5 people over at a time, I felt like a used car salesman giving the same pitch for the house a few nights a week.

    Ultimately, I think it’s a just a big combination of timing and dumb luck.

  • kken

    Good post and like others, reflects my own experience. Went through some pretty formal interviews to even be considered for a group house about ten years ago and in the end, ended up getting a room through some friends of friends. Twas a great two years and I’m still best friends with all three roommates, even though none of us live in a group house situation any longer.

  • Pp

    I live in a pretty nice and very affordable group house in a very safe upper NW neighborhood about 12 years ago. Every time we posted a housemate wanted ad we got easy 50 people. It was really hard to choose someone.

    One really nice guy didn’t make our cut ( to my embarrassment) because of the way he voted. My other roommates just couldn’t handle his views on issues that they forced him to talk about.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve also been on the other end of that search, as a live-in landlord looking to rent out rooms. If you schedule individual appointments, you can see yourself stuck at home for 2 weeks’ worth of evenings, getting stood up 50% of the time. Not counting the 3 hours a day reading and responding to email messages, some asking over and over for information that’s already in the long detailed CL ad, because they get confused and no longer remember what ad they’re responding to. Plus, it’s no fun to have strangers judge everything about your house and your lifestyle, getting the vibes from “you’re a neat-freak” to “you’re a slob” all in one evening, in response a slightly different speech about the household.
    I had a guy hit on a girl and invite her out while they were both interviewing for the same room in my house. I also had a roommate/tenant exchange emails and hang out with a guy who was over interviewing for a room.

  • When I moved from suburban Maryland to DC myself, after attending “name-brand university,” I sent out floods of responses to craigslist ads (this was Fall 2011) and went to more than 60 open houses (you read that number correctly – I kept a list going in Microsoft Word to keep track, which I still have). I looked in Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Bloomingdale, Shaw, U Street, Petworth, Mount Pleasant, Mt Vernon… all over those areas and in between. My room search took about three months, and my budget wasn’t too unreasonable, but I was only offered three rooms out of all of those, two of which were terrible. One was a room in an Adams Morgan apartment, not much wider than a twin bed. Luckily I was able to commute from MD to work while this search was going on. I ended up living in Bloomingdale, and I now live in Park View. In the fall, the pool of room-searchers is huge and if you don’t know people or have some other type of “in,” it is hard to get selected.

  • mitchgant

    I think getting a new place with a few friends is far easier than trying to get into an existing group house. There are just far too many unknowns to take into account when interviewing with existing group house situations. I lived in a group house for years (which started when two friends and I signed a lease together on it), and I can tell you it is almost impossible to tell who will actually make a good roomate. We made plenty of BAD calls when interviewing roomates.

  • Anonymous

    DC should really build more housing. O wait NIMBYS.

    • Anonymous

      huh? construction in dc is going on like mad. new units ALL THE TIME.

  • Anon’y

    To avoid this torture, have a network of friends and colleagues already here. As in everything in life that is important, it’s not what you know (or which “brand name” college you attended – everyone in DC who is white went to one) but rather who you know.

    It’s the same thing with applying to jobs online. No one actually gets hired from those. The job usually goes to someone who networked their way in via in-person contact.

  • Anonymous

    First thing to look for on the interviewer side is people who feel entitled to living in your house. As in, looking for a private appointment. If you expect that, best you leave early.

  • Man, I’m going to have to be looking for a roommate somewhat soon, and it’s a process that I hate. It’s no fun having to sell both the space and yourself as a roommate, and then accept and reject people based on their personalities and financial situations. And then occasionally seeing them around the city. Awkward…

    As others have stated, for every posting, you get 50+ responses. However, I didn’t find it difficult to weed people out pretty quickly from their responses. If they couldn’t follow the instructions in the posting (such as including their desired move in date in their response), I figured they wouldn’t be able to do things like pay the rent on time. Or, if they sent a crazy 4-page intro letter, they wouldn’t get an appointment.

    Then, set up individual appointments with the best candidates, and if none of them work out, on to the next group.

  • pegs

    As a “brand-name” school student graduating this Spring and looking for long-ish term place in the Petworth/CH/Mt. Pleasant area come May, this article article scares the bejesus out of me. I realize the demand and sympathize with the plight of those trying to choose roommates among a pool of dozens or more, but picking someone on political beliefs or because they don’t fit into the way the house “runs” strikes me as pretty bourgeois.

    Many of these same people love the “community” they live in, but contribute to it only by picking clones they feel comfortable living with. Maybe that’s worded a bit harshly, but hopefully you get the point.

    Regardless till I find something I’ll be on craigslist saying “thank you sir, may i have another?”

    • Anon’y

      Yeah, well DC is a pretty bourgeoise place. How else do you explain renters getting places they could never afford to buy in great neighborhoods and new owners/urban pioneers purchasing half million dollar homes next to open air drug markets in the shadiest of neighborhoods without any decent public schools (“but it has vintage housing stock! Look at this woodwork!”)? The economics of housing in DC are completely wacky and unsustainable.

      I’ve also yet to encounter many multi-racial or multi-economic class group houses. Most stick to their own in DC, that seems to be how it works. For better or worse. There’s a lot of unspoken self-segregation that goes on in group house decisions.

      • Anonymous

        you first paragraph makes me think you are new to living in a city. or at least one outside the midwest that isn’t chicago.

        i hope you come to find other explanations to your observations. more fully rounded out versions.

        • Anon’y

          Uh, no. I’ve lived in big cities my entire life. The economics of housing DC in the current state are unsustainable. New purchases are selling at a premium over their realized rental income. When people pay for the privilege of ownership, especially in awful neighborhoods with minimal amenities, that’s the surest sign of bubble territory. We might not be in a place as bad as San Diego in 2007, where owners paid 2-2.5x the rental potential, but you’re a fool if you don’t think that there is significant over-heating DC.

          As for my observations on self-segregation, I stand pretty firm in my opinions both as an applicant to multiple group houses and the person interviewing others for a spot in my group house. I also know of all the silly, petty decisions making in friends’ group houses. If you don’t think there is self-segregation – not only racially, but also socio-economically – then I don’t know what else to tell you. What do you think the term “brand-name university” signifies?

          • Anonymous

            I had no issue with your thoughts on self segregation. Still think you’re off on your first paragraph though. Oh well. We just see it differently I guess. And maybe. I am a fool. Not arguing that part.

          • I think there are several factors at work – but people do tend to want to associate with “like.” And I’m not sure everyone reads Craigslist. Also, I’m not sure where the educated, young professional African Americans prefer to live, but it doesn’t seem to be Columbia Heights/Mt.P/Adams Morgan.

            The last time I posted a (very desirable and very affordable for a couple with teacher/social worker salaries) apartment for rent in Columbia Heights, I had over 70 inquiries. About 40 showed up for an open house and every single one wanted it. But I had no – as in zero – African Americans show up.

  • Fred

    I lived in a five person group house for several years during the mid 90’s and in my experience while process of picking a random person is a pain in the ass its more egalitarian and can help to prevent rommies with tribal proclivities from taking over. By tribal proclivities I’m referring to people with comfort zones that don’t extend beyond their own politics, occupation, gender, and religion.

    Once we let a roomie circumvent the selection process by picking a connection through a religious group it all went down hill. Within two years the gender balance went from 3 women/2 guys to 100% dudes. Originally it was a nice mix of people: a teacher, a grad student, a software developer, a non-profit support staff person and a slightly older ‘economist’. I believe the gender balance helped promote a civil atmosphere and kept the common areas nice and clean. Once the house achieved 100% dudes they were all capital hill cronies and so-called “liberal” catholics. The house was always a mess and every night you had to listen to their self-important daily “adventures” from the hill (apparently answering thousands of form letters from constituents is quite intriguing).

    I went like this: once the religious connection moved in, he introduced us to a childhood friend, a really nice guy that we let move in thereby allowing them to achieve a troika. The three then over-ruled the others upon each future vacancy. Eventually a dead beat brother moved in and another work-friend took my place when I became fed up and moved out.

  • Anonymous

    oh i feel your pain and we ALL have been through the same story in DC. When I was looking for housing last time I actually realized that looking for a room in a house gives you a probability of never-gonna-happen. Instead I paired up with a friend and looked for a house and once we found a house we looked for additional roommates. Worked out great for us and the house is the bomb!

  • SF

    I experienced this many years ago when looking for my first place to live in DC. At one place a room full of applicants were asked to sing a song to differentiate themselves from the others.

    Everyone who has ever made a prospective roommate compete for a room, or engage in a demeaning group interview for a coveted spot, can go straight to hell.

  • Social awkwardness much? I’m currently in a 3br rowhouse in Dupont – we got the house by bribing the prior residents (who guided the tour of the house) with a case of beer if they’d put in a good word with the owner. Not that difficult.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t understand the need for the insult.

      • anon

        +1. Plus, Xander_Crews is talking about a completely different situation — an entire house being vacated by a group, as opposed to an individual seeking a room with housemates who are already established in the house.

  • Anonymous

    I never understood why someone would want to move into a group house. When I moved to DC in my early 20s, I grabbed a studio/efficiency apt. I went out every night and the ability to come home to privacy was priceless. Not to mention I actually ended up spending less than I would have renting a room in some ratty house.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know how you managed to pull that off, but normally a room in a group house is a lot cheaper than an efficiency and that’s why people do it.

    • Anonymous

      RE: “I never understood why someone would want to move into a group house”. The answer is: because most people can not afford it. You may want to consider that not everyone has a high paying job or a lush trust fund, or wealthy parents to support such a lifestyle while in their early twenties. You may refer to us a peasants or your support staff, which ever you feel more comfortable with…

  • GK

    Don’t know if it makes you feel better or worse, but this was the same experience I had 30 years ago–except we would get the City Paper on Thursday and make phone calls to a shared phone line. But after that, it was the same weird scene. Glad to see it’s still a DC right of passage.


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