Coronavirus

Finding a roommate virtually during the coronavirus crisis—what to expect and what to ask

There’s less small talk and more urgency when looking for a roommate during the pandemic. 

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Rarely has the process of choosing a roommate been so fraught. In normal times, you would typically get to meet a potential roommate in person to get a sense of how they spend their time in NYC and their opinion on leaving dirty dishes in the sink. During the pandemic, you’ve got to gauge how seriously they are taking the risk of infection and whether you’ll feel comfortable staying home with them for at least the next few months, and even caring for each other if one of you gets sick. 

There’s no shortage in the number of people looking for roommates. Roommate matching site RoomZoom says the amount of New Yorkers who need new roommates is up 40 percent compared to pre-shutdown numbers.

“We are seeing more people whose current roommates have moved in with partners for the quarantine and have decided to stay rather than pay rent,” says Elien Becque, RoomZoom founder and CEO. 

Sam Himmelstein, partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph (and Brick Underground sponsor) says the number of tenants leaving NYC is “massive." Many are likely leaving shared living situations. 

If you’re looking for a roommate in these uncertain times, it'll inevitably begin with an online conversation. Co-living company Ollie, for example, is using Zoom to connect potential roommates, and Ryan Murphy, the company’s marketing director, says there's less small talk and more urgency when it comes to finding a roommate on a remote platform right now. You also have to decide whether you rely entirely on remote matching or whether you connect in person before your lease begins.

Robin Owsely, co-owner of roommate matching site RoomieMatch, says he would still advise meeting face-to-face before committing, but he points out "almost everyone is trying to set up in-person meetings for a few weeks or a month from now, not in the next few days."

When it comes to the questions to ask, you’ll want to adapt Brick Underground’s 21 best questions to ask potential roommates and consider asking these additional questions.

How seriously are you taking social distancing? 

In a database search by RoomZoom, the word "Covid" has been mentioned in 82 percent of messages and descriptions since the last week of March. Becque believes questions about how seriously someone is taking social distancing are “important aspects of living together and being on the same page.” 

Another approach is to ask about a person's hand washing or mask-wearing practices. “You can learn a lot by asking these questions directly or in the context of a conversation and you'll get a sense quickly if your practices align,” Becque says. 

How have you been spending your time during the pandemic?

The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how they will continue to spend their time. Another approach is to ask how your potential match treats their “social matrix,” Becque says. Who have they been seeing, if anyone? And who have those people been seeing? 

When you are moving in with someone you are making them part of your social matrix and "the closer to a ‘closed loop’ social matrix you can get, the safer you will be,” says Becque. 

So if your potential roommate only sees their boyfriend and that boyfriend only sees them, they are a closed loop with each other. By moving in together you are combining your closed loops and you're widening your social matrix, so you want to know who exactly it will contain.

If you really want to get to know someone, describe a scenario that might be stressful because of Covid-19. For example, a roommate's family member gets sick and the roommate wants to see that person—talk it out and figure out how you would deal with it. 

What’s your budget? 

Whether it's that the interviews have moved online or the financial urgency created by the pandemic, these days, "people cut through the fluff and introductions and get down to the details," says Murphy, whose company, Ollie, is running virtual roommate matching events every other week. 

For most, cost is the priority. “We’ve noticed that’s a big driving force so people are quick to say their budget,” she says.  

Financial factors are always a big part of decisions when moving and selecting roommates and now they are even more so. “Extreme times make persistent trends more stark—many of our members are uncertain about the future of their jobs and are looking to cut costs and pay lower rent,” Becque says. 

How have you been getting groceries?

This is another indicator of how your potential roommate is coping during this time. At the very least you might get some good intel on local suppliers. Vish Pillai recently matched with a roommate at Ollie and says his answer to the question "do you cook?" is very different from just a few months ago. "Before all this, I never used to cook, I used to eat out every meal, but now I cook every day," he says. 

What are your long-term plans for living in New York City?

Pillai is optimistic he'll be sharing with his new roommate for the next 12 months so the pandemic wasn't his priority when he was trying to match with a roommate. "I'm being optimistic and hoping this doesn’t go on for too long," he says. 

Even so, you don't want to find yourself looking for another roommate in quick succession. Find out their commitment to the city, especially as it relates to the pandemic, as well as their ability to pay their share of the rent.