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July 8, 2017

SpareRoom founder offers lucky pair $1 rent in New York: ‘I love sharing’

Rupert Hunt, whose roommate-finding service has arrived in the US after success in the UK, says he shares his place by choice: It can be life-changing

A dollar doesnt get you far in New York. A buck can get you a weekday edition of the New York Daily News or the New York Post, but it wont stretch to the classic New York breakfast meal of a bagel with cream cheese. Yet for two lucky people, $1 is all they have to pay each month to live in a 3,400-square-foot loft apartment in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood in New York City.

Jacob Castaldi, 22, and Cyrus Schenk, 26, moved into the apartment this week, and for the next six months their rent will total just $6 each. Thats all thanks to Rupert Hunt, founder of SpareRoom, a company that allows users to post ads online looking for roommates and for a place to live. Hoping to compete with Craigslist for apartment listings, SpareRoom moderates ads and profiles to weed out scams and allows users to pay a small fee to display their ads more prominently or get the first dibs on rooms posted on the site.

In addition to playing a roommate matchmaker, Hunt has been using his own website for the past three years to find people to share his home allowing them to pay what they could afford while they follow their dreams. Castaldi and Schenk are the first two roommates to live with Hunt in the US.

Paying just a $1 month in rent is a dream come true, according to Schenk. Paying a typical New York rent median rent for a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan is $3,450 a month was out of the question for him. Up until now, he has been making ends meet as a window cleaner. Having to pay a total of $6 in rent over the next six months will allow him to focus on launching his own business: a company that sells skis that adapt to changes in speed and terrain. Similarly, Castaldi hopes to launch a viral marketing agency while living with Hunt.

Hunts previous roommates have come from various backgrounds: they have included a film-maker, a visual effect artist, a chef and standup comedian and a micro brewer.

All of those roommates lived with Hunt a some point between 2013 and this summer, when he moved to New York to oversee SpareRooms expansion to the rest of the US. Since launching in the UK in 2004, SpareRoom has built up about 7 million users there, and according to Hunt, every 3 minutes a user finds a roommate through the website. In 2012, SpareRoom launched in New York City. Hunt describes it as a pilot expansion and adds that he wanted to take the companys US expansion slowly, one city at a time, replicating its growth in London by organizing speed-roommating events in addition to offering its online services. The events take place in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

It didnt grow quite as I was expecting, he explains, pointing out that search engine optimization (SEO) strategy was a big part of the companys growth in London. But because people [in the US] were already using Craigslist they werent searching for roommates and New York the same way. So we let it grow organically.

Earlier this year, SpareRoom services became available across the US and Hunt moved from London to New York. Currently, SpareRoom is very close to reaching a quarter of a million users in the US, according to the company spokesman.

Hunt tried SpareRooms services for the first time in 2013 after separating from his wife. I love sharing. I decided that I would carry on sharing, he says. First, he looked for roommates anonymously, then in early 2016 he launched a YouTube series documenting his search for housemates in the UK. The camera crew made the process more stressful. As a result, when he launched his search for roommates in New York, Hunt relied on a more informal Instagram video and Facebook ads to get the job done.

Most of the comments on the Facebook post were like: Oh, this is a hoax or Oh, where is he going to hide the bodies? Hunt laughs. There was a lot more skepticism in New York than there it is in London.

To find the perfect roommates to share his New York city apartment, Hunt read through 8,800 messages and watched 967 video profiles before finally settling on Schenk and Castaldi.

I thought Id share again because I am in a new city. I dont know anyone. Its a great way to meet new people, to expand a social circle. I was going to do a pay what you can afford thing but then it occurred to me that 12 years after starting up in the UK, I was running a startup again. I remembered that what had given me the break I needed to do it was moving back with my mum and dad and living rent-free for 6 months. So I thought of this idea to pay it forward, pay me a dollar and what dreams would you pursue if you didnt have to worry about rent for six months?

The three men are set to live in the loft until June with an option to renew. Hunt is not sure whats next yet he might stay in New York or he might go to San Francisco and Los Angeles to spread the gospel of sharing there. The one thing he knows is that there will be more roommates in his future.

Living with the right people is better than living alone, he says. Unlike most people, Hunt says that he lives with roommates as a lifestyle choice and not for financial reasons. Price, he says, can get in the way of finding the right people. It can be a bad experience with bad people, but [with the right people] it can be a life-changing experience.

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