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A good roommate can be hard to find

Fiona Kramer, looking fashionable in a little black dress, sized up her possible matches and told them why they ought to see themselves with her in the near future: two bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths, cute yard.

Date, shmate. A good roommate can be hard to find, and that's the reason Kramer and a dozen others — some with homes, some looking for homes — were chatting last weekend at a "speed roommating" event in Baltimore. It's like speed dating, except the point wasn't romance.

"It's smart to help split the expenses," said Kramer, who lives in Baltimore's Washington Hill neighborhood, north of Fells Point. "Why not meet somebody and see if it's worth doing? It might work out, right?"

Lots of people are looking to double up — or triple or quadruple up — these days. Living alone is a luxury that fewer people can afford in this economic downturn, with unemployment near 10 percent nationally and personal income falling.

A new study of 80 U.S. metro areas found that the number of households fell by 1.2 million between 2005 and 2008 even as population rose. The recession has so severely shaken people's lives that it could be 2012 before Americans start forming new households at a normal rate, Gary Painter of the University of Southern California wrote in an April report for the Mortgage Bankers Association.

That makes roommate-finding a growth industry. Online roommate services abound, from to

"We're busier than ever," said Susie Stein, owner of Roommate Finders, a Florida firm that matches roommates across the country.

Face-to-face events modeled after speed dating, meanwhile, are popping up across the world. A British company called SpareRoom holds 10 "SpeedFlatmating" gatherings in London bars every month, including one on the West End that attracts about 150 people every other week. And some American colleges have turned to the concept to fill on-campus housing before resorting to random assignments.

"It's kind of funny in this age of social networking, where students sit at computers and talk to their friends on Facebook and text and sometimes don't even pick up the phone, how successful these face-to-face interactions are," said Jenny Rickard, the community director of an apartment complex on the Binghamton University campus in New York.

Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit that encourages people to live in the city, held its speed roommating event last Saturday after getting requests from newcomers and apartment managers to act as a matchmaker.

"You're living with the person — you want to make sure that you gel," said Anna Custer, Live Baltimore's executive director.

Mark Nowowiejski found four roommates in the past five years through craigslist, the free classified ad site, and that's worked for him. He first looked for someone when he realized that getting a two-bedroom rental in Fells Point with a roommate would be cheaper than a one-bedroom alone.

Now he owns a home in White Marsh and still rents out a room. Having a roommate isn't a financial necessity anymore, "but it's nice," said Nowowiejski, a graphic artist in his early 30s.

"It's expensive to live by yourself — it's not so much just the rent, but the heating, the Internet, the cable and so forth," he said. "It's a lot easier to have that split two ways."

His strategy for finding a boarder is a cross between a job interview and a happy-hour conversation. He runs a credit check on candidates and makes sure they don't have a criminal background, but he also chats with them about everything from music to football.

"They don't have to be a Ravens fan," Nowowiejski allowed. "They just can't be Steelers or Redskins fans. I can't live with that."

At Live Baltimore's speed roommating, one part of a larger renter event last weekend, the common pet peeve was messiness.

"They're wonderful, I love them, but they never clean the house," Cristina Munk, 23, said of her current roommates — who happen to be her friends. Munk was visiting from New York, talking with potential roommates here in case she decides to pursue a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University in the fall.

Steve Gondol, who organized the event for Live Baltimore, shepherded everyone into facing chairs and gave them a list of possible questions to ask each other — from "Do you like pets?" to "Are you a vegetarian?"

Participants had five minutes to chat. Then Gondol rang a cowbell and people swapped seats.

Munk was assured by Scheree McDonald, who is moving to the area from New Jersey and is looking for a place as well as a roommate, that there would be no dirtiness in any home of hers. "Oh, I clean," McDonald said, when Munk explained that her current roommates have other priorities.

Live Baltimore handed out pink "roommate match" sheets for participants to record answers and note their bottom-line response: Would they be interested in living with that person, Yes or No?

Everybody got at least one match.

For some, who got more than one, the event exceeded expectations. Kramer, the Washington Hill resident with a two-bedroom rowhome, liked the look of every person she met.

"I put ‘yes' to everybody," she said.

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