On May 2, George Noia moved into a two-bedroom basement apartment on Long Island. His bedroom was small and windowless, and the kitchen held only a microwave and a hot plate. But of all the places he had seen, the one on Revilo Avenue in Shirley was the cheapest, at $130 a week.
Until he found out that his roommate was scamming him.
"When I heard that, I was pissed," Mr. Noia said. "I was absolutely angered by it. I’m paying more money for a smaller room?"
In September, Mr. Noia overheard his roommate chatting about their rent with one of the building’s other tenants. He confided that it cost $750 per month, meaning that Mr. Noia’s share was more than two-thirds of the total.
It’s a given in New York real estate that apartment dwellers stretch the truth to attract renters. But, with the economy tanking and more New Yorkers turning to roommates to help pay the mortgage or to offset the rent, these tiny lies are multiplying.
They cut both ways, with prospective tenants fibbing to lease-holders and smaller landlords, and lease-holders and smaller landlords laying it on thick to anyone who might save them hundreds a month.
In August, the Associated Press reported that roommate tensions were rising nationally, as people paired up to save cash. Craigslist ads like this are increasingly common: "We are looking to convert our dining room into a bedroom for a while, to save some $." The advertiser in Harlem wants $600 monthly. These ads, for roommates and rooms for rent in New York, almost doubled between September 2007 and September 2008, from 23,400 to 44,599, according to a Craigslist spokesperson.
"The more expensive the city (and maybe the worse the financial times are)," wrote Laura Diewald, founder of the Bad Roommate Project ‘zine and blog, in an e-mail, "the more likely people are to lie or cheat potential roommates."
HAVING SPENT SIX MONTHS on the Upper West Side, Virginia Lee began her search for a place closer to her friends in the "gentrified, yupster neighborhoods" of Brooklyn. She hoped to spend less than $1,000 a month.
"I’m sure everybody [lies] a little bit here and there, although you do have to live with these people," she said. "I think in all situations you stretch the truth a little bit."
Although Ms. Lee would not confess to outright deception in her application process, she admitted to finessing her image to "make myself sound really cool and easy to get along with." She introduced herself as a "28-year-old Korean girl because I thought, ‘O.K., a nice Asian girl.’ But I made sure to write in parentheses, ‘not a religious freak.’" She began leaving her business card at showings, even though she deemed it a "douche-y" tactic.
At one appointment in downtown Brooklyn, Ms. Lee’s prospective roommate grilled her for a half-hour on her movie tastes and footwear preferences. But he was brutally honest:
"He asked me, ‘When you go out to drink or dance, do you wear stilettos?’ So I told him, ‘I haven’t worn heels since I moved to New York,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’ll have to work on that. Beauty is pain, that’s how you have to be when you roll with me.’"
Another advertised his New Jersey apartment as being in Manhattan.
"When I told him, ‘No thanks,’" Ms. Lee said, "he was trying to convince me that it was great, like, ‘You can have a washer and dryer! There’s lots of space!’"
CHEATING AND LYING COMES in many forms, but perhaps the most disgusting looks like a tick and feeds on human blood: bedbugs.
"There were a couple cases where roommates would lie to newcomers," said Maciej Ceglowski, the founder of the Bedbug Registry. "They just wouldn’t mention it to newcomers, which I thought was kind of shocking and really unethical."
Mr. Ceglowski, a 33-year-old computer programmer, created the Registry in 2006 as a forum for tenants to warn potential renters of infestations. (Although Mr. Ceglowski does not verify the site’s information, he forbids anonymity for posters who refer to landlords by name.) Judging from the 20-odd posts he receives every day, mostly from New Yorkers, he says landlords frequently withhold information about bedbugs.
It’s less common for roommates to lie about pests–"because the roommate’s going to find out eventually, and that can’t be a happy conversation," he said–but it does happen.
"I started showing bites the second or third day," wrote one poster in September, referring to an apartment in Bushwick. "[The primary tenant, Larry] claimed no knowledge of the bugs, then acknowledged that there was a problem a year ago but it had been cleared away. … I left at the end of the month. On the way out I noticed the other roommate was covered in bites as well. I left a note for the next roommate and a jar of dead bugs so that he would understand. He moved out the next day but I think Larry is looking for a new roommate."
Mr. Ceglowski’s girlfriend had a similar experience: After moving to her Park Slope apartment, she learned that another unit in the building had an infestation. All she could do was wait–until the bugs came through the walls and crawled into her mattress. She has since moved.
WHAT MOTIVATES THESE LIARS-BY-OMISSION? Money.
Apartment rents citywide during the recently passed economic boom only increased, often to records, spurred by job growth, which, in turn, spurred demand for housing. Some higher-end apartments can now command rents of over $90 a square foot annually (that’s $750 monthly for a 100-square-foot room), though the citywide average annual per-foot rent is probably closer to $25. Strapped lease-holders and small-time landlords see the dollar signs and can be forgiven for a financially motivated fib.
Or can they?
Since moving out on Oct. 2, Mr. Noia has been sleeping on a friend’s couch, living off unemployment insurance (he lost his job in medical billings and collections), and apartment hunting. He left a note with his former landlord to warn him about the basement tenant, his old roommate, and posted a reply to the roommate’s ad on Craigslist, which now advertises the room at $140 per week.
"I put that posting up to warn people before they call this guy," Mr. Noia said. "I want them to know that they’re in for a pretty big shock."