Cosy for Covid: House-hunting in lockdown

House-hunting can be an ordeal! A disgruntled hunter clutches their face in despair. Photo by Colm McGuirk

Regular renters in Dublin may know the feeling – you pour your heart out across dozens of viewing requests, then watch tumbleweed blow through your inbox.

The pandemic has gone some way to reducing the numbers in this scrap for exorbitantly priced rooms. According to property site, there are around a thousand more homes available to rent in Dublin today than at this time last year. 

Properties previously listed on AirBnB but now being advertised as short-term lets are the main contributor to this rise. Another is the mini-exodus to other counties and countries prompted by lost jobs and a shift online for work and study.

Software developer Mo Fiebiger has seen this reflected in the numbers applying for rooms in the Northside house she shares with six others.

“We’re quite close to the city centre and in the past we would get between 50 and a hundred applicants. Now we’re lucky if we even get 10 to 20. That can be quite stressful, because we have a lot of people here and we really focus on having a good dynamic for those who live here, so you want to have plenty of options to choose from.

“But on the other hand, you obviously don’t want to invite too many strangers in at the moment.”

For house viewings in the last year, she has asked applicants to wear a mask and sanitise their hands on entering. A fairly obvious request, it might seem, but artist Alan Hall encountered a range of Covid caution when looking for a room last autumn.

“Now with the pandemic there’s an extra level to navigate, because everyone has their own way of living and dealing with it, so it becomes very personal”

Alan Hall

“It went from people who were really regimented about it – keep the distance, do Zoom calls first; to people who worked in hospitals and weren’t wearing masks; to people that were still having parties. I went to one house and they told me they had parties. I was like, ‘OK, cool, obviously not now?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, now’.

“When you’re viewing a house,” Hall continues, “you only have 10 minutes to figure out if you like it, if you like the vibe. Now with the pandemic there’s an extra level to navigate, because everyone has their own way of living and dealing with it, so it becomes very personal – these extra indicators about whether or not you might gel with the people you’re about to live with. I’d bring my own sanitiser, for example, and for some people that seemed like overkill. I said no to a few places I thought weren’t taking it seriously enough.”

As of January, in-person viewing is advised against until you’re ready to sign a contract, with virtual viewings recommended. Having your disembodied head guided around via smartphone doesn’t always leave you with the full picture, as audio-visual technician Jeff Doolin has learned.

An applicant being doused in hand sanitiser at the entrance of a house viewing. Photo by Colm McGuirk

“Virtual viewings are a bit strange,” he says, “because you just can’t get the real feel for it – someone just walking around, maybe with a dodgy connection. Some of them walk around slowly, which is good, and then some of them just run around. And you’re like, ‘Wait, what? Hold on, pause that for a second. Was that the jacks?’”

Daithí Ó Cinnéide, who works in film, was left frustrated by a virtual viewing experience.

“I had to do an interview on Zoom first before they decided to offer me a viewing,” he tells us. “I liked the room and they liked me. But then when I got there it was a different room from the one I’d seen, and only the box room was left for the same price. So I had to keep searching.”

Beauty therapist Kathleen O’Reilly thinks this new means of viewing a home may have encouraged scammers to pounce. She has come across a few herself.

“One lady I was talking to sent me a video of an apartment. I thought it looked great so she sent me a contract. I read it and she sent me her bank details. I said I’d think about it over the weekend, but she was very abrupt. She said, ‘No, this needs to be sent now, €1,400.’ She said she was Irish, but from her texts she clearly wasn’t. So, I wrote back saying I hoped she found someone for the room and reported her to Daft.”

“For what we’re looking for, there still isn’t much out there, and there’s always a price on desperation”

Sarah Jane Doogan

The property site reported a 3.3% fall in rent prices in Dublin last year – a drop that was barely perceptible to Sarah Jane Doogan, a software engineer on the lookout for a place to share with her boyfriend.

“I would have expected the prices to fall a lot more,” she says. “For what we’re looking for, there still isn’t much out there, and there’s always a price on desperation.”

She’s noticed a surprising positive upshot of viewing a non-house share home during a pandemic.

“The thing that stood out to me was how it’s less dehumanising now, because you get an individual slot for viewing. I’ve been renting for 15 years and back in the day you’d book a time when you’d go to a viewing. But in the last five or six years [before the pandemic], it started to change, where you’d go to a viewing and there’d be loads of people there, some of them throwing deposit money at the agent.”

The modest fall in rent prices last year was only reported for Dublin, with the rest of the country seeing a slight increase. The landlords, it would seem, still have the upper hand.

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