On a coffee table in Chris DeMassa's meagerly furnished office sits one of his few decorative items: a framed photograph of the "Three's Company" trio.
"That show has probably saved renters billions of dollars by making it acceptable for men and women to live together as friends," he said of the very-'70s television sitcom, which portrayed two women and a man platonically sharing both an apartment and slap-happy times.
For DeMassa, owner of the Costa Mesa-based Roommate Connection, this newfangled flexibility means a boon to business.
"Eighty-five percent of our clients say they will accept either sex for a roommate," he said. "That doubles their chances for finding a compatible roommate."
During his company's three years of existence, DeMassa has observed the room-mating habits of more than 7,000 customers. And not only do contemporary roommate hunters give both genders equal opportunity, he claimed, many prefer the opposite sex.
"Women say that they feel safer living with a male, and men say that women are neater," DeMassa noted.
Joy Rippeth, who started Roommate Finders in 1971, says she has witnessed a complete transformation in attitudes toward male-female home sharing. "Fifteen years ago, it wasn't done," she said. "But by the early '80s, it was commonplace in West Los Angeles."
When Rippeth expanded her Century City-based business south in 1980, she discovered that Orange County residents were a little behind the trend. "I felt that I was in another state," she said. "People in Orange County are extremely conservative.
"It took them a few extra years to get used to the idea (of platonic roommates), but by 1984 the balance of my customers down there were open to either sex." She added that 60% of her clientele today comes out of Orange County.
Two of Rippeth's matches--Natalie Kauffman and Ed Nasser--enjoyed one another's friendship so much that they plan to purchase a condominium together in Orange County.
"I found out that you can be just as good a friend with a guy as you can with a girl," said Kauffman, 22, a Huntington Beach secretary. "We get along really well, but we have never been intimate."
"I grew up in a big family, with lots of siblings, so living with a girl as if she were my sister seems natural to me," said Nasser, 26, a tool and die maker. "Natalie and I go out to dinner and give each other hugs all the time, but we don't have any romantic feelings at all." After living with Kauffman for two years, Nasser recently moved to Torrance to room temporarily with a high school friend.
Kauffman said that one of the bonuses of having a male around the house is his muscle power. "He can help you move furniture," she explained. Also, men don't monopolize the powder room: "I only have one bathroom, and he doesn't come in here and spend an hour in it-- like I do."
The need for modesty creates a minor inconvenience in platonic cohabitation. "You can't walk around nude, like you can with another girl," Kauffman said. "But you don't have to worry about occasionally being seen in your underwear if you feel secure that the other person is not drooling over you."
Opposite-sex roommates also must contend with parental disapproval. "I come from an old country Catholic family," Nasser said. "I was the first person of all my family members --uncles, cousins, everybody--to leave Arizona. My parents live in Pinetop, Ariz., population 22,000, where if you lived with the opposite sex it would be a scandal.
"So my parents didn't like the idea when I first told them about it. My mom especially didn't like that I was sharing a bathroom with a woman," Nasser said. "But they've gotten used to the situation.
"Family reservations cause the biggest problems in opposite-sex housing, and some people are opposed to it because of their religion or their profession. For instance, a Sunday school teacher might think that it wouldn't look good for her to live with a man."
Often, Rippeth said, one person will attempt to cross the boundary of friendship, consequently destroying the couple's roommate relationship. "When you get chummy with each other, at some point one roommate might say, 'Now that we're such good friends, why don't we sleep together?' " she said.
"My same-sex matches last longer than my opposite-sex matches. Roommates of the same sex will end up living together for three or four years, while those of the opposite sex often split up after only six months. I think that's probably because of the sexual tension."
Kathy, 29, a photographer in Irvine, said that her experience with a male roommate proved to be a disaster for the reason Rippeth mentioned.
"We agreed to keep things strictly platonic, but after a while he developed a crush on me," Kathy said. "He started to be belligerent to my dates, and he would say things to me like, 'Why are you going out with that geek?' "