Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apartment Hunting Abroad: a guide

So enough about the locura that was my final weeks in the Bilbao apartment. After all, yes, it was difficult and weird and overwhelming, but the things that stand out when I look back? My pastor going far, far out of his way to help me know my rights and get me out of there. My friend Bryan who let me crash on his couch for that last week. Ismene (one of the original, awesome roommates) taking me out for a relaxation drive, then protecting me when Ione started calling everyone she knew I knew to try and hunt me down. Everyone else who sought me out, cheered me up and reminded me that the good far outweighed the bad in that last week.

And the lessons, those "hindsight is 20/20" things that I would have liked to have known going into renting abroad. So, if you're looking to rent abroad, or you might someday, or you know someone who is, this is for you.

1. Red flag: you aren't offered a contract to sign. If you aren't on a contract, you're probably subleasing, which (in Spain at least) is illegal. It turned out I was on a long chain of subletters in my apartment, all of whom were paying the landlady untaxed money and living on the down-low.

Maybe that's OK with you, but keep this in mind: a landlord or landlady who is comfortable with black-market housing is also probably comfortable with letting other things happen that violate your rights as a tenant.

2. Red flag #2: the phantom landlord/landlady. A good property owner is going to be around when you're signing your contract, going to want to meet you and make sure you aren't a sketchball, going to want to make sure you know what they're taking care of around the place. If they're not doing that, don't mess with the place.

3. Red flag #3: you're thinking of settling for the place out of fear. "What if I don't find a place to stay?" "What if I totally drain my budget and I never find a side job teaching English?"

News flash: you will find a place to stay. You will find English lessons. Do yourself a favor, save up a little cushion fund for the apartment hunt, and relax. Treat the search for an apartment like something fun, because it can be.

4. Know your rights. Just finding out that my roommates had no legal ground to demand (more) money from me helped me to relax and realize the Guardia Civil wouldn't be knocking on my door and hauling my terrified guiri butt off to jail with the etarras and graffiti-ing teen boys anytime soon. Which helped me to stand my ground and not start forking over hundreds of euros.

5. Reach out.. If you don't know your rights, I guarantee you, there is someone - your pastor, your bartender, your intercambio conversation partner who will explain things to you or help you find someone who can.

This is helpful when you're first searching for a place (they can help you to understand what's normal practice and what sounds like under-the-table shenanigans), and it becomes absolutely necessary if you do get yourself into some kind of a pickle.

 Don't be afraid to be a little vulnerable and ask a few people for help. This was the difference for me between being able to enjoy my last week in Bilbao and me spending that week in an overwhelmed, twitching heap.

6. Trust your gut. This applies to picking an apartment in the first place, obviously: if everything seems good but the pit of your stomach is doing gymnastics, walk away. See Red Flag #3, enough said.

This also applies to interviewing potential new roommates. As my mom reminded me, when Ione first met with us to move in, I had a bad feeling. I kept it to myself. In retrospect, my roommates would have been totally understanding and probably agreed with me that she didn't seem right.

 People come and go a lot in shared apartments, so if you wind up in the position of helping your current roommates replace someone who's leaving, remember, if you have an uneasy feeling about someone, speak up. Those cool people you took your time to select as roommates should be understanding.

 Hope this helps! Anyone have other tips to add? Adventures in housing abroad to share? Leave 'em in the comments!


  1. All good stuff! I especially like #3. This year with Fulbright, I'm working with new auxiliares who just arrived and that's what I try to tell them. It will work out! Sometimes it takes longer than you thought , but you'll be so much happier in the long run! Jess, Allison and I had to search and wait 2+ weeks but then we didn't move for 2 years.

  2. Thanks yo! That's one of the big ones I wish I'd had a better sense of when I first got there.

  3. It's definitely scary to live alone much more if you're in another country. Still, be wise. Do your research and learn how the people in the area do apartment leasing legally. And always remember that "when in doubt, don't" agree to anything or say anything that would lead the other person to believe that you've said your "yes".