Expat Guide – Common Pitfalls when Searching for an Apartment Abroad
Apartment hunting abroad can be a challenge. You just arrived in a new country, probably you do not speak the local languages as yet and there are so many pitfalls to watch out for. For five years, I have been moving back and forth between Europe and Asia and I have built up a solid track record of mistakes you can make when you search for an apartment abroad. I have compiled the most common pitfalls for you to make your move easier.
Beforehand, do some research online. I usually join Facebook groups and try to get an idea about apartment hunting there. Every country is different and these groups have become my best friend for country-specific things and learning from others’ experience. Do some research about the legal situation in the country you will move too. In Austria and Germany, for example, tenants are protected very well by the law while in other countries you have very little or no rights as a tenant.
Ask your Employer for Advice
A lot of companies offer support for their expats or newly joined employees when it comes to legal issues. If you are new in a country, ask if they can review your lease contract. This is also a good opportunity to ask for country-specifics such as cold water in taps.
The system differs from country to country. Sometimes, you pay the agent and he acts for you. Sometimes, he is paid by the landlord. This sounds tempting but you have to be aware that he will focus on the landlord’s interests and not yours. Sometimes, you have two agents. The most important piece of advice is to only work with an accredited agent.
I usually check online platforms to get an idea about the housing situation in my destination country. When you browse through those sites, watch out for false and fake advertising.
Do not Let Others Pressure You into Shady Deals!
I was caught up in a shady lease deal once where the landlord wanted to keep the deposit of two months’ rent (which equalled USD 4500 (!)) for one month after I left the country. Unfortunately, my previous employer did not support me at all to get the clause out of my contract. The agent could sense my desperation to find an apartment quickly and pushed me into the lease. When I left the country, I did not get my deposit back. Once I was gone, the agency tried to keep it. Fortunately, I had a friend staying in the country who chased them like crazy and after five weeks, we got it back.
Negotiating Is not Always a No-Go
In a lot of countries, it is perfectly OK to negotiate your lease. I come from a background where negotiating is totally out of line. Therefore, I missed the opportunity to save money on rent quite often. Try to use the Facebook groups or your employer to ask for advice regarding negotiation.
Deposits and Commissions
Deposits and commissions vary from country to country. In my experience it was most of the time a two month deposit and one month of rent for the agent’s commission. However, as I mentioned above, this also depends on the local agent system.
Take a Close Look at the Floor Plan
The way the size of apartments is calculated is different in a lot of countries. While balconies and staircases are not part of the calculation in most of the European countries, they are in a lot of Asian countries. Furthermore, 2 rooms in Asia means 2 bedrooms, while in Germany or Austria 2 rooms may mean one bedroom and a living room.
This is not a joke: in a lot of countries, it is normal that you have hot water only in your shower and bathtub but not in the sinks. Which makes it a pain to clean yourself and wash dishes (very often in these countries, dishwashers are a true luxury).
Check with the building if there is hot water available. If not, ask the landlord about the situation and if he can fix it.
I have lived in countries, where the quality of water is not good at all. Some condominiums or apartment buildings have a central water filter. Enquire about a potential filter. If there is none, ask the landlord to install filters, or, worst case, ask if you can install them yourself.
Type of Washing Machine
Washing machines vary across regions. In Austria, the standard is a hot water front load machine. I really had to get used to top-load washers, often without hot water (*yuck*). Make sure to check this beforehand.
Type of Heating
In some countries, heating is a luxury thing. I remember when I arrived in Shanghai from Europe and was looking for a heater. I learned that people heat their apartments with their airconditioning and electric heaters.
If you move to a colder country, check the windows. Are they doubled glazed and are they firm? If air can circulate while they are closed, your heating bill, will explode in winter.
Age of the Devices
The age of the airconditioning, fridge, etc. will be a big contributor to your electricity bill. I also recommend having the aircondition serviced when you move in. Even though some countries require the tenants to regularly service the airconditioning, I had some cases where the AC was just gross. I am allergic to pet hair and dust, so I can sense it immediately… Since a traumatizing dog hair incident, I have the ACs serviced when I move in.
Check out the Area of Your Apartment
I usually try to scout the area before I decide on an apartment and see if I get a good vibe from the neighbourhood. I check if there is a small supermarket nearby, cafés and how easy it is to get around.
What is the transport situation like? Is it easy to get in and out? Is a subway or bus nearby? In some countries, e.g. the tropics, it is absolutely crucial to have at least the bus stop nearby. Otherwise, you will end up walking in the heat.
Furthermore, check if there are construction sites near the place or if there are plots that will soon be turned into one. In cities with a booming real estate market, construction sites can come up pretty quickly. In a lot of countries, there will be noise also on the weekends…
In tropical countries and when the road systems are not as good, inform yourself if the street you are looking at floods during the rainy season. In the Northern countries, enquire about service for snow ploughing. Some places might look beautiful because they are a bit secluded. If there is no snow ploughing service by the local government or they only show up well after you need for work, I would recommend considering that in your decision.
Look at Your Apartment Multiple Times
Look at the apartment during day light and in the evening. You will get a completely different overview of the place – how well it is lit etc.
Try to get an impression of who will live next to you. I could write a book about nasty neighbour stories…
Look at the reception – can your receptionist contact you in your flat directly? Is there a buzzer in your flat? How will you handle deliveries?
In two of my apartments I loved on the fourth and fifth floor without an elevator. The reason being that I lived in beautiful old buildings which are often protected. It was a free gym for me every day and I coped with it. But as I lived on my own, travelling with a suitcase was just a pain.
Check for Mold
Please, please, please, always check for mold!!!
Take Pictures on Your First Day
Document everything in the apartment. The last time, I took over 1,400 – no joke. In a lot of countries with weaker legal systems, foreigners are regarded as prey and the agents and landlords will try to make your lives difficult when you move out by trying to find problems. Be prepared with the pictures – send them to your agent/and or landlord after the first few days.
Have you searched for an apartment abroad? Do you have some advice to share? Let me know in the comments below!
This is such an awesome, comprehensive list!!! To be honest, I never would have thought to join Facebook groups (even though I’m well familiar with such groups in my home country) – what a brilliant idea!! Definitely saving this for when the time comes to migrate… Thank you!!
Thank you so much for your feedback. When I moved the first time, I joined groups on Internations and Asmallword but now that everything is on Facebook, these groups have become really helpful. They are also good to meet some people because you can find local events there.
Thanks so much for your feedback! When I moved for the first time, I joined groups on Internations and Asmallworld. But now that everything is on Facebook, these groups have become really useful as well. I always use City name – Expat when I use the search function.
Great advice!! I wouldn’t have thought to check they have hot water in sinks!
Thanks!! Yep, me neither and when I moved in, I was so surprised and had to find a solution – either using a kettle for washing the dishes or installing a small temporary water boiler *sigh*
These are such helpful tips! I am about to move to a new country myself and having not shopped for an apartment in many many years, I’m nervous! Definitely a good tip to go see a place more than once in different light/at different times of day.
Good luck with the move!! Yeah, definitely, take your time and look at the apartment multiple times. Agents and landlords tend to pressure and say that the unit will rent out fast but there is no need to rush into it.