Expat Survival Series: House Hunting
If you are planning on spending a lot of time in your familial cave while living abroad (e.g., lady of leisure, working virtually from home, tendencies toward social phobia), the physical comfort, level of productivity, happiness quotient and dare I say success on the expat assignment can depend on how satisfied you are with your ‘home away from home.’ As anyone who has lived abroad and either tortured their spouse or has been a tortured spouse over unsatisfactory living conditions (either real or projected through the phenomenon which Kevin likes to call “apartment envy”) knows, the choice of where to rest your head at night can affect both partners equally, even if one member of the team is rarely home in time for his or her evening supper.
There are numerous factors to take into account when looking for overseas accommodation – house hunting, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does reflect some of the mistakes that we (I’ll just go ahead and say me here) have made in the past when signing that dotted line and letting the cat out of his carrier for the next 6 months.
SECURITY: Locks on the doors are obviously a must. You might want to get them changed as soon as you move in, as everybody and their brother could potentially have a copy. An additional lock or chain installed provide a bit of extra security as well. Ensure that all windows close completely, have locks, and that the locks are functioning properly. A peep-hole on the front door is a good precaution. Some buildings will allow for the installation (if it is not already in place) of a screen door or a bar-type door that you can keep locked, but that has slats wide enough to receive mail or other items which might be delivered by people you do not know, while keeping you safe from being robbed, attacked, or allowing the visiting party access into your dwelling.
Insist that the apartment owner provide a fire extinguisher and smoke alarm. It is in their best interest (as well as yours!) to protect the property and any tenets should a fire break out.
Living on the first floor might not be safe in many cities/areas unless you have adequate security. Regardless of what floor you live on, inquire as to the level of access by the public. Ideally, you want 24-hour guard service, who will not allow strangers to enter the premises of the property without prior consent by the residents.
KITCHEN: In some countries, ovens might be hard to come by, particularly if the native cuisine is cooked on a stove or outside in some sort of wood burning contraption, etc. Do not assume that just because you see a stove and fume hood, that there is an oven in the cabinet underneath (it is usually occupied by the gas canister)! Ditto for dishwashers – a true luxury item of the upper-class in many countries. If these items are non-negotiable for you (and if your budget will allow for them), make it known to your real estate agent before you start looking at potential properties. If you are shown new sites which have not been completely built-out yet, you might be able to request that the owner installs these items.
Be mindful that the size of refrigerators and especially freezers will normally be much smaller than what you would find in the US. Also – when looking at kitchens, a built-in water filtration system would be a great find in countries where the tap water is unsafe to drink. Check for the presence of hot water in the kitchen – it obviously makes washing dishes a much easier feat!
BATHROOM: This is another area in which to check for hot water! Also, as in many countries there are drains on the floor for the shower and any impending disastrous water leaks waiting to happen, ensure that the floor is actually slanted towards the drain and not away from it. Take notice as to whether the sink is ‘plugable’ – if not, be sure and measure the size of the drain holes and purchase rubber stoppers yourself. In some cultures, bathing is not perceived as a good way to clean oneself (as my grandfather used to say, “I don’t see how you can get your face clean in water your @$$ is sitting in.”), so if this is the case, keep in mind that you might have trouble finding a bathtub.
In some countries, multi-story apartment buildings have air ducts or vents leading to the outside. If these vents are not in the stairwell, they are most often located in the bathrooms. This means there is a free flow of air going from the bathroom to the outside (normally covered by some sort of vent). Keep in mind that this means hot air coming in (and expensive cold air going out), dust coming in, and pigeons might be roosting on the outer side of the vent screen, which means noise, bird poo, and possibly disease and bird mites. If that sentence is not enough to scare the pants off of ya, check out what the poor souls over at birdmites.org are going through. It’ll knock some sense into you regarding not settling for vents in the bathrooms if at all possible.
LIVING ROOM/GENERAL: Check to make sure that any sliding doors leading to balconies close completely and lock properly. You don’t want any literal or metaphorical monkeys climbing onto your balcony and worming their way into your apartment (or else spying on you while you roam the living room in your dressing gown – or less!). Use razor-sharp vision to check for any signs of water damage. My vote would be to NOT rent an apartment with any signs of water damage. Period. The owner may tell you that the problem has been taken care of, but that might be a flat-out lie, the workmanship might have been shoddy, or there could be other structural problems which might surface with the next monsoon downpour. Water damage not only means your essential pots and pans will be tied up catching streams of rain coming out of the ceiling, but also easily equate to furniture damage, mold and mildew, and workers galore in your personal space for who knows how long.
Make sure you understand whose name will be on all bills, and which bills (if any) are included in the rent you’ll be paying. If you will be paying for the electric bill, get a feel for what the average monthly bill normally amounts to, so that you are not running that a/c as freely as the wind and then stuck with a first month’s charge of over $600. Also – your rental contract should specify who pays for repairs. You don’t want to move in and end up footing the bill for fuses and sockets which catch fire on day 2 (another reason you need that fire extinguisher!). Check all water taps, lights, and electrical switches on the day of the handover to ensure that everything is working properly.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, establish a protocol for visits from your owner. Turning up at your door at 7am on a Sunday morning with friends in tow in order to show off his apartment is not something you want to have to deal with on a regular basis.
If anyone can think of something that I have missed, please feel free to enter it below in the comments box!
See my other post in the Expat Survival Series: What to Bring!