Househunting in a Foreign Land

Great news! I signed a lease today! It’s nearly my perfect apartment! Well, not really; it doesn’t have a gas stove, or an in-sink disposal, or even a two-basin kitchen sink, or bedroom closets, or any appliances (not even a fridge or oven), or a pantry, or decent cabinetry and countertops in the bathroom, and it’s “against the rules” to do grilling on my terrace (something about “smells” and “smoke” “antagonizing” the other tennants).

But you know what, it’s got two bedrooms (come visit!), a great living space (come party!), a nice view off the terrace (come drink beer with the sunset!), an elevator (come…elevate?), and (most importantly) an in-building electrified box garage in which I’m allowed to do my own mechanical work (you can find somewhere else to park). And it’s only 900 EUR/month. Check out that picture! Doesn’t it seem nice? Compared to the other places I saw, this is perfect. The first place I saw was a studio with an underground parking garage for 770 EUR/month, though the listing claimed it was a “1 bedroom” with a “garage.” The next was a 2-bedroom with an assigned parking spot that was only really half-covered despite claiming a “garage” (for 800/month). And the bedroom windows there were right on the street (nice view for passers-by, I guess?). The third place I saw was nice enough, except that the listing claimed covered parking when actually it was just an outdoor free-for-all for parking. And it had like no cabinet space in the kitchen. That one was 1000 EUR/month.

So I think I got a pretty good deal.

And actually the thing with the appliances and closets is just Belgium (or Europe, I guess?). The three other places I looked at included the oven and fridge, but not dishwasher or laundry machines, although there is an obvious spot for such things. So the place I got was only slightly abnormal in that respect. Noplace I looked at had in-sink disposals, or a gas stove. (A gas stove was wishful thinking for an apartment, even in America. It’s sad, really.) The only place I saw that had a closet in the bedroom was the studio, so I’m not even sure if that counts as a “bedroom” closet.

It was weird at first, the bedrooms not having closets. I initially wrote it in my notes as a negative. You can barely go apartment hunting in America without every other listing touting their walk-in closets, so I’m conditioned to think “no closets == bad.” What does that say about America? I don’t really know. But thinking about it, not having a built-in closet could be better! It opens up the possibilities for room arrangements! It gives you a whole other wall against which you can put the bed!

Come to think of it, there’s a few weird things like that about apartments in Europe.

  • They all have hard floors, be it tile or hardwood. If you want soft floors you can buy rugs. You have options!
  • Showers all have the kind of nozzle you can pull off and wave around. Or just leave it mounted up there for a regular shower head! Options!
  • Toilets are frequently, but not always, a separate room from the shower/bath. I have a place where they’re separated. At first this seems weird, but then you realize it’s just having the two halves of a bathroom behind different doors and it doesn’t make any difference. Plus now someone can use the toilet if the shower is in use. Options!

What I’m trying to say is, interior design seems very slightly, marginally more pragmatic in ways that seem weird and unnecessary. Not bad, just like, none of these issues are big deals that really needed to be changed, and you still don’t have gas stoves so what’s the deal with that?

Anyway, finding this place was not that easy. First of all there is apparently just one main apartment-finding site for Belgium, and its serach tool is not the best. You can search in specific postal codes, but can’t specify a radius or commute distance. You can speficy which of eight directions you want your garden to face, but can’t check a box for “must have garage,” or laundry connections, or appliances.

Shows you what proper competition brings about, I guess. There’s more than one apartment search site in America, and I know at least one of them lets you specify a garage.

So, after getting about 70 results with my initial search of the immediate post codes around work, opening the ones that look nice, then closing every tab that wasn’t availabe until April (or August), and closing every tab that didn’t have a hit when doing ctrl-f for “garage” (It’s the same word in French and English!), I had about 10 results to check out. 4 of those were already rented, and 3 didn’t speak English on the phone.

Oh right, I’m in a foreign country. Good thing one of the first things I need to do is try to talk to strangers on the phone and then sign a moderately complex legal document in a language I don’t really understand. It was discouraging at first, having the language barrier get in the way of finding a good apartment. There were a couple awkward phone calls in which I basically just called someone to tell them I don’t speak French and then hung up.

After those first few disappointing viewings I thought maybe I was being too picky about wanting an electrified garage (look, my car is important to me, ok?) at an apartment less than 2 miles from work (having a commute is lame!). Maybe I should expand my search to look for any covered parking within a 15 minute commute.

Fortunately for me, the proprietor of the place I ended up leasing responded to my e-mail, and Google Translate exists. He didn’t speak English (he was subject to one of my awkward phone calls), but Google speaks everything, so we were able to communicate through machine translation. When we arranged a meeting to view the place, I was even able to put together just enough French sentances to tell him on the phone I had arrived and ask a couple questions about the place. I was proud of me.

I am also very fortunate to have an HR person helping me with my move that was willing to attend the lease signing meeting and translate for me. And also arrange for the initial payments through corporate accounting. Because you see, I can’t make the payment myself because I don’t have a local bank account. And I can’t get a bank account until I have an apartment. And they won’t take it in cash, and no one uses checks of any kind in Europe, apparently. So without a major local employer at my back, I’m not sure how that causal loop would have resolved itself.

Plus, the initial deposit is massive. Most places look for two months’ rent deposit PLUS the first month’s actual rent payment before moving in. Don’t have $3000 cash on hand? Find a cheaper place, or hope you can get some kind of loan. Seems a bit insane to me compared to what I dealt with in America, but I guess it works for them here.

And another thing! Leases frequently come in terms of multiples of 3 years. Not always, but it’s pretty common. You don’t even lock in the monthly rate for the whole duration, it gets reassessed every year, so I don’t know what’s in it for anyone, but that’s how it goes. I was able to negotiate a 2-year lease with optional extension, just like my work contract.

tl;dr, I have an apartment to move into next week. Good thing too, because this business flat I’m in is getting old quick, with its 25 m² floor space and fold-out bed. It was a discouraging search at first; being sick for the first week didn’t help anything (that’s another story), but a little persistence and resourcefulness goes a long way, and I think I’ve got a place I’ll really like.

Getting it set up to live in is going to be an entirely new adventure.

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Author: haveracecarwilltravel

Moved from America to Belgium in early 2016 (mostly for the racetracks) and brought my Lotus along for the ride. I also enjoy putting my D7000 to good use.

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