Shopping For A Rental Without An MLS

Shopping For A Rental Without An MLS

After a little time passes, you forget how painful it was last time. Otherwise, you’d never do it again.

Shop for real estate (either to buy or to rent), I mean, in a market without a multiple listing service.

We’re at it again in Panama City. This time, we’re looking for office space.

In the States, it’d be a simple matter of visiting a broker, presenting him with your specifications, then asking to see listing sheets for everything that matched them.

Here in Panama City, trying to find office space to rent means contacting every agent, broker, building administrator, rental manager, and rental owner you can find to see what he or she has available.

Here’s the good news: You don’t have to do the contacting yourself. Engage a broker for this. There’s no reason not to, as you don’t pay him (or her). The owner of the unit you ultimately contract to rent pays the commission.

Detail your requirements for your agent. Be as specific as possible. The more precise the criteria you provide, the less time you’ll waste touring offices that don’t suit.

With your specs in mind, your agent can launch a search. Ours has been at it for weeks. We’ve been out to view available offices with her on five separate occasions. We’ve seen space on offer for as little as US$17 a square meter per month to as much as US$30 a square meter per month. Sometimes the rent includes the building maintenance fee; sometimes no. When it’s not included, it can add an additional US$1 to US$3 per square meter, again, per month, to the cost.

You can rent finished or unfinished (in which case you’re responsible for running the wiring, installing the air conditioning and lighting, plastering the walls, maybe laying flooring, and configuring the space), furnished or unfurnished. The prices don’t always jive with the state of the space. We’ve seen furnished for less than unfurnished (on a per-square-meter basis)…and unfinished for more than finished (again, speaking meter for meter).

We’ve been offered one-year leases, and we’ve been asked to commit to three or five years.

We’ve been told the price is final, not at all negotiable…and, other places, with other agents and owners, we’ve been encouraged to make an offer.

The office rental market is active but not nearly as frenzied as the apartment rental market was this time last year, when we were shopping for a place to live. Still, spaces are filling in the new buildings as they come online and hard to find in established buildings, which, for the most part, are full. We’ve inquired about a handful of buildings in particular, where we’ve thought we might like to locate our little enterprise, to be told there are no vacancies.

That’s not quite true. You can find vacancies in otherwise rented buildings, empty offices for which the rent seems higher than it should be and is, we’ve been assured, not at all negotiable.

These units are owned by absentee Venezuelan landlords, who don’t seem to much care if they rent or not. These owners have parked their capital in Panamanian real estate and are happy to have it outside Venezuela. Why hassle with a tenant unless the rent is high enough…at least I guess that must be the thinking.

Slowest moving is the unfinished space. It can be hard to justify an investment of US$10,000 or US$20,000 or more to fit out a space you don’t own. Landlords don’t seem to offer build-out allowances or long-term leases (say of 10 years) allowing you to commit, to lock in your rent, and to amortize your up-front investment in making the space usable.

We looked this morning at another half-dozen offices. Finally, two have our attention. One is in a not-quite-finished building in one of our favorite districts, near to restaurants and services.

“How will this space be delivered?” I asked the agent showing us around.

“As you see it now,” she explained.

No wiring, no air conditioning, no plasterwork, no interior walls. A shell.

The view’s great, and the rent is negotiable.

On the other hand, we’d have to arrange for and oversee the finishing-out work…and we’d have to wait for it to be completed before we could move in. Maybe the work would take four or six weeks. But, as the agent explained, the parking garage is right now three months behind schedule and still she’s not certain when it’ll be finished. Hard to pin these kinds of things down in this part of the world…

The other place we’re considering is in a nice, new building, a couple of years old. The space is fully fitted out to a high standard in IT terms. Aesthetically not as appealing. Neighborhood’s not as interesting. View’s not as nice.

Plus, the office was occupied until recently by the Panama staff of Stanford Bank. I believe in karma. Maybe we don’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity when theirs comes around.

Kathleen Peddicord

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