How To Rent Overseas
When engineering a move overseas, rent first, I remind you often. And maybe rent indefinitely. Which begs the question: How do you find a rental in another country?
Word-of-mouth. You can search on the Internet, but, as with property for sale, the rentals you find this way are typically the most expensive, certainly if you search English-language sites. Your chances of getting a better deal are increased if you reference sites in the local language. Still, going this route, you’re going to find only those properties for rent by locals with the wherewithal to advertise them on the Net.
You can also source rentals through the local print classifieds. This can be an effective method, a way to penetrate the local market and to gain access to local pricing, if you read and speak the local language fluently. Understanding Spanish well enough to read a rental property listing in a local newspaper in Buenos Aires, for example, isn’t enough. You’ve got to be able to speak Spanish well enough to have a conversation by telephone with the owner to arrange a viewing appointment. Then you’ve got to feel comfortable enough in your Spanish to meet with him (or her) in person, at the property, to ask your questions, to negotiate the price and other particulars, and, ultimately, to review the rental agreement (which, of course, will be in Spanish if that’s the language of the country where you’re shopping). I’ve known many people who’ve successfully sourced rentals this way and been happy with the results, but I, for example, couldn’t do it without help, not in a market where the language is Spanish. Mine isn’t good enough.
The most efficient and effective strategy, therefore, certainly if you’re not fluent in the local lingo, is to ask around. You can begin this process before you arrive in your new home, but finding a suitable rental in the right location for you at a good price can be a difficult thing to accomplish from afar.
Two months in advance of our move from Paris to Panama City last year, I tried to launch our search for a rental in the Panamanian capital. I sent off e-mails to friends, business contacts, and property agents in the city. Everyone replied to say, in effect: “Searching long-distance for an apartment or a house to rent in this market is going to prove neigh on impossible. Much better to wait until you’re here in person. Probably any time you invest before you’re on the ground will prove wasted.”
The Panama City rental market at the time was an extreme example. It qualified as one of the most active short-term rental markets in the world. The would-be renter had to be ready to act. If you hesitated (showed up to a viewing without your local bank checkbook, for example, and therefore unable to write a local check for the deposit on the spot), you risked losing out. Few markets are this competitive (including the Panama City rental market, which has quieted down since).
But there’s another, more universal reason it’s not easy to try to shop for a rental apartment in one country while you’re sitting at home in another.
Say you ask around from the comfort of your armchair. One of your sources replies to tell you about a rental in such-and-such neighborhood available for such-and-such price. It sounds great in the e-mail, the best value you’ve come across. But is it a place you’d want to live? Making that determination without having seen the place yourself is a dangerous thing. Maybe you’d trust your best friend or your significant other to scout and secure a rental on your behalf, but I’ve known even that to backfire.
It’s not the end of the world, of course. Eventually, the lease term will expire, and you could move wherever you like. Maybe you could even negotiate with the landlord to get released from your rental contract early. However, in some countries, this is not easily accomplished, and, regardless, the negotiation is a hassle you don’t want during what should be the honeymoon period in your new home in paradise. Better to set your own two eyes on a place before you hand over the security deposit and the first and last months’ rent (as you’ll likely have to do, though, sometimes, these terms are open for discussion).
It may sound like a non-strategy, but the best approach is simply to make a reservation at a hotel located in the area where you think you’d like to live. Plan to stay up to four or five weeks. It may not take you this long to find a place to live more permanently, but don’t be discouraged if it does. We were guests of the Granville Hotel in Waterford, Ireland, for a full eight weeks (we negotiated a discounted long-term rate with the manager) before we finally found the rental cottage that became our first home in that city. Easing into a place this way gives you a chance to get the lay of the land and to take your time considering your options.
We knew not a soul in Waterford, Ireland, when we first arrived in this city as foreign residents a dozen years ago. We were out of our element and on our own, with no local network of support. We quickly figured out that the Irish property market, for both sales and rentals, doesn’t much resemble the one in the United States (there’s no Multiple Listing Service, and agents don’t share listings). We knew that the ideas and expectations we’d brought with us from the States had to be adjusted. But how? To what?
Our challenge was particularly great because we were trying to find not only a house to rent, but also an office. We began making inquiries about available rentals at the front desk of our hotel, of fellow shoppers standing in line at the grocery store, of fellow parents at our daughter’s school, in the bank, and of every taxi driver we encountered. Finally, someone gave us the address of a small office he thought might be available for rental.
By this time, we were nearly desperate, so, new lead in hand, we headed across town immediately, without an appointment (for we had no phone number, only the address), to knock on the door of the office in question. Is our information correct, we inquired of the nice Irish lady who greeted us inside. Is this office for rent? Indeed, it was. We negotiated a price and terms on the spot and asked if we could return the next day to begin setting up shop. In addition, on our way out the door, I asked, as an afterthought, “Would you happen to know of a two-bedroom house for rent?”
The nice Irish lady did. She wrote down another address for us. Again, we walked out the door, down the street to the taxi queue, and took off in a cab, straightaway, to see the residence for ourselves. The landlord, it turned out, was at home in his own house on the same property. He showed us the place, the view of the river, and the garage where we could store belongings that wouldn’t fit in the little
We were won over, by the location but also by the furnishings. Rentals in Ireland, both short (a few weeks or a few months) and long (six months or longer) term, come furnished. On the one hand, this was welcome news for us at the time, as our furniture was in a container on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, “furnished” is one of those words that loses something in translation from American English to Irish English. Even the higher-end rentals we viewed had but bare-bones furnishings. Some didn’t even have central heating (this would be much less true today, 12 years later), and few properties had things like dishwashers.
We were delighted, therefore, with our riverside discovery, which boasted “all mod cons,” or all modern conveniences, as the Irish would say. We negotiated price and terms for renting on the spot. We sealed the deal, our second of the morning, with a handshake.
P.S. Should you engage the help of a rental agent in your search? In most markets, the landlord pays the fee, and, in some, it’s split between the owner and the renter. I’d argue that, in a place where the person you eventually rent from is responsible for paying the agent’s commission, why not enlist the services of a broker in your search? This may seem to contradict my recommendation to seek out your rental by asking around in the place where you want to rent, but that’s not necessarily so. If it costs you nothing, why not have an agent search along with you? You pursue your word-of-mouth strategy, while the agent does his (or her) thing.
The downside is that, even though you’re not paying it, the agent is still working for a fee, which is typically based on the monthly rental amount. In other words, the agent isn’t going to knock himself out trying to find super-cheap options. He’ll work within your parameters, but he’ll bring you the options that will earn him a greater commission. You can always politely decline interest, of course.
The other advantage to engaging a broker’s help sourcing a rental (in addition to expanding your search basis) is that, in some markets, the agent’s job isn’t over when the rental agreement is signed. Here in Panama, for example, a rental agent is expected to help you to orchestrate your move, as well. He’ll negotiate the terms of the rental; he’ll coordinate payment of the security deposit and initial rent (walking you through when, to whom, and how to accomplish this); he’ll help you arrange for the installation of telephone and Internet; and he’ll help you transfer the electricity account into your name (if that’s what you decide to do).
These may sound like small things, but, in a new country, operating in a foreign language, dealing with these issues for the first time, you’d be surprised how complicated they can become and how welcome a little help can be.