How to find an apartment in a foreign country

Erich home
The man of the house enjoying peace and tranquility.

It’s now been my second time that I searched and found an apartment on the real estate market of a foreign country, and though the database is of course rather small, I think I can already provide some tentative advice for young people like us about how to proceed best in this matter. (INTERRA always offers you accommodation in the form a host family but I chose to have my own place.)

  1. Book a hostel. It depends of course on you and your wallet how much comfort you need and can afford, but even a quiet four-bed dorm room might do for a week or two. Hostels have the advantage of being a reliable and easy to find first refuge in your new city. In contrast, Airbnb can often be a gamble, in particular in a place like Russia where Airbnb rules are not necessarily well understood, let alone abided by. (Trust me.) Often equipped with 24h desk, the staff may also help you make some calls or give you valuable info, for instance about whether an apartment is too expensive given the area it is in. And unless it is high season, you can always extend your stay there should you have troubles finding a suitable apartment.
  2. Forget google results. Ask the locals, e.g. your hostel’s staff, work colleagues or local contacts for the most important real estate websites for your city. In light of the fierce competition for the first few ranks in google’s results, it is often the technically better equipped but actually less used websites that make it to the top (or those with an English language version). The locals might in fact use very different websites which you would never be able to find yourself.
  3. Find a local agent that speaks English – or speak the local language. This might be the most difficult part. If you really don’t speak much of the local language, you’re only option is to find an agent who speaks English (or French, Spanish, German, whatever it is that might get you some help). That will require quite a lot of calling and emailing, with the first question being “Do you speak X” before asking if the apartment you’ve found online is still available.
  4. Be persistent. At this point, you might get frustrated with all your calls being turned down, i.e. the apartments that looked good to you online all gone (depending on the current market situation in town) or the agents not speaking any English, quickly transforming into a feeling of wasting your time every day. Don’t give up! On the one hand, the longer you stay in the hostel, the more money you obviously lose that you could have spent on rent. On the other, keep re-loading your search query every couple of hours to catch a glimpse at the latest offers – at some point you’ll be the first one to call for sure!

    Erich kitchen
    My new cute little kitchen.
  5. Go see the apartment. Even if you’re desperate as hell, never strike a deal over phone. Always go see the place. (I don’t even know why I have to write this down, but just in case.)
  6. Don’t back off from your core needs. As often the places you’ve found online will be already gone or the apartment you were shown wasn’t as good as you expected from the photos, agents sometimes provide you with other offers of the same category and in the same neighborhood (assuming, you can communicate with each other). Here, things tend to go in either of two directions: (1) the agent tries to push and persuade you to take a place, or (2) s/he respects your reservations and doubts and promises to supply you with new, similar offers as they come in. In any case, you got to know your core needs and requirements! Obviously, this includes your financial limits and the size of the place, but can also entail location (incl. public transport connections), equipment, and even things such as coziness and whether you’re facing south or north. (Hello, Siberia!) Make a list of what you want – and go through it assiduously when seeing an offer.
  7. Ask locals for their opinion. When you basically found something that meets your needs and expectations, it makes sense to tell e.g. the hostel staff or your work colleagues about it and ask for their opinion. They can provide you a useful frame of reference about whether you’re about to make a good deal or whether you’re getting ripped off. Speaking of which…
  8. Bargain, especially if it’s part of the local culture. In Western Europe, bargaining is really not what we do. I personally quite hate it. But in the country/region where you are now it might be an accepted if not integral part of the local culture, and you’d be a fool if you didn’t try to get a few bucks discount. Of course, this presupposes that you did your homework and know a bit about the local culture and the dos and don’ts of bargaining there.
  9. Accept local customs regarding contracts. What I mean by this is that sometimes, no contract is signed at all or it is a very short, almost informal sheet of paper that doesn’t mean much in reality. For instance, I was told that it is rather common in Russia to be kicked out suddenly by your landlord because s/he wants to give the place to their own kid. You will not be able to avoid accepting this. But once you have…
  10. Enjoy your new life!
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