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6 Tips for Renting an Apartment Abroad
By Fran Zarnitzky | On 18 Mar, 2014
It’s the holy grail of apartments in my hometown of New York City. However, a space with a balcony is usually well beyond the average city dweller´s budget, especially in Manhattan.
But I hoped to change that when I got a job teaching English abroad and moved to Uberaba, a mid-sized city in southeast Brazil. I thought surely there would be ample opportunity to find an affordable apartment with something like a terrace in a little-known city in South America.
It turns out finding the perfect apartment in the right price range is complicated anywhere, not just in New York City. And there are added complications when you don’t know the language, the culture or the market.
But it’s do-able, and I did it in Brazil. And, to help you out, here are six things I learned through trial and error that could be applied to finding an apartment anywhere in the world.
1. Research the market before you start shopping.
It’s hard to know whether you’re getting a good or a bad deal unless you know what locals and expats pay for apartments in your area. Doing research means you won’t waste time looking for something that doesn’t exist.
The first thing I discovered about Brazil was that its growing economy has an emerging middle-class that is mostly well-educated and employed. However, average incomes are lagging behind rising inflation, making items that are already overpriced because of Brazil´s high import tax even more unattainable. This translates into a three-bedroom apartment with a balcony renting for R$3,000 (about US$1,500.) That´s costly compared to the local wage in Brazil, and definitely not the kind of rent I could afford on my teaching salary.
Second, I discovered the inventory of cheap, one-bedroom units is minute. Families are a priority in Brazil and two or three-bedroom apartments make a much better investment. Uberaba is also home to at least five different universities, so student-sharing demands a large inventory of multi-bedroom apartments.
Third, only about 20% of the apartments in Uberaba have balconies, according to my current realtor, and only 5% of those are one-bedrooms. While newer constructions are starting to include balconies, it’s still a novel concept in a city located far away from the beaches.
Basically, my ideal of a cheap, one-bedroom apartment with a balcony was going to be extremely hard to find. And knowing this meant I had to readjust my expectations when I set out to go apartment hunting in Brazil for the first time.
2. Find a local to help you out
In Brazil, the language barrier doesn’t just make it hard to exchange information; it also marks you for “foreigner prices.” Most Brazilians still equate English-speakers with wealth, which I experience first-hand whenever vendors at the market charge me more than the locals.
I was lucky that my Brazilian husband could negotiate apartment prices for us. But if you don’t have someone like that to rely on, you should consider recruiting a local friend or co-worker to help you out with the process. It’s a big help to go shopping with someone who knows the language, the culture and the area.
3. Find out what method locals and expats use to find accommodation
In many cities around the world, there are local newspapers that list apartments for rent in the classifieds section.
However, this is not the way in much of Brazil. The best way to find accommodation is by word of mouth. Or, often, there will be signs posted by realtors on the apartments for rent themselves. Learn the word for “rent” (in Brazil, it’s “aluga”), then you can walk around neighborhoods you like and write down phone numbers from postings. This allows you to get a feel for a particular neighborhood, check out local services and gauge how long your commute will be before you even step foot in an apartment.
In Brazil, people also tend to use “imóveis” (Portuguese for “rental office”) or real estate websites. The only problem I’ve found with these is many online listings don’t include pictures and only show a fraction of their inventory. So it’s often best to talk to a realtor in person about what you’re looking for.
4. Find out what is and isn’t included in the price
In Brazil, the list price only includes the monthly rent. There is often a separate condominium fee, which is usually non-negotiable, but you should know what that fee is before you sign a contract.
Also, it’s a good idea to find out in advance what the procedure is for payment. In Uberaba, you drop your payment at the relator office, rather than mail it to a management company or owner.
5. Find out what you’re expected to buy
In Brazil, you rarely find furnished apartments. Most apartments come completely empty apart from the sinks. That means you´re responsible for buying furniture, wardrobes, stoves/ovens and refrigerators, so you need to factor this into the cost of moving. Other countries will have different quirks, so ask ALL the questions when you start shopping.
What I’ve found here when buying household items is Brazil lacks a middle-market for shopping. This means items are either cheap and poor quality or expensive and so-so quality. Finding affordable and well-made household items is a challenge, so it’s a good idea to ask your local friends what they use and recommend for common household items.
For example, I asked around and decided to splurge on a more expensive shower. Showers in Brazil are electric, with wires running from the showerhead into the wall. I decided to pay more for a better model because a cheap unit would mean choosing between water pressure and temperature.
Sometimes you just need to know what your options are in order to make the best choices so, again, ask lots of questions.
6. Weigh the pros and cons – decide what you can and can’t live with
There’s no such thing as the perfect apartment when you have a limited budget, if my experiences are anything to go by. Here I list the apartments I’ve rented in Brazil, the pros and cons of each and the costs of each. In reading, you may decide yourself what things you must have in your apartment to be happy, and what you don’t really care about.
a) “The Castle” – Our first apartment was one of the few, furnished, two-bedrooms in town, in the charming but expensive neighborhood of Mercês. We needed a short-term rental, so we decided to forego a balcony to live in this area, which lacked affordable balcony apartments. Our self-proclaimed “Castle,” so named for its sweeping views, came with an odd assortment of furnishings, refrigerator and stove. We bought our own bed and a washing machine, since there are no Laundromats in Uberaba.
Rental period: 6 months
Monthly rent: R$500 + R$100 condo fee (US$210 + $42)
Pros: Sunny, third-floor corner location provided constant breeze; lovely neighborhood with outdoor cafés and gorgeous tiled sidewalks; beautiful square where toucans and green parrots gather daily; near the city´s best supermarket.
Cons: No balcony, leaky fridge, older-model stove, outdated/uncomfortable furniture, no closets, second bedroom just collected junk/dust, longest commute (45-minute walk).
b) “The Dungeon” – Our second apartment lured us in with size: a large, unfurnished, two-bedroom with gigantic built-in closets, 1 ½ baths, outdoor laundry/drying space off the kitchen and a false balcony (French doors that open onto a tiny ledge). We bought a stove, refrigerator, sofa, chair and dining table.
But this place was on the wrong end of the Fabricio neighborhood; a dead-zone, despite its proximity to the court-house and fútbol stadium. We also realized too late that the buses passed by our bedroom window with a regular cacophony of grumbling engines and squeaky breaks starting at 5:45 am every day.
The strange layout offered no privacy in our bedroom, which faced the front road, and our living room, which faced other apartments, was incredibly noisy. Sound carried so well that we had breakfast every morning with our neighbor’s rooster ringtone crowing in our ears. It also made the entire unit dark and unnaturally cold, which is quite an accomplishment in tropical Brazil.
Rental period: One year (we stayed 5-months)
Monthly rent: R$650 + R$105 condo fee (US$270 + $45)
Pros: Huge closets, shorter walk to work (20 minutes), led to our current apartment.
Cons: False balcony, old building, poor drainage in shower, strange layout, drying area off kitchen was breeding ground for mosquitoes, was cold, loud and dark.
c) “The Dream Apartment” – Finally, a balcony! When my husband went to pay our rent, he bemoaned our current space to the realtor. And it turned out a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony had just come on the market! (Brazil is still very much oiled by word-of-mouth.)
Located on the more picturesque side of Fabricio, it has a bright living room, a kitchen nook, breakfast bar and marble countertops. The massive balcony fits a dining table, leisure chairs and overlooks the skyline. We took it immediately, even though it´s one-third the size of our second apartment and we had to pay a small penalty for breaking that lease.
Rental period: Forever?
Monthly rent: R$680 + R$140 condo fee (US$286 + $59)
Pros: BALCONY, amazing views, quiet, beautiful Mediterranean-style building/lobby, part-time security guard, high-end construction features, cute neighborhood with park and charming cafes, close to downtown shopping area, shortest walk to work (10-minutes).
Cons: Smallest space, highest rent, no closets.
So, it took us three tries to get the perfect apartment for our budget and needs, but we got there. And I learned lots about the process that will help me when shopping for future apartments. Hopefully, some of what I’ve learned will help you when you venture out to a foreign country looking for your “dream apartment.” Good luck!
After Fran did her CELTA at Teaching House New York,she moved to Uberaba, Brazil, where she teaches ESL at all levels and is head of the school’s Education USA department, which helps Brazilian students study abroad in the U.S. She's recently traveled solo through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and hopes to teach in Asia soon. You can follow her adventures at FrannysFootsteps.com.
Latest posts by Fran Zarnitzky (see all)
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