How to Find Housing Abroad: 4 Stories

You’ve convinced your partner to move abroad, figured out what you’ll be doing for money and you’re on the plane, on your way to living abroad. Chances are, your next major obstacle is going to be housing. In this piece, I’m going to share my experiences in four places and give you some tips on finding housing when you move abroad.

Russia (2003)

My first five months in Russia were spent with a disastrous host family. At some point in that first semester, I realized I was paying four times as much to live with a host family I didn’t like as I would have been if I just rented a room somewhere. I quickly told the study abroad program that I would find my own accommodation for the second semester.

I moved out of my host family’s apartment on the last day of the semester and stayed with a friend over Christmas vacation as I looked for a new place to stay.

It was not an easy search, and it didn’t help that I was set on avoiding agencies that would charge a month rent as a fee. At first, an acquaintance from the orphanage where I volunteered took me to see a room that belonged to a friend of hers. The other family that lived in the Kommunalka (a communal apartment, where each family has a room and shares a bathroom and kitchen) obviously was used to having their privacy and didn’t want someone to move in to the vacant room, which they had blocked off with a dresser. My acquaintance had told me not to tell them I was American. She explained my accent by saying I was I student from Estonia.

Needless to say, that arrangement made me a little uncomfortable and it didn’t work out. I responded to several ads in из рук в руки, a classified ad newspaper (when I was there I was looking at the paper version. They have a website, but I can’t attest to whether or not people use it!) but people kept hanging up on me when they noticed an accent, saying that the apartment advertised was “for Russians only.”

As I was looking, a friend who was leaving for the US at the beginning of January kept telling me that I should just move into his (rented) apartment. It was a two-bedroom apartment, close to my school and in a central part of the city. The only problem was it was drafty, and more expensive than I wanted. Cold, drafty apartments are a drag anywhere, but in January in St. Petersburg, it was a serious downside. I ultimately decided to take his apartment, and suffered through the rest of the winter with multiple sweaters on inside, even wearing a hat to bed.

I paid $280 per month, and I thought it was too expensive.

Things to note: If you go through an agency in Russia, you have to pay a fee equal to one month’s rent, and it will be much more “official.” I met up with the landlord once a month to pay her in cash, and it was very “unofficial” – no contract, no rent receipts.

Spain (2006)

I arrived in Spain about a month before my boyfriend did, and I arranged a one-month sublet in the city center so that we would have someplace to land before looking for a permanent home. Like in Russia, I didn’t want to pay an agency fee, and most of the apartments advertised in agencies said “Spanish Only” (which is actually a violation of Spanish law, but what could we do?). We looked on Loquo.com and visited a couple places, but many Spanish landlords asked people to put a whole year’s worth of rent in an escrow account and keep it there until you moved out. This was a problem, because a) it seemed like a bogus requirement and b) we didn’t have that much money anyway.

We were getting desperate, and actually walking around looking for a hostel to move into when we saw a “for rent” sign on one of the doorways near our sublet. It was a small studio, renting for 650 euros per month. But the owner didn’t require a bunch of paperwork or the year’s worth of rent in advance, so we took the place, moving in on the last day of our sublet.

France (2011)

We moved to Paris amid dire predictions about how difficult it would be to find a place to live. Although those predictions ended up being true in some regards, we ended up with a place to stay – one that we liked well enough and was in a great location.

It was not without some tense moments. We were staying in an apartment that belonged to friends of friends while they traveled to Brazil, giving us three weeks to find a permanent home. I was going to school in Paris and my boyfriend was working on his art, meaning that neither of us had an income. Parisian landlords are exacting, demanding a guarantor even from people who do have a reliable income. We wanted to avoid agencies again (they all charged a fee equal to one month’s rent or more), but this time agencies also wanted to avoid us: Many told us they would not be willing to rent to us because of our lack of a stable income and a guarantor in France.

Our best bet was to look at Leboncoin.fr, the French site for classified ads. We actually saw one promising apartment, but decided not to take it because it faced a busy street and had very thin windows.

Ultimately, my friend had a friend whose uncle was renting an apartment. It was a little more than we wanted to spend and not in very good shape, but we took it anyway. It was in the neighborhood we liked and came furnished, saving us the trouble of buying furnishing and then selling them when we left Paris. We paid 1200 euros per month for a rundown one-bedroom in a central Paris.

Beijing (2014)

The scholarship I had from the Confucius Institute covered housing, but since I my husband was coming with me, we were out of luck and had to find a place to live on our own. As when we moved to Madrid, we had no connections prior to arriving in Beijing. We started out in a hostel, hoping to only stay there for one week. Unfortunately, that second weekend came and went far more quickly than we could have imagined. We started out looked at The Beijinger, the expat site, but it quickly became clear that the ads on the site were marked up for foreigners.

We asked the hostel staff for some help, and they recommended 58.com and ganji.com – both the equivalent of Craigslist for the Chinese. We thought the prices would be lower than in the States – but we were very wrong. We ended up finding a place through an ad on 58.com. This was a difficult case, because only needed a rental for 4 months, and the typical lease length in China is one year. Luckily, however, the landlord was willing to work with us. Even though we had found the place on a Chinese site, the landlord spoke some English and even wrote the rental contract in English – we think she might have an an attorney, but didn’t ask.

In China, it’s also normal to pay three months rent at a time, instead of just one month, like we would normally do in the West (at least everywhere else I’ve lived).

We also could have used an agency in Beijing, but like elsewhere they charge a fee equal to at least one month rent. We were not willing to pay that much.

For our shared apartment, we paid 3500 RMB per month, or about $570.

Lessons learned:

  • You always need a landing pad, because finding a good apartment takes time.
  • Agencies can make the process easier, but they are expensive and often don’t like to work with people who are students or self-employed, especially if they are foreigners.
  • The best way to find an apartment is through friends. If you know anyone at all, make sure they all know you are looking for a place.
  • You will end up spending more than you want to. While it’s good to budget, be flexible. It’s better to spend a little bit more than to be really miserable.
  • Sometimes a furnished rental is worth it. In Russia, Spain, France and China we had furnished rentals, and it helped us get settled a lot faster. In Spain, once we had our apartment we slept on the floor for a couple nights before getting furniture. Even if you’re buying used, getting enough furniture (not to mention pots and pans, plates and other little things like that) can take a lot of money and time. If you’re planning on staying for a year or less, a furnished apartment is probably worth it even if it costs a little bit more.