Expat Essentials

DIY Expat: What we learned during our year of searching for a place to live in Holland

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of DIY Expat, a series documenting our move to the Netherlands to found Dispatches Media. This second post is a macro view of the rental market. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want more granular information. Our email is: terry@dispatcheseurope.com)

BY TERRY BOYD AND CHERYL BOYD

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced – and we’ve jumped through a lot of hoops in the past few months – has been finding a place to live. Of course, it’s one of the biggest challenges for all expats, even some corporate nomads.

WE SPENT MONTHS EMAIL PHOTOS SUCH AS THESE BACK AND FORTH. THAT IS, WHEN WE COULD GET ANYONE TO SHOW US A HOUSE ....

WE SPENT MONTHS BEFORE OUR U.S. HOUSE SOLD EMAILING BACK AND FORTH PHOTOS LIKE THIS ONE OF PROSPECTIVE PROPERTIES. THAT IS, WHEN WE COULD GET ANYONE TO SHOW US A HOUSE ….

But we actually got to a point we weren’t sure we’d be able to rent a place we could afford. Talk about discouraging … we were locked out of the market because many Dutch landlords can’t get their head around the DIY expat concept of immigrating without corporate support.

We DON’T want that to happen to you. And it’s not like we didn’t do our homework.

Last year, after months of on-the-ground research, we chose Eindhoven as the place to launch our new expat-focused media company in part because housing here is as much as 66 percent cheaper than in super-hot innovation centers such as Amsterdam and Berlin.

We spent more than a year analyzing the rental market in Eindhoven, looking online at every potential match. Early on, we figured out we could get a 4-bedroom house or apartment for less than 2,000 euros per month.

Eindhoven, it turns out, is one of the few bargain rental markets in Western Europe.

For example, a furnished one-bedroom apartment in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin rents for 2,520 euros per month. A 200-square-meter (2,150 square foot), 2-bedroom apartment in Berlin is currently available for 4,375 euros per month furnished.

We ended up finding a two-story, 200-square-meter house in a lovely old Dutch village just a few miles south of Eindhoven for 1,425 euros per month, about what a 1-room studio will cost you just an hour north in Amsterdam.

Getting here, though, included a serious education in how the local housing market works.

We knew what was available, but there were hidden details and complications we never anticipated.

In the end, it almost doesn’t matter how far ahead you check, because it’s much better to be lucky and be at the right place at the right time when the perfect house turns up, which is what happened to us.

Here’s what we learned:

• Finding a nice house, and finding it quickly

After we sold our house in the United States, we didn’t only need a place to live, we also needed a permanent address so we could apply for our residence permits, then get a BSN number identifying us as residents of the Netherlands, then register our business with the Kamer van Koophandel (chamber of commerce), and finally, get a business bank account. And all this had to happen in that order.

(Editor’s note: We will address in detail all those requirements in later posts.)

We started running out of time, because once our 90-day tourist visas were up, and we had to get all this done in six months. Sounds easy, right?

Ah, no ….

• Tip No. 1 – Not a lot of love for independent expats

THE IDEAL CLIENT FOR DUTCH REAL ESTATE AGENTS

THE IDEAL CLIENT FOR DUTCH RENTAL AGENTS

If you, like us, are a DIY expat and not employed by a big corporation, it’s going to be very difficult to even get agents to show you a rental. We started looking a year before we actually moved. We asked a local rental property agency first, Stoit Groep, if we could simply look at one available house or apartment in Eindhoven to understand how the Dutch figure livable square feet.

Almost everything we’d seen advertised was 120 square meters (1,300 square feet), which seemed way too small for two adults and two teenagers. But were they only counting actual living space, and not kitchens or whatever? We didn’t know, and we were going to be shipping a lot of furniture. We wanted to be sure beds could actually fit in bedrooms. Their answer to our request was, “No way,” which – to the American way of thinking – is bizarre, because we would have been their client. Simply put, big Dutch real estate companies don’t want to waste time on non-corporate showings.

And, by the way, our instincts were correct … one rental agent showed me an apartment that was much larger than advertised. It turned out they weren’t counting a third floor converted from an attic into living space. In the 149-year-old farmhouse we ended up with, the rental agency only counts the bedrooms and actual living space, but NOT the huge laundry room and mega-storage space where the cows used to live.

• Tip No. 2 – Get ready to bare your soul to even look at an apartment

500_previewThe first thing rental agents here want to see before they’ll even show you properties is an employment contract. On several nicer houses in prime, center-city locations, agents demanded we submit documentation including employment contract and paycheck stubs. Oh, and they also wanted to see our financials, including bank accounts.

We were asked to submit all this for a chance to get on the list of people who wanted to see the property. I said, “So, this is a lottery?” And the real estate agent replied, “Not a lottery. We’re making a list of the people qualified to see the property.” We countered that we would give them information in the public domain including our credit score and some – but not all – financials including investments and net worth. Not good enough.

Dutch landlords will go every time with someone who gets a paycheck from McDonald’s over a millionaire entrepreneur who isn’t drawing a conventional salary.

True story ….

By the way, the Dutch are amenable to haggling on the rent. Because of a couple of issues, we made an offer a bit below the asking rent, and our landlords accepted. But trying to low-ball a landlord will get you nowhere, even if that means the rental property stays on the market at an inflated price for months.

• Tip No. 3 – You might have to adjust your expectations

img_3796aa_0

THIS IS GOING TO COST YOU … IF YOU CAN GET AN AGENT TO SHOW IT TO YOU.

In every big business center across Europe, corporate rentals rule. Rental agencies want those lucrative relationships with corporations bringing in lots of highly paid, pampered executives who can afford the best. Same here. And to complicate matters, those executives have what we used to term “a permanent change of station season” in the military.

That is, corporate folks – like officers and soldiers – tend to go on to their next assignment after school lets out in May or June. All the replacements coming in keep all the big real estate companies busy for the entire summer AND absorb all the best units.

So, here’s the reality: In the summer, your choice is to pay more than you budgeted (houses and apartments renting for more than 2,000 euros per month in Eindhoven tend to linger on the market) or get a place in a less desirable location. (Read: “outside the city.”)

If you’re an American, you might be surprised to learn everyone in Europe values access to transportation and shopping over sheer square feet, willing to pay more to live in the Old City, in the central business district or in affluent villages on the periphery of the center city. The far suburbs are for farmers and old people.

For us, that turned out to be a blessing. We were ready to settle for 1,200 square feet in a high rise. But several realtors turned out to have listings they couldn’t move just a few minutes by car from the city center. And that’s what we ended up with … a big house in a fairy tale village. No walking to shopping, to the train or to restaurants. But we have open fields, friends and quiet.

My point is, be flexible, and have reasonable expectations if you’re an unaffiliated expat like us.

• Tip No. 4  – Pixel madness reigns on rental websites

6For digital natives, this is obvious: Seeing a house or apartment on the real estate firm’s website and seeing it in person are two different things. In person, you see the flaws, hear the street noise or aircraft taking off and even – in a few unfortunate cases – smell the smells.

But there are big differences in the way rental agents uses the webs here, and the way business is done in the States, for example.

First, it’s not uncommon for rental agents to only include an exterior of a house or apartment building, or no photo at all. NO idea what that’s all about. Second, the agents take photos of weird stuff. We started joking about how the dominant photo of the property was always the staircase. That’s just a Dutch thang. And honestly, it is important to see how windy and narrow the stairs are when you’re planning to move a king-size bed into an upstairs bedroom.

Speaking of bedrooms, don’t expect to always see them on the rental websites. It’s considered an invasion of privacy to photograph bedrooms when people are still living in the space. Which means you have no idea if they’re big enough for your furnishings. But, you will see endless photos of the spiffy kitchens (a huge selling point here, just as in the States), chrome bathroom fixtures and – of course – those staircases.

• Tip No. 5 – Read the fine print

blog-picMissing the nuances cost us. It goes way beyond choosing between furnished or unfurnished.

Always check to see when the house is actually available right away. Houses and apartments tend to go on the market in the Netherlands weeks or even months before current tenants are scheduled to leave. We looked at houses we loved, only to find out they weren’t available for months. Bummer. On the other hand, they don’t take the listing off the website right away even after it’s leased. You may be very interested in seeing a property, only to find out it’s been rented for several weeks.

Also, you’ll see fabulous apartments and houses that are being advertised at bargain rental rates. Beware. They’re probably for sale.

The Dutch do not like real estate that doesn’t cash flow, so they’ll rent out houses that don’t sell right away. Great, right? Problem is, if you rent a house that’s for sale, the owner has to give you 90 days’ notice to move out. If the house sells just after you move in, too bad. You have to find another house to rent and leave the premises within 90 days, even if you have a 1-year lease. According to one local agent, moving costs can vary widely. When asked what it might cost to move from our house to another house in Eindhoven, she said it could cost anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 euros.

Ouch.

• Finding a house won’t be getting easier

Part of the reason we saw bargains in the Netherlands last year is that the housing market here was crushed by the Great Recession. Only now, real estate is starting to bounce back with a vengeance. In Amsterdam, housing costs are up more than 20 percent, and there’s a shortage of apartments. Here in Eindhoven, the city is planning to double the number of internationals during the next five years. All across the Netherlands, the number of students is rising, putting huge pressure on rental markets in university towns such as Utrecht and Tilburg.

Our point: If you’re really going to do it, there’s no better time than the present to become a DIY expat.

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