Since our first days, Dispatches Europe has advocated that American students consider university in Europe if for no other reason than avoiding tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition debt. But here’s the rest of the story: Finding student housing in Europe can be very, very challenging for expats like us who are not rich.
Maybe it’s because we came from the United States, where finding student housing is pretty straight-forward, we can’t help feeling we’ve been scammed .. and we don’t want you to throw away your money, too.
Affordable housing is at a premium across Europe, especially here in the Netherlands where Dispatches is based.
Dutch housing prices are rising about 9 percent per year because of shortages, which opens the doors to all sorts of unscrupulous people who see gain in your pain.
We experienced the housing crunch when we moved here from the United States. Our expat friends experienced it trying to find a place in Amsterdam. And now we just got hit as we tried to find our daughter a room or apartment.
Our daughter Lale is going to Maastricht University starting next month, and we’re scrambling to arrange housing for her.
This process is complicated by two factors:
• the fact that she’s just turning 18, the age when she can sign a contract, which slows down the process. We didn’t realize we couldn’t even look until now, just as thousands of students are pouring into Maastricht and its environs.
• the fact we have a limited budget. If we could afford them, we would go for upscale options such as the Student Hotel or private apartments, but they start at about 800 euros per month – not that much less than what we pay for a four-bedroom, two-story 200m2 house outside Eindhoven!
For those of us vying for affordable shared rooms or studio apartments, the biggest headache is the third-party housing websites scheming to get you to subscribe. But as far as we can tell, it remains to be seen if any of them actually have any available properties.
Here’s how it all works (or doesn’t):
It turns out there are three concentric circles in our particular student-housing hell.
At the outer most circle are Direct Wonen and Kamernet, which are curation websites. You find out pretty quickly through SEO that they’re the main portals. Both are free to browse. BUT, when you want to contact the landlord, you have to have an account. A paid account.
To contact the landlords, the second ring of housing hell, you have to pay from 9.95 euros to 21 euros for two weeks of access.
Here’s the kicker: When you go to contact that landlord, the property is on yet another website, which you also have to pay to access. When you click on the link to contact the landlord, boom! the landlord sends you a message that you have to open an account with them. Another fee and you’ve reached the inner ring of housing hell.
Those fees are stiff: Maasland Relocation, one of the biggies, has a registration fee of 50 euros and you have to have a subscription. The basic package is free.
At this point, we’ve spent a couple hundred euros, but haven’t gotten to even the first landlord to arrange a viewing.
Here’s the second kicker regarding the curation websites: They don’t update the listings. So you think you’re paying the fees to pursue an available apartment or room, but it’s already been rented but still listed as available.
Why are they on there? Why don’t they demand that Kamernet and Direct Wonen take the listings down? Because you’re going to pay to register to go on and look at them. Because you think they’re still available. “Oh, I see it on all these websites, it must still be available!” Except it’s not.
Here’s what happened to us
One particular studio in nearby Meerssen was on the Direct Wonen site for at least one month. When we clicked on “contact the landlord,” we were able to send a message. The studio was listed with House Hunting in Maastricht, and after learning from the contact we couldn’t write a contract until Lale was 18, we had to wait. The listing was still live on August 2, so Cheryl emailed the contact on the same thread and asked about viewing it the following week when Lale turned 18. No reply, so she called.
The guy she reached, Marc, actually snapped at her: “We haven’t had any studios for a month!”
So Cheryl is three rings into this maze, trying to get to the nut, which seems to be with Maasland Relocation. They at least add a banner to the rooms or apartments indicating when they have been rented. She’s looking at a room way above our price range because we have to have do something.
There are 14 listings total, six of which are already rented. All this so she can make an appointment to view the apartment we can’t afford.
We find one exactly in our budget – two kilometers from her school. But the viewings are fully booked. She still can’t go see it.
So we paid more than 80 euros to get to the page where we realize we can’t actually view the apartment we want to see.
First the fees, then the deposits
Here’s the third kicker about Maasland. They charge 150 percent of the monthly rent for deposit. Instead of one month, which is typical, the deposit is equal to six weeks of rent.
Anyway, let’s just say you can actually go see this unit and you want to rent it.
You pay six weeks deposit PLUS another 100 euros to Maasland to write the contract. If you want your contract in English or help with the rent subsidy, it’s an extra 37.50 euros for a “Plus Package.” With this package, you also get new offers 48 hours before everyone else.
When you check all the available properties, you find you often can’t view any of them because all the viewings are booked or, in the case of one particular room, it simply says, “At this time it’s not possible to request viewings for this unit.” Say what? Then why is this listed for rent?
We found this listing a couple of weeks ago. Intriguing. A little more than we wanted to spend on a room, but Cheryl wanted to see it. Of course, we had to pay for the account. She emailed the landlord and never got a reply. That’s 25 euros we will never see again.
Now, we’re inundated with notification emails from the Erasmusu website from other people searching for housing. And yes, the apartment we asked about is still listed!!!
At this point, we go back to the University of Maastricht’s website to see who they recommend for housing and click on Maastricht Housing. They have a fair number of possibilities and some are in our price range.
You have to “become a member” with them, of course.
But at least this website only charges 35 euros, and you’re a member for four years. Their system is more complicated, however.
Who even thought this up?
You register on Maastricht Housing, the housing link from the official university housing website, you pay your 35 euros and find a place that interests you.
Can you ask for a viewing? No.
Most of them have “subscription rounds.” This means you basically get in line to possibly rent the room. You can only subscribe to one property per rental company per week, and it shows the number of subscriptions per property.
You get preference if you’ve been a member of Maastricht Housing for a longer period of time. On Monday morning at 11:00 if your name is at the top of the list, you have 30 minutes to respond and get the contact information and set up a viewing. If you can’t view the place within 24 hours, you can request a delay. If you accept the offer, then you get to move toward writing the contract.
We saw several properties with at least 14 people, and as many as 16, queued up for the Monday morning lottery.
Here’s yet another kicker about Maastricht Housing: As you’re poring over the offers, you notice there’s a disclaimer on every single one that states:
The pictures above are an indication of the living units. It’s possible there are not pictures of the concerning room.
That’s Dutchlish for, “This isn’t actually the unit for rent, but it might be similar, who knows?” The photos always show a stylish, spacious studio … just what you’re looking for. But, ah, might not actually exist, much less be the place you think you’re being shown.
So we’ve wasted time and a lot of money on this and to the point where Cheryl feels like she’s being held hostage by the housing websites. We’re in this never-ending cycle: Find something that could be available, pay another round of registration fees, find out the unit doesn’t exist or there are 16 people in line ahead of you, repeat.
There are NO rental websites that you don’t have to pay for in some form or fashion.
So we went to our friend and real estate agent Gerrie and asked, “Is this normal in Eindhoven?”
No, Gerrie said. There are universities in Eindhoven including Technical University of Eindhoven, but no one here pays to see what’s available. Property owners pay the rental agents and realtors.
She volunteered to call a fellow rental agent as well as her friends whose kids have gone to Maastricht and who know how the system works. Gerrie also recommended joining the various Maastricht housing Facebook communities, and several appear to be vigilant about weeding out scams. But some of the apartments on the Facebook posts link back to the aforementioned websites.
Finally, she said she’d tap into her network to find if there are any alternatives. And in our experience, the bigger your network, the more likely you are to succeed. So this post will be updated as we move forward.
After two months of searching for apartments, it appears to us the demand for housing far outstrips supply. This has allowed a third-party rental website industry to flourish and to game the system, charging people searching for housing fees, bypassing the free market and exacerbating an already serious housing shortage.
Tell us if you’ve experienced anything similar at: [email protected]
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.