An Expatriate Guide: International House Hunting

Let me preface this by saying it is WAY overdue. I had started writing it back when we were apartment hunting in Stockholm and things… well… things changed and we didn’t end up there. I think it could still be useful, and so I’m sharing it anyway.

Amsterdam

In case you’re new here… hello. My husband and I went through the process of moving abroad once (almost twice) and it was a HUGE learning experience. If you are faced with the same opportunity to move abroad, God help you. Kidding, guys. I’ll help you! Moving to a new country, in the mix of all the excitement, can also be stressful. Having survived a major move from Chicago to Amsterdam just over a year ago (which I excitedly documented here and here), we were totally naive, but stumbled through the process and ended up with a great result. We want to share what we learned, so that maybe we can be helpful for someone else. Here be my tips:

  1. Understand your perspective. It is much different to visit a place as a tourist versus a soon-to-be resident. It’s important to distinguish the two. Don’t focus on being close to the tourist attractions necessarily, but rather areas with livability based on your lifestyle and interests. Sometimes that overlaps with touristy stuff and that’s okay too.
  2. Do your research. Learn as much as you can about different neighborhoods by reading through online expat guides, local blogs, etc. Know someone that has lived there? They are probably your biggest resource. Even if they don’t share your taste, it’s helpful to talk with someone who is living there and understands the area from a dweller’s perspective. Expat bloggers can be especially helpful, provided the writer is responsive.
  3. Get an “overall feel.” This is kind of vague, but walk around. Drive around, if walking is not practical. Go to as many distinct neighborhoods as you can, see if they match up to what you researched. Eat local food. Check out some shops. Grab a drink at a neighborhood pub. Turn down that residential street. Can you see yourself living here? What are you liking about it and also not liking? Hopefully, you can do this in a visit before the actual move, so you have time to reflect on what you experienced.
  4. House search all over the city. See as many as possible. Even though we initially preferred one specific area, we saw apartments all over the city. You know why? So we could say with confidence that we were focused on the right area for us. As much as cities are different, they are the same. Most cities have a touristy area, as well as a high rent district, a hipster-ville, a downtown, and just plain old undesirable areas. What did you like/not like about where you have lived previously? Is that still relevant to your current life stage? Living priorities might be different if you are young &/or single or older &/or have children. We happen to like “hipster-ville” so that’s where we ended up.
  5. Think about your surroundings. You know what they say in real estate: Location, location, location. As an expat trying to settle into a new country, this is especially important. You need to feel comfortable and safe. How important is it to you to be within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants? What about public transportation? Or the grocery store? The bank? Does that park on the corner look safe or full of drug addicts? Seriously. Imagine yourself walking home at night.
  6. Know what you need versus what you want. Say you find an area that seems to fit you & your lifestyle. You’re halfway there! With the homes in that area, be flexible on dropping amenities down the priority list. When we attempted to move to Stockholm (which ended up not happening after all), we thought we “needed” a dishwasher. Guess what. Many places in Europe, even those with brand-spanking-new kitchens, don’t have them. You know where I’m going with this. As we were house hunting in Stockholm, it quickly dropped down to a “want”. Besides, Jaro can be dishwasher (but seriously, how do people survive without a dishwasher?). Same for gas stoves, closets, large bathrooms, etc. Be open to living simply. You might even find it surprisingly refreshing. …Unless you are sacrificing A/C in a hot climate. In that case, I feel sorry for you.
  7. Be firm with your agents. Relocation rental agents, as we learned, have a job. It’s not to guess your preferences, it’s to get you settled as quickly as possible. Don’t cave in if you don’t feel good about it! When in Stockholm (again, a blessing in disguise that we didn’t get a place), we almost went with a beautiful apartment in a neighborhood that just wasn’t right, but caught ourselves and realized we’d regret it. I know this depends a lot on your situation and whether you have guaranteed temporary housing, but be honest and direct with the rental agents to keep them focused on your needs.

This method worked for us and we find ourselves following it as we attempt to buy our first home back in the U.S. After reading back through this list, it is not necessarily specific to moving abroad. Is this helpful? I’m curious, what are some other tips for helping others house hunt abroad?

xxx

{image of Amsterdam taken by me}

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2 thoughts on “An Expatriate Guide: International House Hunting

  1. You’re right, this is just good general apartment-hunting advice. I would have put #2 at the top and specified to just put the call out. I regularly get emails forwarded to me from friends and family where a colleague/neighbor/bookclub member/etc. sent out a request for any and all info on a city. I’m always willing to send off a reply to someone who “speaks the same language” (specifically meaning that we have cultural standards and expectations in common).

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