How to conduct the perfect overseas apartment search

Written by Andrew Henderson
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Dateline: Riga, Latvia

I once wrote about the most livable cities in frontier markets and mentioned the extremely affordable prices for rent in places such as Asunción, Paraguay.

In response to that article, one reader contacted me and explained that he had tried to find a place to rent in Asunción online and hadn’t had any success finding a quality apartment for less than $1,000.

He asked for tips and I replied with a video explaining some of the basics of finding a place to live in another country.

While it may not be the sexiest topic we’ve ever discussed here, finding a place to live is one of the realities of living and traveling overseas. So let’s take a minute to go over some of the most important factors you should take into account when you are looking for a place to live.

We’ll cover my suggestions from the video and more here in my six tips to finding the perfect apartment overseas.

6 tips for finding an apartment overseas

1. Don’t expect things to be the same

One of the biggest differences you will find between frontier, or even developing markets in many cases, and more developed markets is internet culture. If your coming from the US or Western Europe, you’re going to have to adjust your view on how everything revolves around the internet.

Obviously, people everywhere are on Facebook and are very connected to the internet (and the internet is usually very good), but people don’t do everything online.

They don’t buy their groceries, their pet food, or their apartment online. Many things in these parts of the world are still done the old fashioned way.

If you’re in Asunción and you want an apartment, you go to the neighborhoods you’re interested in and you look at the signs. You may have someone help you, but not online.

Even in big countries like China, you’d be surprised by how many people still walk into a retail shop and pay for their plane ticket in cash. So, understand how things work in that regard.

Understand that some things will be different, drastically different perhaps, and you’re going to have to adjust to that. That includes how you look for an apartment.

2. Go there

I recently made the mistake of not following tip number one and decided to look online for a place in Poland. When I showed Gabriela — one of our team members who is from Poland — what I had found, she informed me that the places were at least 30% overpriced.

And I wasn’t even looking on the most Western-friendly sights.

Websites that market to foreigners often list real estate for double the regular market price and rent is just as bad.

Southeast Asia is even worse, especially Vietnam, where they take advantage of the language barrier to charge exorbitant prices without most foreigners even realizing it.

(Not to sound like a broken record, but this is another reason why I like Georgia, because it’s not as aggressively out of control in that regard.)

There are lots of websites that provide misinformation or dated information or rely on gathered data on what an apartment should cost, but their estimates are nowhere near reality.

So you just have to go there.

To begin, I suggest you find somewhere to stay on a temporary basis while you scout things out. You can book a hotel or a place on Airbnb before you go, but in most cases, you can usually save money by just walking into a hotel and booking on the spot.

Unlike in the US — where last-minute booking is more expensive — it is often cheaper in other countries to pay on the spot because the built-in costs for credit cards or travel agency commissions can be side-stepped by paying cash. If you’re willing to take this route, instead of going through a booking website, you can often pay 10-15% less.

Then, once you are in the area, get out and experience what it’s like.

3. Spend time in the area to make an informed decision

Adding to the last tip, once you are in your country or city of interest, make sure you spend enough time there to be sure of your decision. If you’re an expat and you’re not tied to one spot, spend a month trying the place out before committing to anything longer-term.

From a lifestyle point of view, it is highly advisable to try on any area you are considering. Commit to spending weekends in the different locations of interest. Explore every corner of the city. Find the best options available and figure out what you like. The most popular expat community may not be the best fit for you and likely isn’t the only expat community around.

You can also use this time to get an understanding of what’s normal in the housing culture in the country. In Thailand, for example, many apartments do not come with a kitchen simply because so many people eat the abundantly cheap street food. For 50-70 cent meals, who needs a kitchen?

You should also consider what you’re willing to give up. AC? Hot water? You’ll have a different price tag depending on the amenities you demand or choose to live without.

Going to the place and spending enough time there allows you the luxury of knowing what life is like there and gives you the chance to decide how you want your life in that place to be.

4. Tap into the local market

We’ve discussed this concept before as a way to avoid offshore scams, and it’s the same rule here. Often times the most Western-friendly websites or companies are also the biggest ripoffs. Quite frequently, they fail to offer the best services, too.

There are a number of real estate companies throughout Latin America who claim to be “the American company,” but they are so egregiously overpriced that it is not worth any benefit you may think you will get by working with them to actually take that route.

Instead, find someone in the local market who speaks the language and who can ensure you won’t get the “gringo price”. Don’t choose to work with an American just because you don’t feel comfortable working with a native.

Get out of your comfort zone.

The best value for your money is found on the ground, in the local market, not in an Americanized commercial operation.

5. Do your due diligence

As you begin to find options worth looking at, do your due diligence. Research the deposit rules, maintenance contracts and generally know what you’re getting into.

In Malaysia, for example, landlords often refuse to return the initial deposit of two months’ rent at the end of a contract. While I’m not recommending the practice, many expats choose not to pay their last two months of rent. The eviction laws are so inefficient here that nobody enforces it, so it is a practice that people have come to accept.

Every country has different laws and each culture is different in terms of enforcement. Know how things work wherever you go.

On the deposit, figure out what’s normal and have a plan for how you’re going to get it back. Also, check the length of the contract. I would, obviously, recommend you get the shortest term lease that you can. You should also verify who handles the maintenance. In a lot of these countries, you’re responsible for fixing anything that goes wrong with the property.

6. Ask yourself THIS question . . .

Before you choose to rent, ask yourself if you should even be renting at all. If there is a benefit in buying — like a second residency — buying is almost always a better option (with the exception of Asia).

Look at the yields in your area of interest and, regardless of how long you plan on staying, if they are decent enough, there is very little reason to justify renting over buying.

Invest!

Red Flags

Finally, the biggest red flags I have found when looking for an apartment in another country are pretty basic. If someone is being impossible, it’s not worth dealing with them. There’s a difference between real estate arrogance and someone who is going to con you. If someone is trying to make the process too complicated or is making things too hard, just walk away.

To be sure you’re not getting into something you’re going to regret, when you go somewhere new, don’t buy right away. No matter how great the deal sounds or how “can’t miss” the opportunity may be, don’t sign the contract before thinking. You want to take time to adjust.

If you are interested in purchasing foreign real estate or just want access to my Rolodex of lawyers, real estate agents, and other essential contacts, apply for a consultation or email me.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 27, 2019 at 3:18PM

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