Apartment rental tips
Published in the February 2011 issue, page 42. This article is viewable for non-subscribers.
ITN asked subscribers for advice on renting apartments outside of the US. A number of comments were printed in the December ’10 and January ’11 issues. Presented this month are things to consider and questions to ask a property owner or rental agency when booking a particular apartment, plus concerns about payments. Later issues will list dos and don’ts, practical matters and appraisals of specific apartments.
If you write in with something to share, please state the city and country in which you have rented and approximately when that was. If you name a particular rental property, include contact info for it and state when you stayed there plus the approximate price you paid and what was included.
Write to Apartment Rental Tips, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (include the address at which you receive ITN). Photos welcome.
From June ’08 to May ’09, I rented 18 apartments in 11 countries, including Italy, Australia and Uruguay. I can offer this advice.
Ask LOTS of questions. If someone has an issue with answering all of your questions, rent from someone else. Chances are there are plenty of units to choose from. Here is a list of questions to begin with.
Where is the unit located? How far is it from town, public transportation, supermarkets, restaurants, sites of interest, etc.? Ask for the distance in miles/kilometers and not in minutes, since everyone walks at a different pace.
How many bedrooms does the unit have? (This is different from how many rooms it has.) How many people does it sleep? How big is each bed?
How big is the unit? (Most will quote in square meters. One square meter = 10.76 square feet.)
What floor is the unit on? If it is a high floor, is there a lift (elevator) or is it a walk-up?
Does it come with bed linens, towels and kitchen supplies?
What appliances does the kitchen have (stove [hob], oven, refrigerator, coffee maker, toaster, etc.)?
What other amenities does the unit have (washing machine, TV, DVD player, etc.)?
Does it have an Internet connection? If so, is it cable or wireless? Does it have a computer?
How much is the unit renting for per week? Does this include taxes? Cleaning costs? Other fees?
Does the rental rate include any cleanings during your stay?
Will they offer a discount for a longer-term stay?
What type of payment will they accept for the rent (cash, check, credit card)?
Is a deposit necessary to secure your reservation? How will it need to be made? (Making deposits while you’re still in the US can be tricky. Often they want a wire transfer or money order but in their own currency. In this case, you have to obtain it from an exchange that handles those types of transfers. If it is an agency renting the apartment, they are more than likely set up to receive credit cards or PayPal deposits. Ask if they charge an additional fee to accept a card.)
Is a security deposit required as collateral against any damages that may occur to the unit while you are there? When does it have to be made and when and how will you get it back?
Do they have any references?
What are the arrival and departure arrangements?
If you think this list is long, you’re right, but it’s worthwhile to ask every one of these questions and more. Nobody likes surprises, and if you don’t ask the questions, you WILL get surprises.
What questions should you ask? That depends on your circumstances.
Is the apartment wheelchair accessible (if that is a concern)?
What floor is it on?
Are there lots of stairs to the apartment and is there a lift in the building?
Where is the nearest public transportation or metro stop?
In most large cities, where you are most likely to rent an apartment, you will not need a rental car. In fact, a car will be a huge disadvantage. However, if you do have a car, it is very important that you have a place to park it. Ask about a secure parking space.
How close is the grocery store?
Is the apartment close to… (whatever major attraction or facility is of prime interest)?
Are there any additional charges, as for cleaning, linens, etc.?
What is the address of the apartment and what are the driving directions to it?
A reminder — if you decide to phone the owners rather than e-mail, check on what time it is in their city so you don’t call someone in the middle of the night.
My wife, Toni, and I have rented many apartments worldwide and prefer to rent through the owners and not rental agencies, which add on additional fees.
We try to find out the exact location of a property and its proximity to public transportation.
It is also useful to know the floor plan for the apartment as well as what items are stocked in the kitchen, such as condiments, utensils, pots, pans, etc.
Find out whether or not the utilities (water, gas, etc.) are included in the price.
As a general note, it is very comforting to arrive in a foreign city with clear directions on how to get to the apartment and with keys or pass codes in hand so there is no waiting around for a local caretaker to show up.
You should also have an in-country phone number to call if there is a problem with the property.
Regarding paying the deposit and the rent, we like to use a credit card or a PayPal account, in case there is a dispute regarding charges. However, many owners require money up front, and you had better have trip insurance in case anything goes wrong.
It is not often that we have paid with hard cash, but on those occasions I have seen the apartment first and dealt face to face with the owner or agent. In other situations, I have paid with cashier’s checks or certified checks. Occasionally, an owner will take a personal check if there is sufficient time for the check to clear the banking system.
I always like to have a record of my payment (receipt, canceled check, credit card statement) so, in case of a problem, I have evidence to point to.
What you should never do is send funds through Western Union, as this is often the sign of a scam. I should add that, in all the years that we have been renting apartments, there has never been a problem.
Manhattan Beach, CA
Since pictures of an apartment on a website are only two dimensional, I always ask for a floor plan. For example, many apartments have the bed in a loft, which is not acceptable to us.
Assume that after you locate a listing with potential, there will be several e-mail exchanges to clarify details. Decide which issues are “deal breakers” for you and, even if they are covered online, confirm them in the first e-mail.
I also like to make at least one follow-up telephone call, just for the reassurance that I am dealing with an actual person. I feel that, somehow, people are likely to be more honest if they have had personal contact. This may be totally wrong, but it makes me feel better.
Once you have decided on a neighborhood, here are a few things you may wish to consider in evaluating an apartment.
Stairs — If stairs are a problem for you, remember that in Europe the “first floor” is not the ground floor but is one flight up.
Also, in the older centers of many cities, a building’s staircase might be narrow and winding rather than a conventional staircase.
Noise — “Quiet” has many definitions. If double-hung windows have been installed to keep out noise, what happens if you open them for ventilation? When does traffic noise stop? Is there a bar or nightclub on the street?
Size — Don’t be misled by wide-angle photos; pay attention to actual square footage. If that information is not supplied, ask for it.
Bathroom — Is there only a stall shower?
Kitchen — A “full kitchen” may mean only an under-the-counter refrigerator, two burners (no oven) and a microwave.
Heating/cooling — For summer rentals, if there are fans, you might want to ask if it ever gets so hot that you would prefer an air-conditioner. For winter rentals, if there is heat, can you control it, yourself? Is there an extra charge for heating?
Computers — If the apartment has a computer, what kind of connection does it have? Is there WiFi in the apartment or the neighborhood?
What if…? — Emergencies can happen, and there are always questions you forget to ask. Will the owner or a representative be available in person? I find it a distinct advantage when the owner lives nearby. (We once got locked inside the apartment!)
Costs — Most websites will quote daily or weekly rates. However, recognize that the longer your rental period, the less bother it is for the owner, so don’t be afraid to bargain a bit, especially if you’re staying more than a week. I have found that, often, a reasonable offer will get me four weeks for little more than the price of three.
Pay attention to extra charges for linen changes, key deposit, security deposit, weekly cleaning and final cleaning. This last item sometimes seems excessive, especially for a short stay.
Lastly, before sending in your deposit, be sure to have a written contract stating the total price, including ALL extras, along with cancellation penalties, method and time of payment, and the phone and fax numbers and e-mail address of a LOCAL contact.
Here are the various options we have used for paying the deposit to secure a reservation. All have been with private owners.
Credit card — One owner (in Vienna) suggested we give a credit card number as a deposit to secure the reservation. The agreement was that he would not debit the account, provided we paid the amount due when we arrived. We gave him the card number on the phone because we didn’t want to put it on the Internet. It would be nice if more apartment owners agreed to this arrangement.
PayPal — Apartment owners in Paris and Brussels wanted reservation deposits made via PayPal, the online service. Fees varied, but we considered them high.
Bank transfer — Several owners have requested deposits via bank transfer. With this method, money is transferred directly from your bank account to the apartment owner’s bank account. The owner provides the needed details of his bank and account, and your bank does the rest. All commercial banks do this routinely, and most savings banks can do it through their corresponding banks. Costs vary.
MoneyGram — An apartment owner in Athens requested the deposit through MoneyGram, an international network of stores which will accept cash for transfer. The recipients identify the location at which they will pick up the cash, and it is quickly transferred. MoneyGram’s website lists all available locations and costs. (In New York City, several large drugstores participate.) We found it convenient and less expensive than other systems.
In ALL cases with private owners, they wanted the rent paid in cash. We obtained cash from ATMs. Since the amount which can be withdrawn from an ATM at one time is limited, rent was, necessarily, paid in installments. No owners had any objection to being paid in increments.
Among things to watch out for or ask about when renting are these.
Parking — Since we usually choose a site outside a city, using it as a home base from which to explore the area, having a place to park is important.
Heating — Many places charge extra for heating. Make sure this situation is clarified, especially if traveling off-season.
Before renting any of several apartments in France, we wanted to know about obvious things like location, dates available, cost, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and amenities supplied.
From there, we moved on to how we were going to pay (in dollars? transferring funds to a euro bank account?) and how we would collect the key from an absentee landlady.
San Francisco, CA
Before you start inquiring about rentals, decide what amenities you must have. Here are typical questions to ask.
If the rental is not on the ground floor, is there an elevator? Keep in mind that what is called the"first floor" in the States is called the "ground floor" in Europe. The "second floor" in the States is considered the "first floor" in Europe.
Is the bedroom a separate room or is your “bedroom” just a living room with a pull-out sleep sofa?
Does the rental have a shower? Many rentals have bathtubs with handheld showerheads — not the most congenial system!
Is there a clothes-washing machine? (It often will be shared with another rental.) Don’t even ask about a dryer! Europeans rarely use them.
Particularly with rent-by-owner apartments, I like to ask when the pictures on the website were taken and if they accurately reflect the apartment.
If the rental price is really low, it may be due to the location. What is the surrounding area like? If you don’t see the exact address on the website, ask for it. Go online and locate it on a map and, if they’re available, get street views. (Online, go to earth.google.com and download the free program “Google Earth,” with which “you can explore the streets in 3D.”)
Are there amenities nearby? If you need to be near public transit, inquire about that.
If your flight is bringing you in late, you may ask if some basic supplies can be laid in for you, such as coffee and cream for the morning plus fruit, yogurt and the like.
Stay in touch with your “landlord,” and make sure you have a way to contact him or her if you are delayed. We once arrived a day late and at 2 a.m.; our hosts were very kind and sympathetic, but we kept them apprised throughout the delay so they knew what to expect.
Are there any other charges beyond what is stated? There shouldn’t be, but why be unpleasantly surprised? Ask.
Finally, do not be afraid to politely inquire about a discount if you like a rental but the price is too high. Five or more days is typically considered a longer-term rental and you may be able to get a discounted rate.
Before renting an apartment in London in June ’10, my wife and I asked the renter about (a) their acceptance of American Express credit cards, (b) the availability of ATMs nearby, (c) the location of the nearest grocery story, (d) whether or not we could manage the Tube with luggage from Paddington Station to South Kensington or if we should take a taxi instead, (e) the availability of persons at a desk for our late arrival and (f) Internet access.
For others considering renting, we have the following advice.
Select a central location with good access to public transit. Our original choice was a nice, large apartment in Wimbledon. However, once we discovered how far out it was located, we were glad to have a more central location.
Consider renting an apartment with air-conditioning. (London can be quite warm in the summer.)
Choose a location with a good selection of restaurants nearby.
The first time I rented an apartment in Paris, seven years ago, I was naïve. It was in August, the temperature went to 104°F, and the unit was a walk-up on the third floor (fourth to us) in an old building in Montmartre (18th arrondissement).
What I learned from that experience was to insist on air-conditioning or, at least, fans; never to go to Paris when so much of the local population is away on their own for an August holiday, and to require an elevator, WiFi and at least one cable TV station in English.
I also learned that if you freeze bottles of water and hold them close when you sleep, they will help keep your core temperature down.
Also, although you may not get a clothes dryer, for a month’s stay a washer is a must.
A shopping cart is a nice thing to have, too, and is usually in the apartment. If it isn’t listed, you might ask for one.
San Antonio, TX
When we made our arrangements for two Buenos Aires apartments in February ’10, we were rather going by the seat of our pants, just hoping that all turned out okay. There were a few “bumps,” mostly because we do not speak Spanish.
So the most important tips we would give are probably these:
• Study the contract ever so thoroughly. (In our case, an English version was provided by the rental agency before we left home. We, at least, thought we knew what we were doing!) If you’re unsure of anything, ask questions of the rep.
• Be sure to get phone numbers to call in case of an emergency or the need to communicate. (The phone in our first apartment wasn’t working and we couldn’t figure out the cell phone they had left!)
• Be sure to get instructions for finding the apartment and where you will meet the landlord and/or rental agency rep, and know the time they expect you.
When we arrived at our first apartment ahead of schedule (we had central Kansas time and Argentina time a bit screwed up), we found ourselves face to face with the contractor and two laborers who were repairing the ceiling after some heavy rains had caused a collapse. Thank goodness, the contractor spoke some English and we could communicate a bit.
• Make sure you understand how money is to be transferred and when and how your security deposit is to be returned.
We had no problem handing the cash over, but on the day of our departure from BA we did worry when no one showed up to refund our deposit. The cleaning ladies in both apartments eventually got the money and handed it over to us. It would have been most helpful to have known Spanish or at least someone nearby who could translate!
We are pretty adaptable, as one would have to be in these situations. We really enjoyed our experience, and the city of Buenos Aires is beautiful — interesting sections, wonderful parks, wonderful eateries and many, many “mom and pop”-type stores. We recommend that others experience a city or area in this way.