It’s a time of turmoil in the Defining Moves household. After 14 years, we are finally selling our family home in Wales and transferring our home status to the US. It’s a funny feeling – despite living in six different homes since leaving, the process of finding and buying a new home away from “home’ is daunting.
The summer vacation is the peak time for family relocation; it’s the end of the school year, so educational transitions are easier, and you have more time to accomplish the endless tasks that moving yourself, your life and your family requires. With this in mind, I’ve put together a collection of golden rules garnered from international expats (I hesitate to use the term experts when there are quite this many blunders involved.) across the globe. Every one represents one of us learning the hard (and usually expensive and/or stressful) way, so take note. Today we feature renting properties – on Saturday, it’s the turn of the homebuyers..
N.B. If you are relocating with children over the summer, read this first.
Do your research.
Even if you have a Destination Service provider or relocation counselor assisting you with your search, don’t hand over all responsibility to them. Check out online rental listings, contact local realtors and ask amongst the expat community, international school networks and amongst work colleagues – often property owners use word of mouth or private advertising to find tenants independently, and you will get a much better idea of what is available and what you can expect to pay if you do a thorough search.
Understand what is both usual and available in your host location. In the US, for example, for a room to qualify as a bedroom it must contain a closet. In Europe, there is no such rule, and storage tends to be more limited, en suite bathrooms far less common and kitchens more basic. You are also more likely to be doing the yard work yourself, so be warned.
Check the standard of construction, even in newer housing, especially in less developed countries. While the houses may seem new and shiny with every modern amenity, leaky roofs, substandard electrics and insufficient water supply are very, very common. Where the local infrastructure is poor, ask to see the water supply and storage system (and whether it is mains, brought in by tanker, from a bore hole etc.) and how it is pumped into the main house. For electrics, ask to see previous bills, note whether there is a generator and look at the quality of installation. Is the property on mains sewerage or a septic tank, and when was it last emptied? And finally, from bitter experience, check for stains on the ceiling and around the floors to see what happens when the rains come..
Look at lots of properties and meet either the landlord or the property manager in person. If you don’t feel comfortable with them now, imagine calling them when the toilet backs up at 10pm.. Reputable landlords will be happy to supply references from former tenants (it’s even better if the former tenant is showing you the property), so don’t be shy about asking for them.
Get your finances in order
Most landlords will run a credit check, and it’s easy when transitioning between countries to lose track of payment due dates, utility fees – even medical bills. Once a bill falls 30 days past due (and sometimes even earlier) it shows up on your credit report and can negatively affect your credit rating, score, interest rate qualification criteria, home insurance rates and how you are viewed as a potential tenant.
Safeguard your international credit score before you leave your home location, by clearing any outstanding debts and payments, and set up direct debits or standing orders for ongoing recurring payments. When you arrive in your new location, get a secure PO box for mail forwarding rather than using the interim housing one – one glance in ‘your’ mailbox will tell you how many former tenants have been through and are still getting mail to that address. Then consider taking out a secured credit card, cell phone contract or other available credit to get your score started as early as possible. Take professional advice before taking out any credit – even a store or fuel card – if you plan on applying for a home loan. Every credit check, successful or not, has a negative impact on your short term score, which pushes up your available interest rates ..
One of my wise friends gave me the advice to ‘shop for neighborhoods, not homes’, so spend some time working out what your priorities are before you sign on a six month tenancy agreement. For those of you with children, schools will almost certainly be at the top of the list, but also consider what will be beneficial or frustrating in day-to-day life. Parking, low traffic, good local amenities, parks, access to of leash dog trails, a diverse community with local events, libraries and good food are all on my list, but you may be looking for sports facilities, a supportive expat community and nearby shopping. The choice is yours, but make it before you drive the realtor mad, hey?
If you are staying in the same location for an extended period of time, consider the longer term costs. Many expats transfer to local payroll while still overseas, and allowances for private schooling, airfares and housing change. Will your income support private schooling long term – and if not, what are the local schools like? What college fees will you pay? Recent studies have shown that many expats’ current lifestyles are affecting their long term financial health, so don’t fall into the trap of living beyond your actual income and relying on expat allowances for the rest of your working life.
Consider the costs.
I love cathedral ceilings and picture windows. After two years in the East Bay area, with it’s 90 degree summers and breezy winters, I’m very, very glad that utilities are included as part of the tenancy agreement – especially when you have 79 internal light fixtures, not including lamps. Seriously.
There are the obvious costs, like transport into town or school, availability of public transport, memberships and maintenance fees, but there are also the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ costs that sneak in. The more affluent the community, the greater pressure there is to maintain the same standard of living, entertainment tends to cost more, and the local services, stores and amenities will cater to a higher disposable income. You have been warned..
Read the contract, and get professional advice about the local rules for both tenants and landlords. In many cases, the contract is difficult to enforce without a lengthy and costly legal battle, but it does serve as an early warning system of how experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy your landlord is. A basic contract should include at the very least a name and address for both parties and the home for rent, the rental sum (and what it includes in the way of utilities, furnishings and any other applicable fees), the duration of the tenancy, the responsibilities of the landlord and tenant (garden maintenance, gutters, etc), any rules the landlord may have regarding treatment of the property (picture hanging, use of candles, parties etc) and an inventory of condition and contents of the property.
Before you sign, check whether the property is in financial good standing (your realtor or destination service provider should be able to help you with this) – tenant evictions because the house is being repossessed by the lender are increasing, and you have both the inconvenience of an unscheduled move and a lost deposit.
Do a move-in walk through with the property manager or landlord before your household goods arrive, and take lots of pictures, especially of any wear and tear or damage. And finally, get a receipt for each and every payment (especially the deposit) or at the very least, have a clear official record of the transaction.
It’s our final piece of advice, informed by the experience of a friend of a previous tenant walking in unannounced at 7 am. Ask the landlord to change the locks. Establish who else has a key or access to the property – cleaners, gardeners, property managers, landlords – and what are the rules for permission of entry. Our front doors are the most basic form of security, and yet it’s the one thing that we all forget or take for granted. If you have an alarm, get instructions on how to change the code, and do it the day you move in. And then don’t do as a friend of ours once did and write the code on a Post It note next to the keypad. Hmmm.