It’s one of the first tasks on any expat relocation checklist – finding a house. But there’s more to finding your new home than square footage, numbers of bedrooms and colour of the carpet – so here’s the Expat LifeLine guide to finding the perfect home for your new life abroad.
We’ve all been there – that frantic feeling of trying to figure out where to live and knowing that you have a very limited window of opportunity before you needs to get school registration / rental deposits / packing taken care of. Unfortunately, as my friend Jan is fond of saying, when we are weak, we make weak decisions. And there’s nothing quite like an international move to make us feel powerless, fast.
Take a deep breath, because you’ve got this. Try to take a step back and resist the temptation to snap up the first half decent place that looks clean and has a gleaming kitchen, because truly, no assignment ever ended early because of the lack of countertop space. It’s the bigger stuff that matters – the things that affect how you feel, not what you have. And yes, I know that sounds like something straight out of the Zen quotes directory, but it’s true. I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure that ‘upgraded kitchen appliances’ is not in your top ten list of reasons to move your entire family overseas…
So, back to the case in hand – finding a home.
1. Search for neighborhoods, not homes.
You need to get a really good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your different neighborhood choices before you sign your life (and, of course, your deposit) away. If you are able to live in temporary hotel or apartment accommodation before you take a longer term lease, do it. It is both time-consuming and expensive to move, so do as much as you can to get it right first time.
It’s worthwhile getting out and about with a realtor or estate agent who knows the local areas, but let them know that you are intending to look at a number of areas before you sign on the dotted line. As nice as they might be, they are not your friend – their job is to find you a house, not a home. So use their expertise wisely, and remember that it is not in their best interests to show you the less desirable features of the neighborhood.
I always recommend that people do research online beforehand, so that they have a list of questions ready to ask. Most real estate agents have local area guides on their websites, and if they don’t check out their competitors. It means that you are making the best possible use of their time as well as your own, so don’t be afraid to contact them in advance and ask for information.
My top questions to ask include cost of and preferred utility suppliers, local school catchment areas, entry requirements and admission procedures, local facilities, traffic shortcuts and best things to do in the local area. They are also a fount of knowledge on local schools and childcare facilities and often have lists of recommended household service providers.
2. Go for a drive by yourselves
Now you have an idea of the areas to consider (and have hopefully narrowed it down a little), it’s time to head out independently. While real estate agents are wonderful people, their job is to show you all the best bits, rather than the less pleasant elements that are part of every area. Getting in the car (or on a bike, which is often even better) and just driving around the residential areas will quickly give you a clear snapshot of the people around you and the lives they lead.
Are the houses single family homes or townhouses, condos, apartment blocks? What is the level of maintenance, and are the homeowners out maintaining them, or playing in the yards or local parks. Are people out walking or cycling? Do people stop and say hello if you are walking? Are children playing in the street, and are they supervised? Do the houses have very evident security features, and high fences, or are the yards open?
And what about dogs – often the breeds of dogs give clues about what type of needs the local people have – are they ‘vanity’ or ‘toy’ breeds such as Yorkies, Chihuahuas or Shi-tzus; family dogs like mutts, Labradors, Retrievers etc, or are they guard dog breeds – German shepherds, Dobermanns, Pit bulls or Rottweilers. And yes, I know these are broad generalizations, but you can see what might reflect your own lifestyle choices.
Some of us see children playing on the street as a sign that it is an area with strong family values, a safe neighborhood, and calm traffic; others see it as a potential for broken windows, loud noise levels and no peace. It’s not about what these characteristics mean to others, it’s what they mean for you and your day to day living.
What do I look for? Single family homes, homeowners carrying out their own maintenance, no gated communities, a mixture of all age groups, dogs that don’t bark incessantly whose owners pick up after them. And yes, I do have four dogs who have been with us for a total of 24 years and 3 continents, so it’s not that I don’t like dogs…
Visit at different times of the day and night – the agents are most likely to show you around in the daytime, when most people are at work or school and all is peaceful. Once 5.30 p.m. rolls around, you may find parking impossible, a neighbor’s dog never stops barking, and the local children use your back wall for a handball court. You need to feel secure enough to be able to go out for the evening without feeling concerned about what happens to your neighborhood after dark, so give the local police station a call, and get their advice if you have any concerns.
Your embassy can give you good advice about security issues or hotspots, and as they would be the ones getting you out of trouble, listen to them.
The other advantage of driving around by yourself is that you can get an understanding of some of the potential irritants like parking, commute times and traffic hot-spots. When we lived in Los Angeles, the streets next to the school were gridlocked at drop off and pick up times, with parents regularly parking across driveways and blocking access – something that would have driven us mad. Thankfully, we had learned to recognise the signs in Wales when we lived next to a church and were regularly trapped in every time there was a church service, funeral or wedding. Even if you could find the driver of the blue Ford Focus blocking your drive, do you really want to interrupt a funeral to ask them to move it?
Everyone has to eat, even stick thin celebrities, so one of the quickest ways to get a snapshot of your local community is to head to the local grocery stores. All of them.
Not only do you get insight into the people who make up the local community, you also get a quick and dirty on their driving skills, their manners and their eating habits. Oh, and if you are single, it’s a great place to meet fellow singletons.
On a deeper level, going to some of the local malls will give you valuable data on the real cost of living in that area – something that typically we only discover two or three months in. So don’t just limit yourself to tallying the cost of cornflakes – check out household goods, the cost of clothing, sporting equipment and school and office supplies. You may be surprised at how different the prices are to those you are used to.
While you are at it, browse the local services – dry cleaning, hairdressers, pharmacies, dental offices, car maintenance etc.. You are not going to be able to capture them all, but a quick review of the ones that your family use most frequently will highlight any significant differences to your current expenditure – and whether or not you need to address them before you go.
The reason for this? Budget. One of the greatest myths of expat life is that it is financially lucrative and while for some that may be the case, typically we end up spending more on lifestyle and travel, and the cost of living is virtually impossible to plan for in advance. Getting a real understanding of your weekly and monthly outgoings may alter the type of home you chose to rent – especially if your plans involve lots of time away from home or private schooling for your children.
Go Back to School
Again, there is a huge amount you can find out about the local schools before you ever set foot in the country, but nothing can replace an actual visit. Not only will it get you up close and personal with the administration, it will also give you vital information like whether or not there is actually space for your child. As someone who spent an inordinate amount of money buying a home, only be told that there were no places available at the local school (cue utter breakdown in school office, snot fueled sobbing and the startled arrival of the Principal), I have learned the hard way to check. Thankfully, my story had a happy ending, but I could have done without the abject humiliation and four years of pitying glances from the school secretary…
If possible, take the child attending the school with you, so that they can experience it, and you can see how school staff interact with your children. Visit during school hours to observe classes, watch how the children and teachers behave, and get an understanding of the school culture as a whole. Encourage questions from your children, and take time to visit the parts of the school that they want to see. Especially the bathrooms – you can learn a great deal about a school from their bathrooms..
For my full breakdown of How to Choose a School, keep your eyes peeled for next week’s post.
Head to the Parks & Recreation Facilities
While you may never see anyone during working hours, here’s where you get to see your neighbors at play. It’s also where you get to see how they behave in the sandbox – do they share, do they fight, or do they all play together nicely. Remember those school days when you watched the dynamics of the school playground? Well, the names and ages may have changed, but the rules sure haven’t, and here’s where you decide which team to try out for.. Or not.
Once you’ve found some places that you love, try and network. Yes, you may feel like a creepy stalker (which is why I have dogs – they do the introductions for you), but somehow the best recommendations come via word of mouth. Not only will you get started making friends, you’ll also be able to start making concrete plans for your first few weeks after you move – when you don’t know anyone, the kids are missing home and it’s up to you as parents to fill that void and start creating new memories. But instead of relying on the rosy guidebook descriptions and dodgy maps, you will have the brilliant sensation of anticipation and familiarity – never to be underestimated in those early days.
Again, it’s the voice of experience talking here. Anyone who has ever lived in Nairobi will know that the David Sheldrake Elephant Orphanage is painfully easy to miss, despite the optimistically simple directions in those pesky tourist guides. Three hours of driving mapless with two small children in tow, and all I had found was the epicentre of Kibera. Somehow, it wasn’t quite what I had anticipated on day three in a new location, and not to be recommended for anyone who has just completed her security briefing – complete with carjacking statistics – only the day before. Three months in and we were regularly using that route as part of the school run, but right then, it was culture shock at it’s very best.
So, now you have my top 4 strategies for checking out potential neighborhoods, the bottom line is this – how did it all make you feel?
Sure, you don’t know anyone, but did the places and people make you feel comfortable and want to hang around, or did the little voice inside you tell you to get in the car and drive on to the next place? Call it intuition, call it gut feeling, call it what you want – it’s actually your subconscious up on all the social signals that are sent out. I am a huge believer in listening to your inner voice, so your job is to hear what they are are telling you, and decide whether you agree or not..
Now – get out there and start exploring! Happy hunting!
The Expat Relocation Perfect Home Cheat Sheet
- Do your preparation online beforehand – check out real estate agent websites, local guides, school websites and social media for background data
- Tour the area with a real estate professional or relocation consultant – and have your questions ready…
- Go grocery (and household furnishing, essential services etc.) price shopping
- Note the type of consumer that local businesses attract, and the effect it may have on community life
- Test community services – parks, libraries, sports centers and public transport
- Visit neighborhoods at different times – during rush hour, daytime, evenings and weekends
- Check with local government, police or embassy/consulate about security
- Check that your housing and goods and services budget will meet both your day-to-day needs and longer term goals.