A renter's guide to dealing with housing agencies
Mike Russell describes the pitfalls to watch for and questions to ask when navigating the labyrinth of housing agencies in the Netherlands.
Bump! You land at Schiphol to a new job and a new life. Your company has provided for everything. Everything, that is, except an apartment.
"An apartment?" your HR manager looks vague, eyes cloud over. She fumbles in a desk drawer and hands you a crumpled list of housing agencies in Amsterdam. "Good luck," she says, "Call me if... well, call me sometime."
What do you do now?
Why bother with an agency?
Mike Russell explains: If you're renting for the first time in Amsterdam, then go with an agency - there is less chance of falling down a big, black, expensive hole. A decent agency should have knowledge of the market, the city, price and quality, be able to interact with landlords to negotiate a good deal, and draw up an adequate rental agreement. In particular, an agency should be able to explain the, frankly, over-regulated market and how the points-system works and the implications for the types of property you will – legally any way – be able to rent.
Be aware that there are many restrictions on cheaper apartments. Examples of such restrictions are that you cannot earn more than a certain amount or that you must have an economic tie (economich verbinding) with the city of Amsterdam in order to be allowed to rent a specific property.
Furthermore, your agency should not promote illegal apartments (and there are plenty in Amsterdam). Such apartments may seem like great deals but taking one may mean you get turfed out in the middle of the night and/or you may not be able to register with the local authority.
More scare stories later. With other stuff going on like opening bank accounts, registering with city hall, and exchanging your driving licence, a housing agency can make settling in that much easier (proving you select a good one).
There are two basic choices: a dedicated rental agency or a real-estate company that does a bit of rental on the side. Go for the former and, if possible, look for one with experience assisting foreign business professionals. Someone arriving on the banana-boat from Ireland has very different concerns, requirements and constraints than, say, Jan Dutchman moving to Amsterdam from Utrecht. An agency's claim to have experience helping people 'just like you' is stronger if they have materials in English (such as contracts, websites, other information) and can relate to your situation.
Your rental agency must have a meaningful number of properties on its books. Five apartments is not an agency. Fifty and upwards is. Ask how many apartments they represent; whether they look outside their portfolio if there is no match; how many apartments matching your spec they have free currently. Be clear on their fee structure.
So, you have a new job but no money. Not for the first month, anyway. Problem is though, if you rent somewhere, you'll need to cough up a chunk of change in advance. Just over four months rent is typical: one month rent, two month's deposit, and one month agent commission (and don’t forget the 19 percent government tax on the agent commission).
Depending on your agency, there may also be further (hidden) costs. Registration costs are not uncommon but – in my opinion – you shouldn't pay them. You may also be asked for EUR 70 to EUR 150 to have a rental agreement drawn up. In short, it's a big upfront hit and most landlords don't give a damn about your cash position.
I suggest tackling your friendly HR manager. Will the company pay the agent commission? Maybe they’ll just foot the deposit – or even pay for everything. At least they may advance some funds against your first pay cheque. If you are an IT freelancer – forget it. You will likely earn enough anyway. Be specific – you've found an agency and know how huge the hole in your pocket will be. What next? You need to define in detail what you want.
Budget is only one aspect. What about the following: ground floor or not, furnished or unfurnished or partially furnished (whatever that means), modern or traditional, close to work or the metro or the highway, need for parking, number of bedrooms for you or guests or friends, or people who you never realised were your friends but that now you are living in Amsterdam insist that you’re the best of mates, space for storage, pets, carpets or wooden floors, length of lease, including or excluding utilities…
The list is endless. The point is this: you will take time off work to look at places. Make it worth your while. If you do not want to live on the ground floor, then tell your agent. Otherwise, you will both be wasting time looking at properties that you'll never take.
If your agent is showing you places that are not close to your specification, understand why. Were you specific enough? Do they have anything? Are they merely trying to push their limited selection regardless of what you need? In any case, if you refine your specification, keep your agent informed. Let them know why your requirements have changed. If they understand your thinking, they're more likely to work with you than hang a label around your neck reading 'Unstable - ignore.'
The myth of many agencies
There is this theory that registering with many agencies will lead to a better result. Wrong. If you register with many agencies the following will happen: None of them will pay you any attention. Agencies all talk with each other. Within minutes, it will be clear that you're shopping all over the park. Each agency will get the impression that they are unlikely to close a rental deal because too many others are involved.
You will therefore not get the focus you need, and this will cause you to register with even more agencies making this approach even less likely to succeed.
The flood effect
Alternatively you may experience the ‘flood’ effect. This happens when the agency thinks like this: “Oh my god! We have to show this rental client twenty apartments today or some other schmuck agency will make the deal”. Let's flood them with everything we have.
Finally, registering with too many agencies can result in ‘viewing fatigue’. Exhausted by viewing every apartment in the city, fatigue will set in and, in the end, you’ll make a bad decision just to get away from the viewing madness.
My advice: select one, at most two, agencies. Give them a chance to sort you out. Don't be hasty, but be prepared to move very quickly when you find the place you want.
You need to be in your rental apartment on, say, 1 November. This means viewing in the three weeks prior to that date. There is no point in looking in September for a November start date. Any good empty apartments you like will not be available four weeks hence, let alone ten weeks.
Bear in mind that if you view a currently occupied apartment that will free up on 1 November, you'll still have to look through the crap of the current tenant strewn randomly throughout every room. Vision is required. Bring in that friend of yours who strongly believes they should have been an interior designer.
The fact that you're moving to Amsterdam from Vienna where you paid EUR 500 for a three-bedroom villa in the best part of town is irrelevant. Amsterdam has its own market, as does any city. So, talk to colleague expats and see what they're paying. Although the following is no hard and fast guide, it is indicative of current pricing:
Studio: open kitchen, 40-55 m2
near Amsterdam centre: (+/-) EUR 1000 - 1300
outskirts of city: (+/-)EUR 900 - 1100
One-bedroom apartment: open/separate kitchen, 55-75 m2
near Amsterdam centre: (+/-) EUR 1200 - 1500
outskirts of city: (+/-) EUR 1000 – 1200
Two-bedroom apartment: open/separate kitchen, 70-90 m2
near Amsterdam centre: (+/-) EUR 1400 - 1800
outskirts of city: (+/-) EUR 1200 - 1400
You might want to negotiate something. Price may be on your mind and, good news, the landlord may be flexible. But do not assume price is always too high. You may be getting a great deal. Other things to think about include: an extra lamp, perhaps a bed, curtains… whatever. But whatever you agree, get it in writing because once you're moved in it's difficult to agree additional bells and whistles. Your agency should negotiate for you and advise you of where/if there is room for manoeuvre to prevent unravelling of the deal by pushing too hard.
Most agencies do not work with options. You like the place, then agree terms in writing and take it. Make a down payment and get a receipt.
Getting your deposit back
You'll be asked for two month's rent as a deposit. Sometimes it will be three months. It will never - well almost - be one. Usually, the deposit sits on the account of the landlord (without interest) for the duration of the lease. When you leave, an inspection will take place. Be present at the inspection with the agency and/or the owner. Demand to know immediately if there are charges to be made against your deposit.
What are these deductions?
If there are deductions against your deposit, get them put on paper and signed off. If you've left the apartment in pristine condition, it's reasonable to expect all of the deposit back. If anything requires repair or cleaning, outside of normal wear and tear, this will come out of your deposit. The balance should be returned within four weeks. Your rental agency should act on your behalf in trying to the secure return of your deposit if there is a delay.
The majority of landlords are honest and will repay. I would advise against withholding the last two months rent as a tactic to ensure you get your money back. You are not entitled to do this and may find yourself locked out until you pay.
To wrap up - a lot of this is common sense. The problem is that with all that needs to happen when settling in, you don't always have the time to handle everything yourself. This is where a decent agency can save you hassle, money, legal battles and smooth the path to the perfect apartment.
All you have to do is choose carefully, be specific, take your time but be ready to move fast when the right place comes along. If you are uncomfortable or are being pushed too hard, then take a step back for reflection. Good luck.
18 April 2008
Mike Russell, MBA, PhD
Managing Partner, Perfect Housing
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